How NHS Blood and Transplant’s investment in digital L&D has proved vital during Covid

By ramping up its commitment to e-learning and VR, the organisation was in prime position to deliver training virtually

How NHS Blood and Transplant’s investment in digital L&D has proved vital during Covid

‘The art of the possible’ is an expression that comes up a lot in People Management’s (Zoom) interview with Lisa Johnson, OD manager for digital and people skills at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT). And understandably. When Johnson arrived in 2018 the organisation’s maturity in digital L&D was low. “My digital team was two people who were previously classroom trainers who had dabbled with tech to do some videos and a bit of e-learning, but who had a huge learning curve ahead of them,” she says.

So it was up to Johnson to show them just what digital L&D could be. Cut to 2020, and the team is now six-strong. “I’ve mixed the expertise to get maximum value – I’ve got learning technologists, people with teaching backgrounds and with instructional design backgrounds, and I’ve taken people from the business who have worked in the scientific and blood donation areas of the organisation.” 

And not a moment too soon, with NHSBT’s services – and the skill levels of its 5,500 staff – crucial to maintain during the pandemic. While many predominantly office staff, like Johnson, have been able to conduct their roles from home, most of those working across the organisation’s blood, transplant, diagnostic and therapeutic services and its clinical research side have remained very much on the frontline (“you can’t take blood or transplant an organ virtually”, Johnson points out).

And the numbers of staff working directly with the public have in fact ramped up, with the body heading the NHS’s convalescent plasma trial – a drive to get those who’ve recovered from coronavirus to donate blood plasma to test whether these antibodies can help people struggling to develop their own immune response (with significant stocks built up and ready for immediate use, pending trial results later this year).

“We had to recruit more than 600 donor carers and nurses during phase one – we call them ‘antibody angels’,” reports Johnson. “They joined from a range of sectors and scenarios, including people on furlough, pilots and crew, retail nurses and retired NHSBT staff returning to help… It’s normally a six-week onboarding and induction programme, but we had to do it in three. So my team dropped everything to support the education teams to put a digital learning path and content together that we could make available to people before they even got access to IT.”

The ‘everything’ dropped – or, more accurately, added to – was a significant workload already. As still a tiny group of six, Johnson and her team’s main responsibility, she explains, is building learning solutions and providing guidance to, and connecting, education leads across the organisation, who in turn are responsible for teams of facilitators and trainers in their particular areas. “Take the people working with the donation centres – they’re headed up by a national education manager who has a core team of maybe 30 facilitators and trainers. Then below that is about 400 people providing team-based support. So there’s quite a cascade model.” 

It has to be this way, says Johnson, given NHSBT’s diversity, and the need for specialists to deliver specialist training. “We’re dealing not just with people in very different roles but also working in different environments with different access to technology,” she says, regarding the wider challenge this diversity presents to digitising L&D. “So people in blood product manufacturing might be working inside a pod where they’ve got access to one computer… then you’ve got people out in the field in a church hall or community centre taking blood – where it can be a team of 20 sharing an iPad.”

Johnson’s first job when she arrived was to refresh mandatory training, and to recommend solutions to digitise NHSBT’s management and leadership programmes, which were previously traditional classroom courses that could take up to six months to book on to: “We’ve stopped all those face-to-face courses for now and are giving people access to tools and technology they can work with every day, by getting curated content fed to their inboxes.”

Last year, Johnson’s team digitised 42 L&D products overall, including a project introducing virtual reality to teach a blood identification module. “It’s a four-minute experience where you go into the lab, choose your patient, sample their blood, identify what blood type they are and based on that choose the right transfusion bag. That cuts down the amount of lab time, product costs and trainer time.” It’s also a great product to take to schools to get young people engaged with a career in STEM. And so well received has this project been, the team is exploring another to deliver ‘clean room’ laboratory environment training.

So NHSBT was in an excellent position to deliver learning virtually when Covid struck. While some training is still taking place face to face, in the form of frontline colleagues coaching each other, much is moving online. As such, Johnson’s team has already worked on 55 products this year, with its agile methodology coming to the fore.

It’s a way of working Johnson is keen to hang on to: “Before we’d always pilot our products fully, but we can’t do that for everything during Covid. We needed to get it live and iterate and improve continuously.” It’ll take a few months before her team is able to properly evaluate these products. But she’s hopeful the results will be strong: “As an organisation, having invested in moving things forward, why would you go back – when you’ve opened up so many opportunities to reach more learners, have more impact and save more lives?”