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“We can tell you what we want, what we really really want”: Social care, SMEs, and digital technology

Written by Sara Dunn, Owner and MD at Sara Dunn Associates Ltd

“Why can’t social care ‘get’ digital?” I often hear this question, in one way or another, frequently accompanied by a degree of exasperation from the questioner. And I always think, to borrow from Christine Asbury’s excellent DL blog a few weeks ago, that the questioner is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Because social care does get digital, it is just that, very often, digital does not get social care.

For the last three years I have been evaluating a small-scale Department of Health funded project called Connecting Care. Delivered by technology advice charity Lasa, the aim was to provide 40 small charities in the adult social care sector with strategic ICT support to help them make the best use of digital technology, for their organisation, their staff, and the people using their services.

One of the clear themes that emerged was how impossibly difficult it is for these organisations to get the support they need to make digital work for them. The care employers I spoke to were all aware that they were behind the curve when it came to the uptake of digital technologies – many of them were deeply worried by it – but they simply did not know how to tackle the problem. Typical stories involved so-called ‘impartial’ tech advice geared to solutions that suited the supplier not the care organisation, well-meaning ‘help’ from “husbands and brothers who usually make things worse”, volunteer IT support workers taking a whole day to connect a new printer and crashing the network in the process. This is the everyday reality of small social care charities, who usually have no in-house IT expertise at either operational or strategic level.

What the Connecting Care participants welcomed with open arms was the Lasa team’s offer of expert, impartial advice, tailored to their organisation, and grounded in an understanding of the priorities, values – and constraints – of voluntary sector social care. Judging by what my informants said, this is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Another striking finding was the enthusiasm with which care staff – sometimes portrayed as mass technophobes – embraced the use of mainstream digital devices… when they can be shown to deliver real benefits to the people they support. Lasa ran ‘show and tell’ sessions for care workers, activity co-ordinators, support staff and volunteers, most of whom were not confident about ‘computers’ (but of course many of whom use smartphones in their personal lives). The sessions focused on the many ways that tablets can be used to support people needing care and support, whether it be for communication, reminiscence, specialist medical apps, or just getting news on demand. One social care employer talked of a previously techno-sceptic care manager who left one of these sessions with a tablet on her shopping list.

So, it would seem that in order to ‘get digital’, social care wants free or low-cost, impartial advice about technology, and help to use that technology for the benefit of people needing care and support. If the digital technology industry can’t provide that, the shortcoming lies with the industry, not with social care.

  • Thought provoking article. Digital suppliers and partners need to work with social care providers to help deliver outcomes rather than “push tech” as the panacea. Business cases in social care need to demonstrate tangible benefits and value so that cost is not a barrier.

    • Sara Dunn

      Hi Richard
      Thanks for your comments. I totally agree about the business case, and part of this is an understanding on the part of tech suppliers of what constitutes a business case in sectors like social care. This means understanding the benefits to service provision, expressed in terms that make sense to social care SMEs and speak to their core values based in person-centred care. And also understanding just how tight the financial margins are in charities and SMEs. I think many tech suppliers simply do not get this!

  • Part of the problem with “social care getting digital” seems to be the disconnect between managers’ perceptions of staff capability and staff’s interest and aptitude for using mobile tech. As has been pointed out, the majority of carers use mobile phones, so if the tech is made available via accessible means, then surely more would be taken up?

    Wifi in homes is often lamentable. There are governance issues which need to be addressed if staff are to BYOD (Bring your own device). Relatives and other professionals would need to recognise that using a phone is work related. None of this is straight forward but surely cannot be impossible to resolve?

    Another barrier is perceived cost. If supporting and developing carers leads to higher quality of service, with better life outcomes for service users, how can this be quantified? What is the cost/benefit analysis to encourage finance departments to make a small investment in the use of tech which leads to more effective care and better outcomes?

    Carers are the unsung heroes of social care. A “bottom up” approach which encourages carers to use digital tech that is easy, accessible and inexpensive, and which provides them with support and opportunities to develop, is a way of breaking down barriers to using new technologies. Most tech focuses either on strategic IT to help run the institution or directly on the service users. By encouraging carers to use a development tool which helps them deal with difficult situations more effectively, other tools and solutions would surely follow. Talk Reflection™, an App for collaborative work and support, is an easy way to introduce tech whilst also supporting carers to deliver better outcomes. Organisations wishing to participate in future trials should get in touch.

    • Sara Dunn

      Hi Lydia

      Yes the ‘disconnect’ between care managers’ perceptions of staff digital skills and staff’s own perceptions has been noted in several bits of research over recent years, including some we did for Skills For Care on the ‘digital capabilities of the social care workforce’ http://bit.ly/1dZ0TEo
      I think part of the problem here is what we mean by digital skills – managers tend to think of these as ‘office digital skills’ and include things like understanding digital data management; staff tend to think of competence with particular devices/interfaces.
      There is a lot to get to grips with for the average care manager.
      Good luck with your reflection app!

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