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  • May 26, 2021
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Abigail Harrison, Chief of Digital and Innovation and CIO at North West Ambulance Service


We spoke to Abigail Harrison, Chief of Digital and Innovation and CIO at North West Ambulance Service l to discuss the importance of innovation, the skills needed to be a technical leader and advice for future leaders.

Abigail’s story is part of a series of articles highlighting the careers of female tech leaders within the NHS. We’ve brought together these stories in an effort to prove that the route to leadership is never a straight line.

Obsessed With Innovation 

As the Chief of Digital and Innovation and CIO at North West Ambulance Service, Abigail is driving change at the highest level of the NHS – an organisation she has spent her entire career in. 

Starting in data quality and analytics, Abigail joined the NHS straight out of college and stayed there while she went to university. Working in Salford, Abigail worked with an improvement and innovation agency called Halo while leading the measurement and analytics function at the Trust. 

“During that time I got really interested in the interface between digital and technology and improvement of care because any kind of digital solutions seemed to slow everything down. But that wasn’t how it looked anywhere else.”

With that, Abigail started to look for digital-focused jobs and found a role specifically designed as an improvement and innovation role for someone who would do both innovation and information governance.

“I was really kind of obsessed with the idea of ‘we must be able to do this better’. And I wanted to get close to the action and close to the teams and really figure out how we get really, really good at the rapid implementation of digital solutions in healthcare. So that’s why that’s what I’m here to do.”

The Best Opportunities Seemed to Come When I Was Pregnant

Abigail, who has two young children, echoes the sentiment of many female professionals who struggle to find the balance between their career and their family aspirations. 

For Abigail, the biggest impact was around her ability to make decisions around the future of her career. 

“The best opportunities, like travelling with work and seeing the world, seemed to come at a point when I was too pregnant, to make that kind of journey. So you definitely miss opportunities, no matter what anyone says or how supportive the environment is.”

For Abigail, the biggest impact was around her ability to make decisions around the future of her career. 

A transition like no other, returning to work after parental leave is hard. You’ve been out of the flow of the office for weeks or months, and you’re returning as a different person with new priorities and concerns. (Not to mention the stress and strain of endless new logistics.) It’s jarring and often overwhelming.

“There’s no way that you can be functioning at the same level that you were before you went off because you’ve not worked for six months and you’re knackered and you’ve got a million other things to think about.” 

Outside of the added responsibility, there is a certain level of guilt. We’ve spoken to a few ladies who have felt they have missed out of aspects of work and parenthood by trying to balance the two. 

“People worry for you and question your decisions in a supportive way but that just puts pressure on you. I don’t think anyone would ever ask my husband if he’s sure he wants to take on a job after becoming a parent.”

Abigail, who is currently going through this period of transition herself, believes confidence is key to coming out the other side stronger. 

“My little boy gets Croup a lot and I’ve had to take time out for that, which naturally has a knock-on effect. But it happens and It doesn’t matter because I’m still the right person for this organisation.”

With that confidence and support from her organisation, Abigail has been able to work incredibly flexible. 

“I think a lot of people would look at my role and think, ‘Well, you can’t do that role and work flexibly.’ Actually, you can. I think it’s such a shame when women don’t put themselves forward for things because of that. We just need to keep going”

My Role is About Clarity of Focus

Led by curiosity, Abigail works towards the creation of a culture and environment that encourages innovation and excellence. Whereas bringing together the skills, people and environments to make things happen can be challenging, the actual function of Abigail’s role is deceptively simple.

“It’s about having a real clarity of focus. So what are the things that we need to achieve? Let’s be incredibly clear and precise on the solution and work hard on making it intuitive. My background in improvement methodologies means we’re always looking for better, simpler and faster.” 

Take Time for Understand Your Value 

For those looking to step into a technical leadership role within the NHS but aren’t sure how they’ll fair without high levels of clinical understanding, Abigail has plenty of advice to share. 

“Take the time to kind of understand yourself the value that you bring and really own that. When you speak to people, tell them the value you bring. The more you say it, the more you really start to own it and that will give you everything you need to go forward without pretending.”

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