BACKGROUND: The Global Digital Exemplar (GDE) Programme was designed to promote the digitisation of hospital services in England. Selected provider organisations that were reasonably digitally-mature were funded with the expectation that they would achieve internationally recognised levels of excellence and act as exemplars ('GDE sites') and share their learning with somewhat less digitally-mature Fast Follower (FF) sites.
AIMS: This paper explores how partnerships between GDE and FF sites have promoted knowledge sharing and learning between organisations.
METHODS: We conducted an independent qualitative longitudinal evaluation of the GDE Programme, collecting data across 36 provider organisations (including acute, mental health and speciality), 12 of which we studied as in-depth ethnographic case studies. We used a combination of semi-structured interviews with programme leads, vendors and national policy leads, non-participant observations of meetings and workshops, and analysed national and local documents. This allowed us to explore both how inter-organisational learning and knowledge sharing was planned, and how it played out in practice. Thematic qualitative analysis, combining findings from diverse data sources, was facilitated by NVivo 11 and drew on sociotechnical systems theory.
RESULTS: Formally established GDE and FF partnerships were perceived to enhance learning and accelerate adoption of technologies in most pairings. They were seen to be most successful where they had encouraged, and were supported by, informal knowledge networking, driven by the mutual benefits of information sharing. Informal networking was enhanced where the benefits were maximised (for example where paired sites had implemented the same technological system) and networking costs minimised (for example by geographical proximity, prior links and institutional alignment). Although the intervention anticipated uni-directional learning between exemplar sites and 'followers', in most cases we observed a two-way flow of information, with GDEs also learning from FFs, through informal networking which also extended to other health service providers outside the Programme. The efforts of the GDE Programme to establish a learning ecosystem has enhanced the profile of shared learning within the NHS.
CONCLUSIONS: Inter-organisational partnerships have produced significant gains for both follower (FF) and exemplar (GDE) sites. Formal linkages were most effective where they had facilitated, and were supported by, informal networking. Informal networking was driven by the mutual benefits of information sharing and was optimised where sites were well aligned in terms of technology, geography and culture. Misalignments that created barriers to networking between organisations in a few cases were attributed to inappropriate choice of partners. Policy makers seeking to promote learning through centrally directed mechanisms need to create a framework that enables networking and informal knowledge transfer, allowing local organisations to develop bottom-up collaboration and exchanges, where they are productive, in an organic manner.