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CIO interview: Lee Edwards, IT director, NHS Shared Business Services

Technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotic process automation is key to NHS Shared Business Services' digital transformation, according to IT director Lee Edwards

As NHS Shared Business Services (SBS) seeks to deliver £1bn in savings to the taxpayer by 2020, a digital transformation programme is being carried out.

This includes services planned in areas such as analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation to help NHS bodies run more efficiently. 

A joint venture between the Department of Health and Sopra Steria, NHS SBS has been running for nearly 12 years and is accountable for around £100bn of NHS spend. It works with over a third of NHS trusts and all of the NHS commissioning organisations, providing financial and accounting, procurement and employee services operations. 

IT director Lee Edwards joined the organisation in August 2017 with a clear mission: transforming and modernising the technology function to be able to deliver its ultimate goal of identifying and developing digital services. 

The most significant money-saving projects are related to the business enterprise resource (ERP) systems, as well as procurement. Core to the NHS SBS IT portfolio is an Oracle E-Business Suite R12 ERP platform – one of the largest Oracle ERP deployments in Europe.

There are plans to replace the platform, and his team is currently assessing how to migrate to an option that better serves the future ambitions of the business. 

“This is a critical project as it supports the core accounting and reporting processes that our clients use every day,” says Edwards.

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“We are looking for systems that can provide all the core financial functions in a secure and resilient environment, as well as enhanced operational business intelligence, native mobile support and a more intuitive, friendly user interface,” he adds. 

“We want to do all this at a more cost-effective price point and reduced operational overhead, so we have started to look at opportunities around cloud-based solutions such as Oracle Fusion and Microsoft Dynamics.”

Another big deployment in the coming months is the introduction of a newly developed e-marketing platform. Dubbed “Edge For Health”, the system provides an Amazon-like marketplace for NHS procurement. 

The system aims to enable trusts and commissioning groups with online functionality, from procurement all the way to the payment stage, with greater transparency and visibility of spend across all items purchased – and importantly, bring multimillion-pound savings for the NHS. 

“The improvements delivered by both the Edge for Health and ERP replacements will help commissioning groups and provider trusts meet back-office operational productivity objectives outlined in Lord Carter’s report,” says Edwards.

“They will also support the delivery of NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) policy and the emerging NHS Model Hospital initiative.” 

Digital opportunities 

Robotic process automation (RPA) will be a key of focus for Edwards’s team over the coming year when it comes to digital initiatives. This includes a pilot and implementation of RPA and chatbot technology across a number of operational areas. 

“This will bring significant efficiencies to our back office functions and help improve customer services through improved speed and accuracy of processing,” says Edwards, adding that recent proofs of concept with RPA technologies such as Kapow and Blue Prism, integrated into a Microsoft Azure technology stack. 

According to Edwards, there is a lot of potential in joining RPA and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics to bring noticeable improvements to back-office processes and customer engagement experience at NHS SBS.

“RPA will bring significant efficiencies to our back office functions and help improve customer services through improved speed and accuracy of processing”

Lee Edwards, NHS Shared Business Services

“We have a wealth of data on our client operations, but it is currently split across multiple service lines. These technologies can help us bring that data together to provide users with greater visibility and insight to their operations,” he says. 

“These technologies can also improve the speed and efficiency of users’ services whilst allowing them to access this information in real time through their preferred method of consumption, whether it is a phone call, instant messaging, online chat or social media.” 

Moving to the cloud 

While ERP systems at the NHS SBS are hosted by Capita IBS, other applications are hosted on-premise, on an infrastructure estate that is predominantly virtual, with Red Hat Linux on HP hardware, NetApp-provided storage, Cisco networking and Mitel telephony. 

A trial of Azure cloud services for project development and test environments is currently ongoing as part of a to start moving systems to the cloud. Skype for Business has been rolled out, and Office 365 is being considered. A deployment of Microsoft Dynamics CRM has also started across contact centres. 

Additionally, Edwards is leading the current replacement of the organisation’s legacy client management systems Remedy and VQSM with Dynamics CRM to enable better management and call tracking from clients across all key business lines. 

“The -stage deployment has already started to prove itself, and over the next year we will push it out to all contact centre operations,” says Edwards. 

“We hope the improved service to clients will result in a positive impact on our Net Promoter Score across the board.”

Making crucial choices 

The NHS SBS IT operation is supported by a team of approximately 160 people. and second line IT services are primarily delivered from offshore sites in Pune and Noida in India, while design, development, infrastructure and project management is delivered by teams in Leeds and Southampton.

While the IT strategy and portfolio at NHS SBS goes through a period of profound change, Edwards points out that the entirety of the organisation’s architectural jigsaw is yet to be figured out. As this process unfolds, some choices will have to be made in terms of partners that will support the journey. 

“I will be looking closely at our supplier base over the next 12 months to identify key or existing partners who can bring both the technology, skills and innovative approaches to help us achieve our objectives,” says Edwards. 

Choosing the right technologies and partners to work with in order to deliver these crucial projects is, not coincidentally, an “extremely challenging” task for the CIO over the year ahead. 

“Alongside that, I will be developing a longer-term vision and strategy for transforming IT. A vision that will allow us to develop the skills and leverage the investments we are making in core technology platforms, to deliver digital services for the NHS – plenty to keep me busy,” says Edwards. 

So how will he handle all these tasks? “Maintaining a sense of humour and perspective,” he says. “That helps you cope with the inevitable problems and setbacks that occur along the way.”

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