Interview: Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas on building a digital workforce

For our latest interview, we were joined by Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas, Head of Blended Learning at Health Education England (HEE).

Henrietta chatted about her work in building a digital workforce, the core skills she believes a needed for digital work, advice she would give to people starting out, and more.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your current role?

Currently I am Head of Blended Learning at Health Education England (HEE), but I also lead on the strategy for digital learning and development. In terms of my background, I qualified as a mental health nurse about 19 years ago and have done various roles within mental health and research.

In 2018, I worked as the project lead for The Topol Review and I guess that’s where my career started shifting into the digital space. After that review, I got the digital bug and then moved on to become the workstream lead for digital literacy. I did enjoy that very much, then when the blended learning programme came up, I thought actually, people can’t fully utilise the technologies available in education without having digital literacy skills. I brought the two together within my current roles and over time have started to provide input into shaping the strategic agenda for digital learning and development of the health and care workforce.

What projects have you worked on (or are you working on) that relate to building a digital workforce?

Well, there are three main projects. Obviously, the purpose of The Topol Review was to understand what technologies we’re going to make the most impact over the next 20 years, and as a result, will change the roles of the workforce and what skills they are going to need. That project provided the basis for understanding what needed to be done within health to ensure that we’ve got a digitally ready workforce. That was one of the main recommendations from the review.

The digital literacy project was very much around what capabilities people needed to live, learn, work and thrive in a digital society, which is how we have defined digital literacy at HEE. My predecessors had worked on developing the health and care digital capabilities framework but it was evident that because it wasn’t interactive, people weren’t able to use it in a meaningful way. Part of my role was to support the development of an interactive self-assessment tool. The first iteration of the tool has been built and it’s currently going through the Government Digital Service (GDS) quality assurance processes before it becomes fully available for all staff to use.

Alongside that, looking at my blended learning role, one of the elements is commissioning programmes to deliver blended learning using innovative and emerging technologies. As part of that, we have stipulated that all of the universities commissioned must look at how they develop digital literacy and incorporate it into the three-year programme.

What do you think are the core skills that somebody needs for digital work?

Certainly, within HEE, we have defined digital literacy as the capabilities that prepare someone for living, working, learning and thriving in a digital society. We’ have looked at this in the context of six main domains. I think for me, these skills are applicable across all sectors, across all professionals, so I would absolutely say that they are the ones that we all need to be able to either do digital at work or even carry out our day-to-day digital activity. We need to be able to manage and use data and information and manage content – that’s one of the domains on our capability framework, which everybody needs at some level.

We need to be able to use digital skills for a variety of things – teaching others and learning, communicating and participating in the digital world, but also for collaboration. For example, Zoom – everyone is on it after the pandemic, and you need technical skills even for the basics like setting up your password.

Then you need the ability to create, innovate and use digital or online processes for research. To be honest, that’s one area that even digital experts sometimes do not see as a required digital skill. But you absolutely do need that.

In all of this, I think it’s important that we think about safety and well-being when we are online – having that awareness of whether or not your activity is safe and being able to maintain digital safety and well-being is crucial alongside all the other skills.

What do you think the industry needs most in order to improve digital literacy?

I always say we need three things to be in place. You need to pay attention to all three because if you only pay attention to one and not the other in any digital implementation, it doesn’t actually work.

Firstly, you need to really address the needs of people. What skills have people got? Have we got the right people? If they’re in digital roles, have they got the specialist skills to be in that role? Future planning comes into that too to ensure that succession is in place for staff who leave or retire. Training and education are also critical to ensuring that people are equipped with the right skills for their roles. Fundamentally, you need to put people at the centre of all the digital decision-making processes and ensure that their input has been considered. So, I think for me the first thing you absolutely need to look at is people.

Then onto processes – if I take the health sector, for example, and I’m sure the social care sector is similar – sometimes we bring in all the nice technologies or all the training and skills for people, for example, sometimes people are not allowed to upload relevant apps or access relevant webpages on work devices. Process is important to bear in mind.

As part of processes, you need to think about culture. What culture have we got in place within this organisation that actually facilitates people being able to use digital? Do people feel that they are allowed to get it wrong sometimes, and do they have the confidence to say if they don’t understand something? It’s the processes that we have in place and the culture and environment we create that allows people to feel confident to use their skills. People will only use their digital skills if they feel confident and motivated, so culture is critical.

And then the third thing is the technology. If we train people and have all the right cultures and all the right processes in place, and yet the technology doesn’t do what it says on the tin… we’re going to put people off. So, we need the right technology in the right hands. We must consider who is using what, and whether it is the appropriate technology for them?

But in all of this, I think the one thing that we’ve learned, certainly through the work that we’ve been doing at HEE, is that it is important to really have that wraparound in terms of supporting people to fully utilise their skills, especially where people are not the most confident. Having champions that provide peer support for implementation of digital is vital.

If there was one piece of advice that you would give to somebody who was thinking of entering a digital role, what would it be?

Just do it! I think often, there’s a real worry that you have to be an expert in everything digital to be in a digital role. You do not. I think it’s more important to have a passion for that area of work, irrespective of your professional background. As a clinician, obviously I am in the world of digital, so I understand quite a lot. I’m not an expert by any means, but there are other experts that I can draw on, that I can work with in a team to be able to deliver on the digital agenda.

Also, looking at the HEE Digital Readiness Education Programme, there is definitely a continuum of learning that absolutely will support people who are looking into going into digital, or developing their digital leadership skills. It’s there to encourage you whilst you’re getting into it. You could also look at some of the education and training that’s on offer within our wider NHS Digital Academy offering. So obviously we’ve got the Digital Health Leadership Programme, we’ve got the Topol Digital Fellowships, we’ve got the Digital Futures Programme. There are so many programmes on offer that can support you in developing your digital leadership skills.

Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?

There is so much happening and I think there is a place for everybody in the world of digital. It’s just a case of being able to identify where you sit. I think it’s important to develop those digital skills – and not just for work, you need those skills for living and thriving in a digital society as well.

I also think one myth that we need to debunk is the idea that digital literacy is dependent on age – for example, not all millennials are digitally literate! Based on the HEE definition – many have skills in terms of using digital tools to collaborate on social media and so on, and they generally have a positive attitude. Embracing digital tends to come naturally to them, but many aren’t confident with some technical and other digital literacy skills required in the workplace.

In comparison, people make assumptions about other age groups, for example that it’s always assumed that older adults have limited digital skills and negative attitudes to technology.  The “digitally negative group” – the ones who basically say, “I don’t do technology.” But it’s not always the older adults. In actual fact, the Lloyds TSB digital index found that older adults  in remote and rural areas tend to be more digitally literate and increasingly they are engaging with digital and  depending on technology to communicate with family and friends. So, I think we need to get away from that kind of thinking.

Many thanks to Henrietta for sharing her time and thoughts.