Digital transformation starts with the right strategy

Dan Sheldon profile picture

22 November 2022

Dan Sheldon
Health Technology Specialist
Public Digital Network

The importance of digital transformation is well understood across NHS organisations. We've heard this clearly from the more than 80 sessions we've run with trust board leaders as part of the Digital Boards programme. Doing digital transformation well, however, is a big challenge. Many leaders have experience of things going wrong: programmes that raise expectations but fail to deliver; clunky systems that get in the way of care. Developing a clear, focused and integrated digital strategy is one of the best ways to set up a digital transformation for success.

Collective leadership of the digital agenda

Given the challenges, it's no surprise that some leaders retreat from digital – putting it in the 'too technical' box best left to experts. That's a mistake. Successful digital transformations require collective leadership from clinicians and operations specialists, not just IT teams.

Of course, technology is a critical ingredient of any digital transformation. But simply applying technology to an existing process without changing ways of working and operating models will have limited impact. You'll have made things more 'digital', but not necessarily any better.

Instead, leaders should start with why

What are the biggest challenges facing your healthcare system? What are the pain points for staff and patients? What are your goals as a system? And then ask: how can digital enable this?

This is the core of a good digital strategy: telling the story of what problems digital can help solve for patients and staff, what's going to change and how you're going to do it. This should be specific to your context, not a cookie-cutter list of the latest tech buzzwords.

Digital strategy is about making choices

A good strategy is focused, not a shopping list. This is especially true in today's NHS, where leaders are trying to do more with less and digital expertise is in short supply. If you're in the process of setting your digital strategy, can you use this moment as an opportunity to make some hard choices? What are you going to stop doing? What are you going to do differently?

We've seen many successful digital transformations and one of the common factors is ruthless prioritisation. This means being able to realise quickly when something isn't working, and course-correcting or trying something else when necessary. Leaders should create environments where teams are able to focus on delivering benefits, even if that means ditching plans that are no longer working.

System-level digital strategy is about alignment, not micro-management

NHS trusts are complex organisations; integrated care systems (ICSs) even more so. It's not possible to plan for every outcome, and decisions on digital transformation will be made at different levels. This is where a good digital strategy can help: setting the goals and principles to help teams across the system to make good, joined up decisions. This is similar to the 'mission command' approach adopted by modern armies: centralised intent, combined with trust and empowerment of those on the ground to act quickly within defined constraints.

If you're developing an ICS digital strategy, one of the biggest questions will be: what should be done at system-level, and what should be done at local level? The answer is unlikely to be straightforward, but it's worth investing time to figure out your approach. Setting out the types of services best run centrally – where needs are common, processes standardised and interoperability is critical – is a good start.

How will you know when your digital strategy is working?

Ultimately the mark of a successful digital transformation is the positive impact it has on patients and staff, not the RAG (red-amber-green) status on a programme report. That's why good digital strategies set clear goals that can be measured week-on-week. Getting alignment on what these goals should be helps focus minds on problems-to-be-solved, rather than getting caught up on specific solutions. And seeing real progress is brilliantly motivating for teams working hard to deliver digital transformation.

How we can help

If you'd like to sign your board up for a bespoke board development session, we can help you and your trust think through how you'll lead the digital strategy discussion going forwards. Get in touch: we would love to work with you.

We offer workshops in digital strategy as well as user research, digital inclusion and interoperability as opportunities for peer learning. We have a leadership guide on building a good digital strategy, which breaks down the key points and shares examples of good practice in more detail. We'd also recommend reading digital strategies from other trusts, for example Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

About the author

Dan Sheldon profile picture

Dan Sheldon
Health Technology Specialist

Dan Sheldon is part of Public Digital network, and the author of several digital transformation guides for NHS Providers. Dan was a member of the UK government's Health Tech Advisory Board and has experience of digital transformation in the NHS, pharmacy and central government.

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