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Don McIntyre


30th November 2020


Reflecting on the need to transform, what we'll keep doing, and what still matters.

Covid-19 has presented an extreme, global example of unexpected change which has required rapid adaption to respond. Like most organisations, the DHI had to plan and transition to an entirely new working paradigm almost overnight, while supporting the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland’s and wider partners responses to this pandemic.

Embracing change is rarely comfortable, particularly in the workplace. More specifically, we’re generally uncomfortable with change that we are not in control of. However, it’s often the case that unanticipated change provides an opportunity to think in new ways, in a different context or with a fresh set of priorities and this can unlock underutilised capability, creativity or resolve.

As part of our embedded learning culture, DHI has captured our experiences to support organisational improvement and shared learning. The areas below represent the key themes we identified as fundamental to our dramatic shift in working practice, objectives and priorities.

Importance of Remote working and collaboration

Perhaps this is an obvious statement, though probably made more significant by virtue of the fact that the DHI was required not just to completely move to a home working situation, but to change gears and refocus efforts on addressing immediate strategic and operational challenges presented by Covid-19. Transformation in working practice and communication was necessary across all internal functions in a way that would allow the organisation to continue to work effectively with a diverse range of external partners.

A sense of urgency

There was and still is a need to work quickly and with sustained purpose. There was a sense of being presented with the opportunity to prove ourselves and to highlight and evidence, in very tangible terms, the value provided by the organisation. Every team and individual, without exception, recognised the need to step up and had something to contribute. It was and still is, commonplace to receive emails and messages from colleagues with a timestamp considerably outwith the notional ‘banking hours’ threshold of 9-5.

New tools and pushing the boundaries of existing approaches

The need to support online engagement, from co-design workshops to seminars and conferences, meant exploring the potential of software we had been using in different contexts and pushing the boundaries of digital solutions we were more familiar with.

Miro, the online ‘infinite canvas’ whiteboarding tool had been around for a while and was used reasonably widely by distributed teams in lieu of physical service design space. DHI started using this almost immediately to support our Covid-19 activity and it has become the tool of choice to such an extent that members of the team have been known to joke about ‘dreaming in Miro’. It’s not an exaggeration to say that over last six months the DHI have become experts in using the software to design and facilitate activities that would normally have taken place in a physical setting, blending Miro appropriately with other digital tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Clearly, the digital environment makes it much more difficult to read the range of physical signals we rely on to gauge human emotion, though in terms of bringing people together, stakeholders seem readier to attend large online workshops where in the past multiple physical sessions would have been required.

Perhaps another unforeseen benefit of the imposed digital context is the opportunity for users to return to the digital space and contribute after a scheduled workshop has ended. There have been a number of occasions where the ability to work asynchronously has resulted in valuable ideas and insights being presented by participants who may not have felt confident enough to contribute at the time, or who have had time to reflect.

Design and technology convergence

The DHI has a dedicated design team, whose role it is to employ, in collaboration with the technical team, creative approaches to elicit and articulate the needs of users to the rest of the business and to project partners. The pace of this process, taking place within an entirely digital environment, was unparalleled and contributed to an understanding that the DHI could mobilise quickly and effectively through an understanding of the health and care context, relevant technologies and long-term strategic goals. The requirement has been and continues to be, ensuring that human factors and need remain the determining factor with respect to designing digital solutions. We’re continually learning in this respect and making efforts to share emerging best practice with relevant companies and organisations facing similar challenges.

Beyond ‘vapourware’

As well as influencing and inform national direction, the DHI creates the fertile ground and innovation framework which allow projects like SCOTCAP and the Covid-19 Clinical Assessment Tool to flourish and gain traction. During the Covid-19 programme development, the role of the DHI has been more ‘end to end’ in that the Innovation Centre has played a role in identifying needs, managing stakeholders and documenting requirements. Due to the demands and pace of delivery, it has been necessary and valuable to shorten the distance between ‘discovery’ and ‘deployment’, allowing the team to appreciate the immediate impact of our work.

Future focus

The direction provided by the Scottish Government and the wider national collaborative was clear and decisive, enabling the DHI to respond effectively. Additionally, the combination of initiatives in terms of scale and theme has helped clarify how best to combine our academic, research and commercial projects.

As the tide rolls out on the Covid-19 crisis, there will undoubtedly be years of reflection with respect to how individuals and organisations adapted to such a drastic change in day to day working life.

While there have been positive, constructive and sometimes entirely unexpected benefits, we are acutely conscious that the ‘emergency way of working’ should not become the default and DHI is currently considering what the most appropriate, healthy and productive hybrid model of working might look like.

There exists the opportunity to adopt an approach that could offer the best of both worlds. As an organisation we have proven we can work effectively and remotely using digital tools and new methods to enhance rather than replace traditional engagement practice. This practice will continue to position the citizen and society at the centre our approach and remains the point from which the DHI defines and supports innovative digital products and services.

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