Few social workers feel training provides ‘digital readiness’ for practice, research finds

Practitioners tell SCIE and BASW study they want new workplace systems that prioritise relationship-based practice and augment rather than replace work carried out by humans

Image of a computer keyboard (Marcie Casas / Flickr)
(Image: Marcie Casas / Flickr)

Only a small minority of social workers feel their initial training prepares them for using digital technologies in practice, a study has found.

Just 11% of 647 respondents to a survey carried out as part of research by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said that their initial social work training had addressed their “digital readiness” for the job. Over half found their training unhelpful.

Data provided to the survey also suggested that on-the-job training around digital technology was rare, with 27% of respondents having received none in the past two years, and a further 55% having had training only once or twice during that time.

Nonetheless, most respondents rated their digital skills as ‘good’ (47%) or ‘very good’ (31%), which the survey concluded indicated a positive self-confidence among the workforce.

In keeping with surveys undertaken, many social workers, as well as senior leaders interviewed by researchers, said workplace technology – which is often fragmented or out-of-date – could be a hindrance to practice.

Practitioners told the study that:

  • Workplace systems “should prioritise relationship-based practice and person-centred care over performance management”.
  • Systems work better where both practitioners and service users have a genuine co-production role when systems are being developed.
  • New technologies should augment the work of social workers rather than trying to replace it.
  • Service users must have choice over how they interact with services, and their right to self-determination should be enhanced by technology.
  • They were concerned about data security and problems caused by social media, such as rights to privacy being breached and in some cases insults and threats being received.

A sector struggling to keep up

The SCIE and BASW study concluded from a review of available literature that there had been little previous investigation of social workers’ digital capabilities.

It was clear that regulators, professional bodies and social work educators had found it hard to keep abreast of technological innovation and to respond by developing new policies, guidance and training, the report said.

Technology-related concerns have become more prominent among social workers in recent years, with many practitioners voicing frustration with having to work on ageing or user-unfriendly case management systems.

Social media, meanwhile, has provided an arena that can blur the bounds of personal and work life, with some social workers receiving threats and abuse from people they have been involved with while others have been sanctioned for overstepping professional boundaries.

Meanwhile the increasing use of assistive technology, especially in adult social care, has been both praised for promoting greater independence and criticised for its potential for reducing human contact in the name of cost-cutting.

‘Digital technologies can enhance social work’

Social workers who participated in workshops as part of the SCIE and BASW study were in general agreement that “digital technologies can enhance social work, sometimes in unexpected ways” – with an example being the use of social media to identify missing children.

But participants said that closer partnerships were needed between technology companies, employer IT departments, practitioners and service users to ensure systems “reflect practice realities”.

Social workers also said that a coherent CPD framework around digital capabilities should be developed – and that they needed to be able to reflect on their skills and identify training needs.

Senior managers meanwhile – 15 of whom were selected for in-depth interviews, based on their expertise – said that where technologies were introduced, there needed to be clarity about what their primary purpose, such as record-keeping or performance management, was.

“Technology must be user-centred and reflect what social workers do in practice,” they told researchers. “There must be a strong evidence-base about their benefits – it is not to be assumed that technologies are necessarily beneficial.”

The senior managers identified a range of barriers that had prevented digital technologies being used to their full potential within social work. These included an overly divergent picture in terms of providers, meaning systems lacked integration, employers being stuck with “legacy systems” that impeded innovation, and the impact of years of austerity hampering investment.

‘Joint effort’ required

Speaking about the launch of the report, BASW chief executive Ruth Allen said that social workers and people they support “need to be at the centre of digital developments – including advising tech developers and procurement leads on requirements, inputting to national policy, and codesigning programmes with universities”.

Allen said a “joint effort” was required to achieve this. “Employers, policy makers and tech companies need to enable social workers to have the time, confidence and authority to be genuinely involved,” she said.

Allen added: “SCIE and BASW hope that today’s report sets out the case for greater involvement, together with practical, sector-informed advice and insights.”

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