Unlocking the NHS social capitalists


The central challenge facing the NHS is how to survive and prosper in the “age of austerity”.  Organisations, leaders, politicians and decision-makers tend to concentrate on revenue and capital budgets in their most traditional forms.  We believe they are under-appreciating and under- exploiting one of the richest seams of capital investment open to the NHS – that is the huge amount of latent social capital possessed by the million-plus workforce, stakeholders, service users and their families.  Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 01.34.53

We  contend that by harnessing integrated communication, listening and engagement – including social media – we can enable the NHS to unlock and deploy huge reservoirs of social capital across the NHS and beyond.

Oxford Dictionaries define social capital as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”

The World Bank’s extensive programme on Social Capital  defines Social Capital as “the norms and networks that enable collective action. It encompasses institutions, relationships, and customs that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions…Social capital, when enhanced in a positive manner, can improve project effectiveness and sustainability by building the community’s capacity to work together to address their common needs, fostering greater inclusion and cohesion, and increasing transparency and accountability.”

The World Bank considers Social Capital can be broken down into five dimensions:

  1. Groups and networks
  2.  Trust and solidarity
  3. Collective action and cooperation
  4. Social cohesion and inclusion
  5. Information and communication

The essence of social media in the NHS is networks of professional communities, organisations and individuals across the NHS willing and enthusiastic to voluntarily engage with each other, learn from each other and support each other. There is no doubt that a strong and unifying self-identity of NHS organisations, their staff and the general population is their sense of belonging and support for a national organisation with associated and shared norms and values.  This identification with and support for “NHS values and principles” spreads far beyond NHS organisations itself to the wider general public and political and administrative classes.

So the importance of social capital to the success of the NHS, across the World Bank’s dimensions is inarguable:

  • Organisational support and network activities;
  • Self-organising and mobilising resources to solve problems of common interest;
  • Disseminating information and facilitating collective decision-making;
  • Trust in each other and the institutions that operate among them;
  • Collective action and co-operation by a group of individuals;
  • Individuals who are willing and able to work together to address common needs, overcome constraints, and consider diverse interests;
  • downward flows of information from the policy realm and upward flows from the local level.

The role of ‘Social Capitalists’

There are a number of similarities between what we call ‘social capitalists’ and venture capitalists:

  • both seek to make a capital investment to support and facilitate the growth of ‘start-up’ projects or ideas;
  • both are usually external to the organisation or project owning the idea;
  • both bring external expertise or support sought by the organisation or idea to develop or maximise its potential;
  • both play a background role in the project or idea, rather than a day-to-day or operational role.

But unlike the venture capitalist, the social capitalist typically delivers non-financial investments to the idea or project, such as:

  • reassurance and endorsement;
  • technical or expert advice or guidance;
  • links to their professional and social contacts who may be able and willing to provide support, encouragement or endorsement;
  • links to similar projects or ideas to facilitate mutual understanding and learning;
  • buddying or mentoring arrangements.

Of course, there are many global professional and consulting companies whose business model is built specifically on charging for this type of advice.  But in the context of NHS Social Media – which is built on a business model of peer-to-peer communication and support between public sector professionals, this does not have to be the case.

The crucial difference therefore between venture capitalists and social capitalists, particularly social capitalists in the context of the NHS is that whereas the venture capitalist ultimately requires a financial return on their financial investment, in many situations NHS social capitalists do not.   They share ideas and enthusiasm simply because they want to.

This means that in many cases, the only barrier to entry for an organisation or project seeking investment from a social capitalist is identifying potential sources and making the necessary connections.    The challenge is how to facilitate these connections and learning activity.  That is where NHS social media can come to the fore.

In an Age of Austerity, we believe it is critical that we deploy integrated communications, listening, engagement and social media to the utmost to unlock those huge reservoirs of social capital and unleash the NHS Social Capitalists.