To err is human

Published on 10 January 2022, by Susan Smith, Knowledge and Library Services Project Manager (Digital and Data Science module development) Health Education England

Emerging technology, Workforce, Use of technology

Permission to fail is important when exploring new technologies and ways of working.

One of the hot topics at work just now is cultural change.  I am now a part of the Psychological Safety and Civility Group.  John Gale has done numerous searches on the human factors of change management, building trust etc to support the Organisational Development Team and the fledging Quality Improvement Faculty.  Recovery from Covid has implemented a new ‘Building Back Better’ agenda, which is a new age of thinking about things differently.

It has made me think a lot about my own personal journey and how things change.

My first 10 years in libraries began back at The Barony when I was evening library assistant at a Further Education College.  It was back in the days of the card catalogue and Brown’s system for issuing books (little cardboard wallets). When I moved into public libraries in East Ayrshire, we were cutting edge with a photocharger system – we took photos of the books and sent the film away to get developed, we did have computers and I taught BBC webwise as a pre-cursor to European Computer Driving Licence.  When I moved into the NHS we were the first place in the hospital to get a computer and it was used to manually load Medline by disks sent out monthly.  We still had a print copy of Index Medicus kicking around the office, so no matter how frustrating it was we appreciated the new database there was no way we were going back. New search interfaces were developed and soon I was programming websites, working on apps and digitising journals.

My last decade has been in the same organisation.  We are just in the process of purchasing our first Electronic Patient Record System.  Still in the last few years library videoconferencing equipment funded by Health Education England supported a business case to develop a remote consultation system in care homes so patients didn’t need to be admitted to hospital un-necessarily.  We supported users into transition to Office 365 Teams, prior to the pandemic hitting and had the equipment to support corporate move off-site and enable the board to operate when the pandemic hit.  We are beginning work with mixed reality and I have worked with IT, Microsoft and a student from UCL to develop a machine learning chat bot.

The constant in the journey has been change.  It is really hard to imagine going backwards in time, though I still have fond memories of toasting marshmallows on the bonfire of the old cards! The changes in technology have improved the services we deliver, supported our users and impacted on patient care.  What is changing is the speed of change.

Not everything I have engaged with has been a success, but I have learned.  Working on the chat bot made me realise that very old-fashioned library skills of taxonomy, metadata and ontologies are become more relevant in the modern world to make information discoverable.  Natural Language Processing isn’t enough.  It also made me realise that technology requires expansion of staff and not the replacement.  We never rolled-out the chat-bot.  It is complete, but still sitting there due to lack of skills within the organisations and also lack of time to properly test.  It’s taught me about skill gaps in the organisation (including my own), it has given me confidence to further explore and strengthen relations with informatic teams and just engaging with the working and discussing with others has helped raised the library profile.

In a land of no experience having some knowledge of the topic is useful.  We are known for being able to think across the organisation and have an ability to build relations.  It is always best to share this journey alongside others both within and out-with your team.

Something the organisation gets right is ‘permission to fail’.  In the absence of research when approaching something new, this is vital.  If you think about the speed of change and our changing knowledge as the pandemic unfolded, this always had to be the case.  Sometimes it is better to do something, rather than nothing.  Without out this, it is difficult to bring about change and make services fit for the future.

When working on a new project get good project governance in place within your organisational structures.  Try not to make it just an internal library thing. Whenever we submit a business case it is important we identify the risks, have plans to mitigate them if possible, but also have good governance and assurances on projects to know what to pull, amend or take forward as business as usual.  It means you can tap the expertise of others and get support from senior leaders. The learning from this will continue to inform future work not just for your service but also for those around you.

Be open.  We all like to share the good stuff.  It is difficult when things go wrong, especially if it is something you have invested a lot of time and effort into.  I would love to see a library award for work we tried and failed, or even a regular column.  That sort of learning can save people an awful lot of work.  If you follow models like Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA cycle), you will also realise that a project may need to be tweaked several times or change course completely to be implemented.

A strange thing about human nature is nobody likes an easy story.  If relating a development, people always like to hear barriers, challenges.  We love schadenfreude!  It also makes the tale more relatable to others who think they can’t adopt something in their organisation when they realise the problems are the same.  It also acts as a reminder of personal resilience, which is never a bad thing.


Susan Smith

Knowledge and Library Services Project Manager (Digital and Data Science module development)  Health Education England