New ways of working and the personal – anywhere and anytime, but any thing left? by Christoffer Andersson

“New ways of working” is a concept used today to summarize a new ideal of knowledge work centered around the flexible and cooperating worker, able to work and communicate from anywhere and anytime thanks to digital technologies – and empowered to do so by a management approach controlling work based on outcome rather than on hours spent sitting at a desk. When at the office, such a new worker is supposed to need flexible arrangements in time and space, enabled to work where needed and when needed. When outside the office, digital technologies connect this worker with work and coworkers. Office designers have thus seen, and contributed to, a surge for new or renovated offices based on flexible arrangements that provide the worker with a variety of office areas offering the proper environment for the task at hand, as well as ample possibility for interaction with other workers.[1] Activity-based offices are in Sweden nowadays, for instance, what many organizations are turning to.

When you enter an activity-based office, you enter an open space divided into different areas by means of furniture, plants, stylish or cool objects. The design is carefully planned, the colors chosen with purpose, the furniture designed – it is difficult not to find such spaces fresh and appealing, even though they all look more or less the same. Interestingly, a lot of care seems to have be given to the atmosphere produced through such spaces, provoking sensual and emotional responses in the employees. As Anna Alexandersson and Viktorija Kalonaityte of Linnaeus University notice, such office design mobilizes playfulness to shape a creative athmosphere: “Our analysis suggests that playful office design removes many of the traditional boundaries of the working life. For example, it builds in leisurely and private spaces into the office, makes it difficult to discern organizational hierarchies, and promotes collective forms of play and creativity.”[2] According to Bonneau and Sergi, the aim is not only to materialize creativity in this new kind of workplace, but also collaboration.[3]

As digital technologies enable mobility, such creative and collaborative spaces are spaces governed by hot-desk policies, with no possibility for the employee to create a personal space with one’s own objects, be them photos of dear ones or a collection of books. In this space for creativity and collaboration there is, in other words, plenty of space for the interpersonal, but no place for the personal. The only object the employees are supposed to carry around, and bond with, is their laptop. What they need for working is in the cloud. But the future may take this last personal object away too. We hear about concepts of future offices including laptops or touchscreens available around the office: you just need to login by eye-scanning or finger prints. While the total absence of personal objects and places may be common in other contexts, I think this is new in knowledge work to such a large extent.

The possibility to work anywhere and anytime thanks to digital technologies may on the one hand empower the worker to shape one´s own work, but it also separates the worker from work as we are used to conceived it. Work can in fact be understood as a material practice, including certain places and objects that become personal and an integral part of how we perform work. Work is not just writing words, inserting data or making a call; it is doing that in a personal way emerging from how one relates to, uses, works with places and objects that are re-shaped as they are used. Moving “work” to the cloud seems to result in confining individual work to the cloud, thus not only de-localizing individual work but also de-materializing it: all traces of work are digital. No more personal objects, no more personal spaces. The interpersonal reigns, as long as it feeds on the designed materiality of the workplace and does not leave any material trace in it – everything that is not designed nor digital is ephemeral.  

Anywhere, anytime but no thing left. Is that the future? The consequences of such a shift are still unexplored. We know that the introduction of flexible offices often encounters resistance. We also see examples of a more nuanced approach in which personalization is allowed or the philosophy of “bring your own technology” (that is, use your preferred private IT artefact) applied[4] – of course this may be more costly. We need to know more about what is happening with work and whether it is going to become virtual, de-localized and de-materialized.


[1] See for instance https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/sme-home/what-office-of-future-looks-like/

[2] https://managementink.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/is-play-the-future-of-office-space/

[3] Bonneau, Claudine and Sergi, Viviane (2018) What does collaboration sound and look like?
The reconfiguration of corporate collaborative spaces and tools in Montreal-based organizations. Paper presented at the 2nd RGCS Symposium

[4] https://www.kinnarps.com/knowledge/kinnarps-trend-reports/trend-report-2/download/?__FormGuid=71d5067a-a1e0-4b8d-b973-68bc8bb27a9f&__FormLanguage=en&__FormSubmissionId=5833536b-f0a0-41ea-a9ac-86698ecc3124

Where’s the body? On the physicality of virtual leadership by Christoffer Andersson

YouTube clips visualizing what a virtual meeting would look like ‘in reality’ pop up in my flow from time to time. Those short clips visualize what it could look like if we transferred our digital meeting room to a physical conference room where our Skype-images, camera captures and microphones would be represented by our physical appearances.  One example is the commercial for the conference service provider Zoom, where physicality plays a significant role in the somewhat turbulent meeting that is taking place.

Physicality may not be a top priority, or even considered, when companies discuss and train in virtual or remote leadership but the perceived non-relevance can be contested. In the book The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities, edited by Donna Ladkin and Steven Taylor (2014), there is a chapter called Disappearing bodies in virtual leadership? by Donatella De Paoli, Arja Ropo and Erika Sauer. In the chapter, the authors oppose the technocratic view of virtual leadership as non-bodied communication by suggesting that physicality indeed is a constituent in virtual meetings. They use their own research project as an auto-ethnographic study and, following the tradition of organizational aesthetics, value sense-based paths to knowledge, meaning that e.g. seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and feeling are the instruments when developing knowledge. In terms of leadership, the authors view leadership as “an emergent process of relating and negotiating where the physical aspects are inherent and entangled with the issue at hand”(p. 72). That is, they do not view leadership through an entity perspective where leadership is tied to an individual, a leader, but rather as a process occupied by a spectrum of contributors to the relating and negotiating that provides direction. Furthermore, they highlight the paradox that research on virtual leadership view technology as the troublemaker in terms of communication and leadership but, at the same time, view technology as the solution to these issues.

With the epistemological and the ontological foundations in place, the authors argue that most virtual leadership literature neglect the physical body. They suggest that physicality should be taken into consideration in virtual leadership, although physicality in a digital form (camera images, voices through microphones, Skype photos). They argue that paying attention to the bodies can have an even greater impact on leadership in the virtual room than in the IRL conference room and hence should be given greater attention. From their own research process, they provide numerous examples of how the physical body is present in virtual meetings. They conclude that the sensitivity to relating to coworkers or managers physically increases in the virtual context and give examples such as how attention to the camera images is high, which means picking up multiple cues based on the physicality of the participants in the virtual meeting room.

One take on this is that in the physical conference room, we are unable to pay that sort of attention to the other participants’ physicality. This may partly be due to greater competition for attention in the physical room. In the virtual meeting room, ‘everything’ is experienced on screen; we even see where the noise is coming from by looking at the sound indicators in the shape of e.g. blue bars attached to the participants’ images. The authors further highlight the awareness of the own body, the own physicality, arguing that in a virtual meeting, one becomes aware of one’s own body in a manner not experienced in a face-to-face meeting. In the face-to-face meeting, you simply do not see, hear or experience yourself the same way. That is, in the virtual meeting one constantly views one’s own physicality in relation to the other participants’ physicality. So, on the one hand, technology limits the physicality by for example poor resolution, on the other hand the same technology intensifies it.

The authors conclude that “The recognition of the physicality of leadership opens up possibilities and widens the understanding of leadership by revealing the hidden and unrecognized sensuous ways in which we relate to each other. Emphasis on everyday mundane actions while being in a virtual team meeting includes the physical practices of speaking, listening, gazing, touching (even virtually) and acknowledging emotions and feelings” (p. 77). They argue that these practices are sources to the emergent process of relating that includes physicality, which is what they define as leadership.

Paying attention to the physicality of the co-creators of leadership, that is to the physicality of all contributors to the relating and negotiating that provides direction, may change the experience of the meeting in the Zoom commercial or, for that matter, the experience of any virtual meeting. The neglect of physicality in virtual leadership is challenged, a challenge that should be taken seriously given the widespread virtual nature of contemporary worklife.

 Anna Uhlin

Gamification of work? by Christoffer Andersson

Photo by Jamie McInall from Pexels

Photo by Jamie McInall from Pexels

A couple of weeks ago I attended my very first gaming event. NorthSpawn  was arranged in the town of Västerås in Sweden, and attracted hundreds of young people who came to play, see a hackathon and do Cosplay. It was awesome! The event took place day and night, from Thursday to Sunday during mid-term, and attracted both girls and boys, who sat in their hoodies on ergonomical chairs in front of one, sometimes several, screens, next to their computers with transparent glasses, decorated with lights and collectible figures. On the tables next to them were half-eaten bags of crisps and soda cans, and even if most of them sat with headphones on, many of them were engaged in conversations; either with a friend to the right or left, or with another gamer through their microphones.

Witnessing this, I was reminded of how BIG gaming is today. Statistics show that there are more Swedes that watch gaming-sessions and e-sports through channels such as YouTube and Twitch, than Swedes that watch traditional sports on the telly and through web-TV.

I was not at NorthSpawn to game myself though, but to reflect on the phenomenon of ”gamification” in a talk that I gave to some 50 people from various companies that had come to an event organized by Automation Region. Gaming is not only something that is of interest to young people; it is also something that has come to influence work and organizational life in several ways.

The concept of ”gamification” has been used since 2003 and has since then become increasingly popular. The concept may be said to denote the use of gaming elements in non-gaming systems to stimulate user involvement and experience.

In Gartner group’s hype-cycle, where predictions about the life span of different technological innovations are made, ”gamification” has lately been replaced by other concepts, but the idea to use gamification elements in for example the design of production systems, HR-systems and education remain and have become increasingly more popular. To design a system where the user competes against herself; work towards a visualized goal; or receives visual and oral feedback on her performance, are only a few examples of the gaming elements that have become increasingly more common, for example in the develompent of technologies for the elderly, in fitness apps and in various production systems.

But does it work?

In light of how common gamification has become one may be led to believe that the answer to the question is ”yes”, but in reality it is not that simple. Research shows us that user motivation does not neccessarily at all increase with gamification, and there are also indications  that the introduction of gaming in organizations lead to sub-optimization, since the employees may become more interested in winning, rather than in performing work in a wayn that is benefitting to the organization as a whole.

In an article in The Guardian; ”High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification”; an American driver driving for Lyft (a company like Uber) recently described the stress that the gamification elements that have been incorporated in the design of Lyft leads to. Recurring feedback summaries and visualizations of how the customers have graded their experience of having been driven by her; of how clean the car was and what level of friendliness she exposed, was something that she, at first, found stimulating, but that, after a while, became quite stressful. Working as self-employed, without co-employees, union representation, or an employer to discuss her experiences of situation with – a situation typical of ”the gig economy” – of course makes her extra vulnerable. Either she buys Lyft’s idea, or she risks not having a job.

This is an example of how, in this case Lyft, has used gamification to create incentives for the drivers to not only constantly work on the quality of their services, but to make sure that they stay on as drivers for Lyft. For a person who loves to compete gamification is heaven – until she burns herself out.

To ask if gamification is a good way forward when it cames to improving work is thus a valid question. Work is not, and can never be, a game. It’s a serious activity. A person who works is paid to perform a task for someone else, and the conditions from this type of set-up are very different compared to those of gaming and playing.

At the same time, research show (not at all surprising) that employees appreciate interfaces that are user friendly and modern. In industries that still have machines that are the heirs of the big data systems that were invested in in the 1970.s, many employees detest the ancient interfaces they have to work with on a daily basis. And considering all young people that are getting used to nice and thought-through grafics through their interest in gaming it is very likely that improved interfaces may become a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting new staff in the future. To support employees by for example making sure that the technology they use have attractive interfaces that make their tasks easier may thus be a good idea. Such changes take basic human needs for esthetics and creativity seriously.

But this is something different compared to when gamification is implemented in order to increase employees’ motivation and with an ultimate hope of increasing efficiency and productivity.

A successful gamification strategy must involve an idea of why and how gamification should take place. To listen to employees/users/customers, and involve them in the development of new, more user-friendly interfaces, will be more successful, than to make decisions about systems where gamification is used as an incentive strategy to make employees work harder.

Gaming events like NorthSpawn remind us that gaming is different than work, and that we, when we borrow gamification elements to work contexts, must be careful if we want to avoid that the implementations of levels, challenges, countdowns and other gaming elements lead to unwanted, negative effects.

Anette Hallin, Program director

 

The Good, the Bad and the Unintended of Public Sector Digitalisation by Christoffer Andersson

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Two weeks ago Anna Uhlin, also in the DigMa-programme, and I attended the 18th European Conference on Digital Government, in Santiago, Spain. This conference was attended by academic scholars, public sector workers and individuals who are engaged in various aspects of Digital Government research and practice. Our comparative paper was well received and attracted a lot of attention from various groups. It offers an insight into the direction of digital transformations at a national level. However here I am interested in presenting a couple of the other paper presentations I attended which highlight how technology affects the wider public in practice.

There was a very interesting presentation by Jos van Leeuwen (associate professor at The Hague University of Applied Sciences) and Klaske Hermans (Municipality of The Hague) of a case study using virtual reality in the redesign of a public park. The municipality included citizens in the co-design activities. Thereafter they consulted the community in a ballot. They were interested in the effectiveness of using virtual reality technology to engage the community and compared the effects of various devices on engagement: VR headsets, smartphones, tablets, and computers.

They found that both VR technology and the presence of the voting-support team contributed to involving the citizens. The effort has resulted in involving nearly 10% of the population in the decision-making process. That was a lot higher than employing traditional means, e.g. sending letters and inviting people to look at 2D drawings of proposals. Using accessible realistic visualisations presented through user-friendly technology enabled the participation of a large and diverse audience. The result was greater visibility of the efforts to enhance the living environment of citizens. Using VR technology increased civic engagement in policy-making and implementation too. In turn the investment in this process helped the local authority to generate support for its plans and strengthen its relationship with the community.

In contrast to the success story using technology to engage and include citizens into decision making, digitalisation also presents a serious risk and threat to the control of the decision-making process itself. Ayo Næsborg-Andersen, assistant professor in the Department of Law, University of Southern Denmark, explained how automating decision-making led to public authorities losing insight into their own processes. This was due to outsourcing the development and maintenance of technologies. In 2014 the Minister of Tax in Denmark reported that the tax authorities had already lost insight and control over more than 200 systems. Private suppliers are now in control of the functionality of those systems and digital decision-making. The first stage of developing Digital Government in Denmark, until the 90s, was characterised by digitising paper which did not present any issues. Technology was simply a tool for authorities. Thereafter technology advances involved complex systems. These new systems include procedures and decisions that affect citizens through machine learning algorithms. The authorities do not have control over those algorithms. This means that the use of ICT in the second generation of digital government affects citizens directly[AH1] [PI2] . From a legal point of view outsourcing power and decision-making to private providers is illegal and therefore involving legal advice and scholars early on into the digitalisation process is crucial.

Looking at the two examples of digitalisation it is clear that technology can have both positive and negative effects on citizens. In addition to destroying your business, which affects a limited number of stakeholders, digitalising government processes and work can have much wider implications on all of us. We can agree that there is nothing to worry about when technology improves our relationship with local authorities and lead to citizens’ inclusion. However when government power is outsourced and decision-making is digitalised, this could lead to unintended consequences impacting all of us. Therefore we, as citizens and academics, need to question what technology is used for. Is it used to empower and include people in what local and national governments do? Or is it used to make decisions which can negatively impact us?

Dr Irina Popova

”So are we to just lie down and die?!” – about the worry about the future labour market by Christoffer Andersson

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A few years ago I gave a lecture about the changes on the labour market to students at a college. A group of young men were seated in the back of the auditorium. They seemed to be half-asleep; some had baseball-caps pulled down over their eyes. Some ways into the lecture, when I was talking about digitalization and the changes on the labour market, one of them sat up, pushed his cap back, and said: “So if the robots take our jobs, are we to just lie down and die?!”. It was a brave question in a room full of friends. It was also a relevant question and the question I spent the rest of my lecture answering.

In their 2013-article The future of employment Osborne and Frey show that about half of the jobs performed in the US could be performed by computers or robots by 2033. The study was repeated in a Swedish context by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research and similar results emerged . It is now five years since Osborn and Frey published their article and their piece has both been re-evalutated and critizised. A recent OECD-report shows that “only” 8 percent of all humans on the Swedish labour market runs the risk of being replaced by computers and robots. A study from 2015 of the reporting on the matter in Swedish media showed that “half of all jobs will be replaced” is however a frequent narrative that is retold over and over again in a way that has made it part of the public discourse on digitalization. In interviews with managers and employees in the research project Digitalized work and organizing (DAO) carried out in the Swedish steel industry during 2017, I and my colleagues heard this often: “you know, since the computers will replace the jobs…” or “I have heard that half of all jobs will disappear”.

So what was it that the young man asked about during the lecture?  Will computers and robots mean that half, or 8 percent, of us, could lie down and die? After all, we aren’t needed. The public discourse about job loss is connected to fear. To be or become unemployed means less income for the individual, but also the experience of not being needed, and of becoming a social outsider. Linn Spross, researcher and author, writes that unemployment all through the 20th century has been constructed in Swedish politics as one of the greatest threats against a well-functioning society and to the possibility for the individual to lead a meaningful life. Whereas Thorstein Veblen, in his book The Leisure Class from 1899, described not having a job as something to strive for, work today is associated with high status. Sociologist Roland Paulsen argues that work has gone from something people have to do, to an individual right, and a virtue. In a report from 2018, the Swedish think-tank Futurion shows that many people in Sweden are worried about the consequences of digitalization.

So what should the young man in that class room do with his worries about not being needed on the future labour market? Who is responsible? Who or what embody the threat against his role as a worker in tomorrow’s society? Is he to smash his smart phone, iPad or computer, like the Luddites of the English textile industry did in the early 1800’s, when the machines were about to take over their jobs? Will he stop scanning his food in the supermarket and refuse to pay his bills on-line? No, the report by Futurion show that those who see themselves as most vulnerable in relation to digitalization also run the largest risks of becoming attracted to populism. Instead of directing their anger against the app, the computer, or the robot, immigrants are accused of “taking our jobs”.

How the story of the consequences of the digitalization of the labour market is told is thus of greatest importance. It matters to the young man in the back of the class room, as well as to his friends, and it will impact how they see themselves and others in a changing of society with a new political climate.

We can dampen our worry by referring to the new jobs that currently emerge: some as a consequence of digitalization, some through the changing needs of society. How we define “the labour market” – what type of work is paid for or not – is also historically and culturally contextual. Some of the tasks that are performed in the labour market are both useful and meaningful, while others may be perceived as unnecessary and without purpose for those that perform them. Many people perform meaningful tasks and have a sense of belonging in the work place; others achieve this outside of the work place.

 But let us, for a moment, together with the young man from the class room, play with the idea that Osborne and Frey really were right, and that the need for human labour in society will decrease. How can we form a society where the need for human labour is decreasing but where the needs to be able to support oneself, to feel needed, and to lead a meaningful life remains?

Eva Lindell

The ‘materiality’ of digital information – what are we talking about? by Christoffer Andersson

One of Googles data centers in The Dalles, Oregon

One of Googles data centers in The Dalles, Oregon

In this text I will consider what it means to talk about the materiality of digital information. Does it make any sense to talk about the materiality of virtual objects and phenomena? And even if it makes sense, what can it help us understand about digital information?

As one may gather from the colloquial use of the term materiality, it is gesturing towards the physical world which is made up of things, objects and materials somehow. Materiality then, must be about the thingness of things, or the quality of things, the features of things, in some way. What first comes to mind is that we can describe the physical qualities and features of things — a bridge is made of steel girders with this and that tensile strength. While it is certainly the case that the physical and/or biological features of things and objects are important, it is not the mere fact that digital information actually has a physical presence that is interesting to me. Although, it is surely important for lots of reasons that, for example, digital information can be stored as states of transistors in an USB-flash drive instead of boxes upon boxes of punch cards.

Instead the features that is of most interest to me, as a researcher of social phenomena in organizations, is all of those that affect the ability of objects and things to make a difference in the world; how they affect change in organizations and reconfigure our practices. A useful word to use in this context and that capture this ability of affect change is dynamism.

Of course, the specific features that make things and objects dynamic in the world are wildly different depending on what type of thing we are talking about. Rocks in the forest are not very dynamic, not especially loaded with potential to affect the world. Computer programs and robots, on the other hand, may be very dynamic — loaded with potential to change events and processes. What then is it about digital information that produces a different kind of materiality and dynamism than is present (or not present) in rocks?

Paul Dourish and Melissa Mazmanian have written about the various ways in which the theme of the materiality of information has been treated in social research and they identify different types of conceptualizations that has been used. First off, scholars have for a long time investigated the ways in which things and objects carry cultural meaning, symbolic value and do important cultural work. This pertains to the use of digital things as well. Think of all the fuss about what it says about a person if one uses Apple products or not, Linux as an operating system or not, Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer. Digital things, like ‘regular’ things, carry cultural importance

Another way is how information systems of various kinds are woven into space; the internet connections in our homes, the cell-phone towers looming tall over desolate forests, and how these infrastructures affect our experiences of those spaces. The availability of certain infrastructures that enable the transmission and propagation of digital information increasingly contextualizes our experience. Think of the annoyance of a shoddy internet connection, or how cellular coverage or not can determine property prices in rural areas.

The third way that Dourish and Mazmanian present is the concern scholars have had with the material conditions of information technology production. There are of course production factors to consider even for digital things. Not just the labour conditions in the factories, or the open wounds on the earth and societal toll that mining of rare earth elements needed for our favorite products create. Also, as Lucia mentioned in her post, the labour that is needed to train algorithms to distinguish a small child from another feature of the road for self-driving cars or to prevent users from viewing graphic violence or pornography on Facebook. Underpinning such algorithms are countless hours of human labour in order to create the data sets needed for so called ‘machine learning’ to be possible in the first place.

The final way they describe is the materiality of information representation. What does an obtuse turn of phrase like that even mean, one might ask? Well, it turns out that the way information is represented is a key aspect of organizational practices for example. The particular form that information takes shape which questions we can ask of it, the kinds of manipulations and analysis it supports and how it can be used to shape our understanding of the world. It matters if information is stored in a relational database or as a scrambled mess of discrete files if we are to extract information in a structured way. It matters if we use visualizations, numbers or text and it matters which format each of these takes.

This last point is what is of most interest to me in my research of automatization in white collar work. It transpires that the materiality of information representation has a lot to do with how flexible organizational processes can be — if algorithms are to be deployed then their materiality matters. That is to say, there are properties and features of algorithms as representations that constrain, enable and shape the way information can be put to use, transmitted, acted on and, importantly, its dynamism. Therefore, specific configurations and forms of algorithms – how they are figured and how they are deployed — really matters.

So, when one talks about the materiality of digital information, one can refer to all of these aspects, and all of these aspects are important to understand if one is interested in how digital technology affect management and organizational practice. Depending on the particular thing or object, some aspects may be more important than others. But materiality is certainly important even when talking about digital information, even though the virtual might seem like the opposite of material.

 Christoffer Andersson, Phd candidate

Technology can destroy your business by Christoffer Andersson

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A short-term personal loans provider in the UK was doing brisk business and enjoying steady growth until late 2017. The firm provided personal loans through self-employed agents who worked door-to-door across some of the poorer areas of the North. The company was low-tech, agents carried their own note books for keeping track of loans and payments. Each agent had their own geographical patch and knew their customers personally. The business was so successful that the owner was reputedly able to take out £40 million in profits over a decade.

In 2017, with the intention of increasing efficiency, the company took the step of introducing tablet computers and smart phones to replace the old note books. They also introduced automated job allocation and used routing software to direct agents to customers. To take best advantage of the newly adopted technology the company sought to increase workforce flexibility, to this end agents were offered full-time salaried contracts. However, things soon began to go wrong. Loans which previously were previously renewed by existing customers (existing payments were simply rolled-over into a new loan) declined dramatically. Customers began walking away at the end of their existing loan terms and agents, also unhappy with the new arrangements, followed suit. By the end of 2017 the company was in financial melt-down – losing 70% of its stock market value.

So, what went wrong? Well, in this case technology, re-structuring and failure to grasp at the highest level what it was that the company was actually providing, was the root cause. What the company had not realized was that their business rested on the success of the personal one-one relationships that the agents built with their customers. What the agents understood, and that the company’s management clearly did not, was that customers where not just buying money, they were buying a series of interconnected experiences.  I learned from an ex-consultant working with the firm prior to its re-structuring that this relationship, and the customer experience associated with it, was developed over-time through carefully managed face-to-face interactions. Consequently, customers borrowed money, not from a faceless corporation but from a person - ‘let’s call her Tracy’ my respondent suggested. One customer, she recounted, continually rolled over her loan, the smallest she could take out, not because she particularly needed the money, but as Tracy understood, because it provided regular social contact with another human being and was perhaps her only positive relationship with a ‘formal’ organization. The loan was a positive link with a world that otherwise had little interest in her. In other words, maintaining a loan gave her a more positive sense of self. For many customers the anticipation of another tranche of money ‘just around the corner’, money they would not otherwise have the discipline to save, was a brief escape from ‘just getting by’. This is no different, in form, of course, from the lure of upgrading your car when your existing car-lease payments are up. What Tracy was good at, in other words, was transforming the experience of a dept into a positive series of experiences – which included an evolving trust-based relationship. The company’s rationalization through technology destroyed both the customer’s and the agent’s positive experience of the engagement.

 With technological change came the opportunity to rationalize working practices. Loan managers, now as employees, could be dispatched more efficiently to customers using routing software and data captured electronically on tablets. As a consequence, the agents lost their geographical ‘patch’, had to drive longer distances, work longer hours and lost personal contact and all-important relationships with ‘their’ customers. From the customer’s perspective, unfamiliar faces, carrying company tablets and recording their conversations (a new requirement of the company enabled by the technology) were an unfamiliar and unwelcome set of experiences. These new employees were also themselves subject to stringently monitored performance targets which in turn encouraged agents to push customers to take on unsustainable personal dept, damaging both trust and reputation – customers quickly figured out these new agents were not their friends.

Whatever we make of the ethics of short-term loans, this particular business was damaged by technology choices that failed to account for what it was that the business was actually providing. The owners assumed, perhaps, that they were simply entering into contractual and financial relationships – relationships that could be adequately represented on a spreadsheet. With the introduction of technology, and with it new more efficient working practices, a crucial leg of the service that the company was actuallyproviding, personal contact and a carefully managed customer experience, was lost.

 So, the lesson here is that before engaging with technology that will alter working practices, however subtly, companies should be clear that they understand, not just ‘what business they are in’, but what it is that they presently deliver that their customer’s value – particularly if this sets them apart in the market.  Digital technology is good at monitoring, good at measuring performance against targets and good at reducing both customers and employees to data. What it is not so good at is building and maintaining relationships. At least, not yet.

Professor Chris Ivory

Intelligent and smart, but meaningful? by Christoffer Andersson

Engraving of the original mechanical turk, the 18th century “automaton” chess player.

Engraving of the original mechanical turk, the 18th century “automaton” chess player.

Digitalisation is often described as leading to a smart world and to intelligent optimisation. But what about the meaningfulness of technological solutions?

Many digital tools and systems are characterised as either intelligent or smart: artificial intelligence, intelligent personal assistant, smartphones, smart factories, smart cities, smart speakers, etc. Intelligent mainly means that these systems and tools can make rational calculations and optimise their responses, while smart mostly means that these systems and tools are connected to other tools and systems, enabling to perform and coordinate actions in new ways, at times without human intervention.

 To be acknowledged is that such a rational and systemic approach to technology is also complemented by increased attention to human and societal aspects of living with technology: artificial intelligence is being developed to include, for instance, emotional intelligence and smart cities are, at least partly, embedding normative values of sustainability. Increasingly ethical issues are being discussed too.

 Although promising, this is however not the same as asking critical questions regarding the meaningfulness of the technological solutions being developed.

 How comes we do not talk so much about meaningfulness? I suggest that this may be partly due to much of the debate being centred around the role of intelligent and smart tools and systems, often described as robots, when performing the same kind of activities humans do today. Will the robots replace human workers on the shop floor? Will the robots replace human managers? Will the robots make strategic decisions instead of CEOs? More seldom we hear discussions about what work is needed in order for the “robots” to be intelligent and smart. As Antonio Casilli in detail described in a keynote speech at the 16th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work in June, artificial intelligence needs to be trained, supported and sometimes replaced by human work. This is often done through micro-work performed in countries with weak labour rights legislations thanks to platforms as Amazon Mechanical Turk. Micro-work is about allocating small and repetitive tasks to non-specialised providers, when needed, at the very low remuneration and without any long-term commitment. Examples of such tasks are clicking on signs in a picture to train self-driving systems to recognise signs, or classifying pictures as pornographic or not. Even in more traditional industrial settings, as we have seen in a project on digitalisation in the Swedish steel industry, human workers are performing a lot of tasks that are about serving the machines: keeping an eye on screens of different kinds to make sure that the reality based on which the machine is working is really what is happening in the production line, or taking information from one machine and loading it into another machine. Rather than asking whether the robots will take our jobs we could therefore ask whether we really want humans to become servants for the robots. Would that be meaningful technology?

 Another issue related to the development and introduction of meaningful technology is that those developing technology often do not understand the everyday practices of those using the technology. Technology is always built around some sort of logics related to, among others, expectations about how the user would perform and experience a certain activity. But those designing the technology have often no first-hand experience of the users’ practices. We see, therefore, that logics built in the technology clashes with the user’s needs and habits. Whereas we all have experienced frustration in trying to fill in a digital form that does not make sense to us, such a clash may have more dramatic consequences when using the technology may save a life, as for instance in the case of gps-alarms for older people –  these tools are in fact at times not used because of their stigmatising effect and poor aesthetic appeal.  

 Striving for the development and introduction of meaningful digital technology should be a priority. In our research we want to foreground meaningfulness as an open question to be addressed. As our previous projects show, there are examples of meaningful use of technology that for instance results in shop floor workers collaborating in taking responsibility for part of the production system and rather autonomously handling its operations. To further advance our understanding of how to make technology meaningful I think we need to develop our vocabulary for taking into consideration how work practices and technology are related. But we can also already start to ask: is this meaningful? And for whom?

Lucia Crevani

Leadership and virtual teams – revived challenges by Christoffer Andersson


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One of the research projects we work with in the DigMa-program concerns leadership in virtual teams. Digital tools and virtual teams (i.e. teams where communication mainly is mediated through digital technologies) is, and has been for the last two decades, parts of the everyday practices for many people in the contemporary work place. As a leader, to manage teams and individuals at a geographical distance means other types of questions. How is trust created when people don’t meet physically? How is engagement during meetings created? How do we create cross-talk in the virtual work place? Where is the virtual coffee room?

 These questions are not new; they have been on the agenda since virtual work was first initiated and are well researched. However, the questions still need answers. Also today, people experience problems with creating equality in terms of relationships in the virtual meeting room; they experience frustration over the inadequate technical quality of digital tools; and they struggle to handle the possibilities and limitations that digital work practices entail. The use of camera in virtual meetings is one such example where we have seen that digital technology both enables and limits communication and interaction. A functioning camera can be experienced as a way to gain improved presence and an increased engagement in the meeting. On the other hand, some are reluctant to use the camera, which can be understood both as social and technical resistance. A camera that doesn’t work leads to frustration and an irregular flow of interaction. How leadership is done in these contexts is one of the questions that we take an interest in.

 One of the observations we have made is that digitalization entails a merging of the material and the social in virtual work, and analyzing one without including the other becomes difficult. Voices, cameras, messages, bodies, intentions, powerpoints, smiles, connections, agendas, languages, announcements, body language – all of this matters for how work and leadership in virtual teams are done. If we consider leadership in its simplest form to be about the creation of direction through interaction, we can observe how laptops, apps, social codes, humans and screens together create this direction. In the virtual meeting where the individual is a photo, a voice and/or a moving image, direction is created, or leadership done, together, in and by the material and the social. The camera, the documents, the humans and everything else that exist in the virtual work place, thus create and limit the space for leadership. We observe these challenges in our empirical material, which means that, despite that the challenges of leadership in virtual teams appear old, it is important to address them with new perspectives.

 Anna Uhlin, PhD candidate

 

The Myth of the objective algorithm by Christoffer Andersson

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We live in a time of rapid technological development, and in a time when the idea of ”digitalisation” raises all sorts of hopes about efficiency and precision; increased productivity and objective and rational decision making processes. Behind a lot of such digital technologies is a pre-programmed algorithm that is the key to improving processes and that moves work from subjective humans to objective machines that are not affected by circumstances in a way that disturbs and distorts the process. But is there really an objective algorithm?

An article in Wall Street Journal this week reported that most companies on the US Fortune 500-list use artificial intelligence (AI) in their recruitment processes. The technology is used to scan applications for key words, as a way to identify the most interesting candidates for specific jobs. The key words are connected to personality traits rather than to competences and skills, which means that there is a shift regarding how recruitment takes place, compared to if a human being had made a first scan.

That robots and AI are used to perform routine jobs with a certain degree of complexity is becoming more and more common. In Sweden, manufacturing industry has during the past 15 years undergone a strutural tranformation as production has been automized. At the moment, many public and private organisations are implementing RPA – Robot Process Automation – as a way to make white collar work more efficient, for example pay roll-work and financial reporting. The robots are here to stay.

But which consequences does the implementation of robots have, other than that routine based tasks are performed more efficiently?

A year ago, the social workers in the municipality of Kungsbacka in Sweden caught a lot of attention in media when a majority of them resigned in protest against the pre-programmed software that had been implemented in the organisation. The social workers argued that the algorithm in the software lead to wrong decisions, and that the task it was performing should be done by a human being. In the article in Wall Street Journal a researcher says that although the technology used to scan job-applications may help deal with a vast number of interesting applications for a position, it may also do more harm than good. This resembles the argument of Joy Boulamwini, the PhD-candidate at MIT and Algorithmic League-founder, who discovered when performing research on face recognition software that the technology did not recognize her face. After some time she realized why: she was a woman and black. The face recognition technology had been developed by white men, and the technology had thus only learned to recognize white, male faces – all other faces were “wrong”.

It thus seems as if algorithms are not as objective as we would like to think they are. In his book ”Our Robots. Ourselves. Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy” (2015) robotics researcher David Mindell argues that the myth that robots should be autonomous is unrealistic. Human intentions, ideas and assumptions are always built into machines, he argues. The creators of the machines are therefore ”technical ghosts in the machines” (s.102).

The interesting question is: which assumptions are built into the machines and the digital technologies that are developed now, and which the consequences of these assumptions? Do the algorithms mean that competent individuals have difficulties in finding a job because certain key words are missing in their applications, meaning that their applications do not pass the first step of a recruitment process? Do the algorithms construct humans of a certain sex or colour of skin as “abnormal”? There are many questions regarding the consequences of algorithms that could – and should – be asked.

I believe that technological development is good and exciting. But we also need to critically scrutinize the effect of new technology when it’s used and be attentive to what the consequences are. There is no objective algorithm – algorithms will always express, in some way or another, the (often unconscious) assumptions about the world of the individuals who developed them.

 Anette Hallin, Program director

Digital Transformation in the Public Sector – What can we Learn from the UK and Sweden by Christoffer Andersson

Digital transformation is viewed as a key modernizing force in both the public and private sectors and digital technologies are considered a key to efficiencies, competitiveness and innovation and transforming business operations, products/services, processes, organisational structures and management concepts.

Researchers have already established that organizational structures are related to the technologies employed by them. Moreover, there is a close relationship between technology, organisations and institutions. We compared the government approach to digital transformation in Sweden and the UK. We wanted to determine the focus of the transformation and the direction of the digital transformation – top-down or bottom up.

Why did we decide to compare Sweden and the UK?

The eGovernment Benchmark 2016 Insight report measured that the two countries are at different eGovernment maturity performance level which is determined by taking into account two indicators:

■ Penetration - the usage of online eGovernment services;

■ Digitisation - a public administration’s efficiency and effectiveness in internal procedures.

 Here are the differences between the two national contexts according to that report:

Sweden

Sweden is one of the leading nations in e-Government together with the other Nordic countries. Sweden is characterised by high penetration and digitisation of services. It is an exemplar of a successful process of innovation enabling the exploitation of opportunities offered by ICT. Sweden belongs to the 'Group 5' cluster together with other high income countries with small populations - highly educated and very much inclined to use banking services and e-commerce; well-developed infrastructures; high level of centralisation of services; and low perceived levels of public sector corruption.

UK

The UK is characterised by a high level of penetration in terms of internet use but a low-level of digitisation – automated services. According to the report above the UK is something of a laggard, it appears in group 2 together with other countries with the largest and aging populations with only European Union average level of education, infrastructure maturity and take-up of internet. Sweden, during the research period (2010-2017) was located in the progressive (for e-Government) cluster in 2012/2013 and had moved to the mature cluster in 2014/2015. Whereas the UK has not made any progress in terms of eGovernment maturity performance.

Our research explored the way digital transformation was planned and organised in the UK and Swedish governments. The comparative study led to some very interesting insights in terms of how the transformation was approached, the strategic intent and the related tasks, roles and structures planned by the two governments.

We found that the focus of digital transformation in 2012 was different in the UK and Sweden. Sweden’s digital transformation focused on internal processes and operations (back-end transformation) rather than on front-end transformation – services as in the UK. That was not a surprise considering the different level of e-Governement maturity.

As the digital transformation journey began late in the UK we could identify two distinct phases following one another. Phase 1 in 2012 focused on digital service re-design. The macro-drivers for this digital transformation were catching up with the private sector, increasing digital maturity (EU framework) and developing a service culture. New institutional arrangements, the establishment of the Government Digital Service, lead to change in roles and skills which then enabled the digitisation of services. Phase 2 in 2017 focused on transforming back-end operations and internal processes, bottom-up (digital technology and services have affected organisational structure, roles and skills). Therefore the alignment of technology and organisational structure is a process driven by macro and micro- forces.

In the Swedish context digital transformation of services was mostly completed prior to the issue of the 2012 strategy. The higher level of maturity of digital government was reflected in the focus on processes and coordination at that time. The emphasis was on the bottom-up direction of digital transformation. Organisational structures emerged as a result of micro drivers - technology.

Looking at the Digital strategies of the two countries has enabled us to conclude that higher level of digital maturity is demonstrated in the dominance of micro-drivers for digital transformation. eGovernement maturity is underpinned by popularity of bottom-up processes of digital transformation and technology being the main drivers of technology and organisational structure alignment in digital transformation of the public sector. These insights can assist managers in planning, assessment and evaluation of digital transformation programmes.

 Irina Popova, Research Fellow, UK

Based on a paper submitted to the 18th European Conference on Digital Government, 25th - 26th October 2018, Spain

Digitalization - fad or fundamental change? (And why does it matter?) by Christoffer Andersson

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“Digitalization”. Isn’t that a word that keeps popping up everywhere nowadays? Some of you – maybe those of you who were born in the previous millennium – may wonder what is new. After all, computers have been around for a while and information has also been transferred and stored digitally for some time. And many of us have had access to internet and other digital networks since the mid 1990s. So what’s new? Is digitalization a fad or a fundamental change?

The answer is: both.

It is true that in combination with the increase in speed and scale when it comes to transferring data digitally, the development of digital technologies makes possible all sorts of products and services, that may be used in all sorts of contexts. The newness of digitalization today thus lies in the scale, scope and speed of the technologies and the infrastructure that are needed for the technologies to be used, rather than in the technologies themselves. What we see today when it comes to digital innovations are in fact primarily combinations of already existing technologies that, because they are combined in innovative ways, used for new purposes in new settings, feel new. In this sense, the talk about digitalization may be said to be a fad.

However, it just because digitalization builds on combining general purpose technologies such as the computer and various networks through which information may be transmitted, that fundamental change is taking place. And this change affects us all, since it takes place on several levels simultaneously.

On an individual level, our ways of doing things in daily life – both as private individuals and as employees – change when we start using digital technologies. Digitalization also changes the way we interact with other people and the way communication takes place, as the rules and norms for social interaction change. To master the genres of e-mail, chat and social media, for example, has become crucial, in order not to be misunderstood or create a false impression. And instead of watching the news chosen by and presented to us by a news channel that may be trusted, we are faced daily with a wide range of claims about what is going on in the world, from all sorts of senders, making it difficult to tell which news are fake and which are real. 

On an organizational level, digitalization makes certain jobs redundant, as well as creates the need for new roles. Heavy, manual labour may be performed by robots instead of by humans, but the implementation of digital technologies also requires system technicians and experts on digital technology in teams and organizations that have previously relied on the IT-department, or the company to which these services have been outsourced. The digitalization of organizations makes it possible for people to work from anywhere, affecting management and leadership, and the possibilities and challenges that comes with digitalization requires leaders to rethink company strategy and their position in the value-change of their industry.

On a societal level, digitalization changes the business landscape as new business models emerge (think AirBnB and Uber), and as the behaviours of consumers and citizens change. New technologies making it possible to collect, store and analyse data about consumers and citizens opens up new possibilities for marketing and activities by various interest groups. It also makes it possible to trace the spread of diseases and terrorist activity while at the same time increasing the possibilities of surveillance in a way that may be compromising the personal integrity of individuals.

The examples given here are only a few in an endless range of possible ones.

The digital development is seductive and for those of us that are fascinated by technologies like drones, self-driving cars and lorries, robots performing precision tasks of surgery, humanoids that help with household shores, and robot cats that cheer up people with dementia. For those of us that are not tech-freaks, the development may come across as frightning and worrying.

Regardless in which ways digitalization is a fad and in which ways it causes fundamental change, the development of it needs to be studied and problematized. This is our task as researchers.

The creators of this blog are researchers who aim at developing an understanding of the effects and inner workings of digitalisation and in this blog we will keep you updated about our work.

It is our task as researchers to study, reflect upon and problematize past and current development in order to develop knowledge that may be used by policy makers, companies as well as citizens to create the future we want.

Welcome to join us on your journey!

 

Anette Hallin

Program director