The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, has played a critical role in helping ensure that the UK is at the forefront of medical research. Unsurprisingly, the research organisation has had an incredibly intensive year responding to the threat of COVID-19, where it quickly adapted and initiated 71 separate public health studies into the effects of the novel Coronavirus.
Work that would typically take years has been undertaken in a matter of weeks. And with the first COVID-19 vaccines being administered in the UK this week, less than a year since the first cases were recorded, the efforts of the science and research community should be applauded.
However, it’s worth noting that NIHR, much like many other organisations, had to carry out this important research whilst also shifting to a new distributed work environment. And that access to data and information sharing through the use of digital tools was even more critical.
This has been enabled by the work that the organisation has been doing with Google over the past few years, with NIHR making use of Google Workspace to create a new digital hub that has facilitated work across researchers, stakeholders and employees.
We got the chance to speak to Justin Riordan-Jones, Head of Systems and Information at NIHR, about how the organisation has been shifting its focus since 2013 to cloud-based systems, but also how this work has been accelerated since the onset of the pandemic.
Riordan-Jones explained that NIHR was conceived as a virtual organisation in that it didn’t have a single building it was based out of, but was rather founded as a series of units based in academic organisations or NHS sites across the country. The early years of NIHR saw it making use of Microsoft SharePoint, which served a purpose at the time but didn’t fulfil the needs of a modern, digital workplace.
As such, between 2013 and 2015 NIHR carried out an assessment of cloud-based, integrated technology suites that could consolidate the organisation’s operations and focus in on the idea of collaborating in the cloud. Riordan-Jones explained:
There were certain things, like email addresses, that were completely uncoordinated. So some would have NIHR, some would be using their hosted organisations, stuff like that. We were very disorganised at that point. A review was conducted looking at cloud based services that would be suitable for us. We had a proper evaluation exercise - we started with five of those, we then got down to two.
Our evaluation panel really took them to task during the evaluation sessions, they literally rippled them to shreds. Google G Suite at that stage was our preferred solution. Mainly for the functionality in it, but also because we knew that there was a very clear development pathway that we would be able to benefit from. Our user group liked it, we liked it, it realised significant cash savings against what we were doing previously.
Ongoing development and the onset of COVID-19
Since NIHR implemented G-Suite back in 2015 - now called Google Workspace - it has been developing its functionality over time and attempting to shift the culture of the organisation to digital teamwork. This has now been accelerated since the onset of COVID-19, with employees and stakeholders having to adapt to remote work overnight. All of a sudden, digital tools became invaluable.
However, since the pandemic hit NIHR hasn’t stopped thinking about how to improve how it makes use of its digital hub. For example, the way the organisation was organised meant that several data sources were unintentionally isolated within their host coordinating centres. This made getting insight into the data difficult, which clearly is a stumbling block for rapid research and ongoing work.
The information was there, but not necessarily accessible to those that needed it. As such, NIHR implemented Google Cloud Search, which integrates with Google Workspace, to provide search functionality across the entire technology infrastructure. Over a period of 16 weeks, NIHR redesigned its digital platform, placing Cloud Search at the heart, so that users could more easily share data and collaborate quickly. The new hub went live in March 2020, just as the UK went into lockdown due to COVID-19.
The response from those working at and with NIHR since the first lockdown hit has been very interesting, according to Riordan-Jones, as it appears to have completely shifted the culture of the organisation overnight. He explained:
We have previously, as an organisation, conducted innumerable face to face meetings and stuff like that. Everyone was saying ‘we should do this by video conference’, but the culture wasn’t there. What we are seeing now is the actual application of people adopting a digital presence rather than a more traditional one. We’ve always known that we should be running our national meetings this way, but we have never been able to do it.
But as we have been restricted with what we can do, the adoption and utilisation of that technology has been much, much greater. We are in the process of finalising our new digital strategy for the future, which has been an entirely digitally created piece of work. We have run something like 60 hours worth of workshops via video conferencing and all the products have been developed using Workspace tools in real-time.
You can see slide decks literally changing on the fly as people are doing the presentations, you can see the feedback coming through. And we have had genuine feedback from the participants saying ‘this has been so much easier for us’. And that’s not just because they are not having to travel 600 miles to go and listen to someone talk, but because we’ve been able to reach out to organisations that traditionally haven’t been part of the work.
And the usage stats back this up. NIHR’s use of Meet went up by 379% within two months of quarantine, showing how video conferencing has helped to replace face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, users share and collaborate on documents more frequently, with Drive usage increasing by 198%.
On NIHR’s COVID-19 work, Riordan-Jones said:
The government had to spin up its response very, very quickly. Literally overnight. The NIHR was responsible for the urgent public health studies, which of which led into vaccine development, some of these led into therapeutic development. So we set up 71 separate studies very, very quickly for a research study. Ordinarily you are talking about months to years to set up a study. We were running these within weeks.
That was only made possible by the fact that we could share information quickly, safely and securely with the right people. It gave us confidence that we knew what we were doing with it, it was a walled garden, rather than sending it over unknown channels. It became a much swifter exercise as a result of the technology around us.
Interestingly, Riordan-Jones finished by saying (with a bit of tongue in cheek) that on the change management agenda, it seems that sometimes it is best to “just turn things off and see if people can swim instead of sink”.
NIHR’s digital strategy
As noted above, as if NIHR didn’t have enough on its plate, the organisation has also been using this time to create a new digital strategy for its future. Riordan-Jones outlined that the key focus of this, which is likely to be released in the New Year, is creating an environment where data is accessible and NIHR’s work is centred around the idea of ‘create it once, share it often’. He said:
We want to really tackle areas where we haven’t quite broken through with regards to things like data sharing and data transmission, we still have areas of the research lifecycle that could be improved and streamlined. One of the learnings from COVID was that when certain legal restrictions were relaxed, we could do things way faster than we thought were possible. So we are trying to work out how we can carry that forward in the post-COVID world to ensure that we retain public confidence, data security, patient confidence as well - but at the same time make the UK formidably attractive as a place to do research going forward.
The main thing is ‘do once and share’. Rather than having to be asked five, six, seven times for roughly the same information, but from different pieces of the organisation. Let’s get it in one place and sort it out. I guess it comes down to taking effort out of people’s work as much as possible and looking for a seamless way of integrating the systems, rather than bolting a whole bunch of stuff together and hoping it works.