Customer Story

National Institute for Health Research: Forging a framework for world-class biomedical research

Woman with surgical mask, lab coat, and gloves holds up a syringe at eye level

The NIHR built a digital hub on Google Workspace to transform its internal processes and efficiently coordinate the efforts of thousands of employees and partners across multiple locations and organizations.

Google Cloud results

Urgent health studies organized in days, not months

• Enables more than 8,000 workers to communicate and collaborate effectively across multiple locations with Google Workspace
• Google Meet enables meetings during COVID-19 lockdown, with employees using it 379% more often in first two months
• Accelerates research by making data discoverable in seconds with Google Cloud Search
• Automates and simplifies onboarding and offboarding processes to reduce administrative burden and improve data security

“We wanted a solution that would empower us to operate as a single corporate entity over multiple locations, multiple platforms, and multiple scenarios. For us, the answer is Google Workspace.” —Justin Riordan-Jones, Head of Systems and Information, Department of Health and Social Care

Every breakthrough in modern medicine comes down to years of painstaking research. The UK’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) aims to make that research as effective as possible for as long as possible. “We’re the research partner of the National Health Service and the public health and social care systems,” says Justin Riordan-Jones, Head of Systems and Information at the Department of Health and Social Care. “Ultimately, our mission is to improve the health and wealth of the nation. We do this by providing the funding, training, and infrastructure for world-class biomedical research to take place in England.”

Founded in 2006, the NIHR works with government departments, hospitals, educational institutes, researchers, and patients to engage as many people as possible in the country’s health and care research system. As a national organization, it has to coordinate the efforts of thousands of employees and partners spread out across multiple locations and organizations. By 2015, after years of trying to harmonize the various different email addresses, data repositories, and collaboration tools across its organization, the NIHR needed a new way of working. It embarked on a comprehensive digital transformation, powered by Google Workspace.

“We wanted a solution that would empower us to operate as a single corporate entity over multiple locations, multiple platforms, and multiple scenarios,” says Justin. “For us, the answer is Google Workspace.”

Multiple physical locations, a single digital hub

“We chose Google Cloud Search for the power of its search functionality and its stability. As part of Google Workspace, we knew it would do everything we wanted and fit seamlessly into our system.” —Justin Riordan-Jones, Head of Systems and Information, Department of Health and Social Care

The NIHR ultimately works for the benefit of everyone, with hundreds of research projects across the UK as well as low- and middle-income countries. But its immediate contacts are with government departments, universities, hospitals, and private companies. More than just a funding body, the NIHR aims to improve the training and ecosystem around medical research in the country. As such, it’s a geographically dispersed institution with four main coordinating centers. Most employees work mainly in the centers, but researchers and partners can be based in universities and hospitals across the country.

As the organization grew, managing staff and partner communications became more complex and departments became increasingly siloed. “We didn’t have a corporate email address for everyone working with us, because they were organized by their host locations on our platform,” says Justin. “Our system worked in the beginning, but the lack of consistency was starting to slow down our progress.”

In 2014, the NIHR decided to build a new digital hub to simplify communication and collaboration and centralize key processes. To lead this digital transformation program, it collaborated with Google Cloud Premier Partner PA Consulting.

Together, they conducted a rigorous test of various office productivity platforms, ultimately deciding on Google Workspace for its ease of use, out-of-the box functionality, and commitment to innovation. “We’re in research and development, so we need to be using the latest tools,” explains Justin. “When we looked at the development pathway and what Google Workspace was planning, we were impressed, particularly with how Google Meet enabled us to hold meetings without staff having to travel to multiple locations. One meeting could previously incur costs of up to £200 per person, not to mention time wasted during the commute.”

Over the following year, the NIHR and PA set to work replacing the NIHR’s existing productivity platform with Google Workspace. For a government organization with several layers of compliance, transformation projects can be fraught with challenges. However, with PA’s help, the NIHR succeeded with minimal disruption. “PA assisted us in two very important ways,” says Justin. “First, it gave us unbiased advice, which is exceptionally important when we’re making big decisions about our future. Second, we were able to benefit from its knowledge, expertise, and experience in the public and private sectors.”

The NIHR transformed its communication with Gmail, allowing all its users to have corporate email addresses for the first time. Thanks to the switch, staff also have the option to use Google Meet when talking over a video call would be more effective than email. And with Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides, several people can collaborate on the same documents in real time, then store and share those documents quickly and easily using Google Drive.

On top of making communication and collaboration easier for NIHR staff, Google Workspace has also helped to ease the administrative task of managing so many people across so many different areas while still maintaining the highest standards of security. “Many researchers join us for a short amount of time and leave after the project finishes. But as a government organization, we deal with sensitive material, and information security is of the highest importance to us,” explains Justin. “With Google Workspace, we don’t risk losing data or having to manually transfer files from one place to the other. Instead, we have an easy way to securely handle on- and offboarding.”

More effective research and improved efficiency

“Throughout lockdown, we’ve been using the full range of Google Workspace products to coordinate our urgent public health studies. The hub we have built is the fundamental backbone to our operations.” —Justin Riordan-Jones, Head of Systems and Information, Department of Health and Social Care

With its digital hub, the NIHR hasn’t just changed its day-to-day processes; it has transformed the way its employees work. “We’ve adopted a continuous improvement mindset,” shares Justin.

Together with PA, it runs a survey every year asking for feedback on what features work best for users and what can be improved. In 2019, this survey opened the way to improving collaboration even further, specifically in the way data is shared across the organization.

The way the NIHR was initially organized meant that several data sources were unintentionally isolated within their host coordinating centers. That meant they were effectively invisible to the rest of the NIHR. As staff worked more closely with one another, they realized that some information was available but not necessarily accessible to those who needed it, and the NIHR wanted to tackle this head on. “We’re a centralized yet autonomous, knowledge-based organization, with large amounts of data in repositories that people should be able to access as quickly and easily as possible,” says Justin. “Instead, they knew the data existed, but getting access to it was frustrating. We wanted to find a way of making all that information easily discoverable.”

The NIHR found its solution in Google Cloud Search, which seamlessly integrates with Google Workspace to provide search functionality across the entire technology infrastructure. Over 16 weeks, the NIHR worked with PA to redesign its digital platform, placing Cloud Search at the heart, so that users could harness its power on a daily basis, sharing data and collaborating more quickly and easily than ever before.

“We chose Cloud Search for the power of its search functionality and its stability,” says Justin. “As part of Google Workspace, we knew it would do everything we wanted and fit seamlessly into our system.”

Adapting to new challenges at speed

The new NIHR hub, complete with Cloud Search, went live in March 2020, just as the UK and much of the world went into lockdown due to COVID-19. Soon, the NIHR faced a unique set of challenges: not only did it have to work within quarantine guidance, it also needed to shift its priorities to helping researchers tackle COVID-19.

The NIHR’s new digital hub became more useful than ever, enabling it to continue working without pause. Its use of Meet went up by 379% within two months of quarantine, showing how video conferencing has helped to replace face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, users share and collaborate on documents more frequently, with Drive usage increasing by 198%. “We went from being an organization that works in a variety of offices and locations to working from home overnight,” says Justin. “Because of Google Workspace and the hub that we had built with it, that transition was seamless and so far there has been no seriously detrimental effect on our performance.”

Refocusing its resources to deal with COVID-19 has perhaps been the biggest challenge faced by the NIHR to date. As the situation unfolded, the NIHR set up and coordinated about 50 urgent public health studies into the effects of COVID-19, including two major studies of possible vaccines.

Typically, major research projects require months or even years to get off the ground, but the digital hub has helped the NIHR to spin them up within days and weeks. Studies like these require large numbers of people to meet and scrutinize a long list of supporting documents. The NIHR used Forms to survey its members and partners and find the right people, while Google Cloud Search made vital information discoverable within seconds. Justin explains how the digital hub made it all possible: “Throughout lockdown, we’ve been using the full range of Google Workspace products to coordinate our urgent public health studies,” he says. “The hub we have built is the fundamental backbone to our operations.”

As the NIHR adjusts to the new reality of working today, it still keeps one eye on the future. The institute has taken steps to build on the foundation that Google Workspace and the hub have already made. “We recently hired our first Chief Digital Officer,” says Justin. “He’s been very impressed with the technology and the architecture we have in place with Google Workspace, and we’re looking forward to expanding the NIHR’s digital strategy in the future.”

*Google Workspace was formerly known as G Suite prior to Oct. 6, 2020.

Google Cloud Premier Partner

PA Consulting

PA is an innovation and transformation consultancy. It believes in the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future in a technology-driven world.