Digitalization - fad or fundemental change?

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“Digitalization” is a word that keeps popping up everywhere nowadays. Some of you – perhaps those of you who were born in the last millennium – may wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, computers have been around for over half a century and information has been transferred and stored digitally for decades. Add to this the fact that many of us have had access to the internet and other digital networks since the mid-1990s and it could be said that digitalization is another fad rather than the fundamental change some commentators would have us believe.

In my view, it is both. Digitalization is a fad and a fundamental change.

Digitalization is such a hot topic today because of the myriad possibilities it promises. The difference today is that technology can now be deployed on a global scale, transferring huge volumes of data at incredible speeds. There is infinite potential for new and innovative ways in which our personal, social and working lives might be revolutionised as a result. However, it is advances in infrastructure rather than digital technologies themselves that are powering this new wave of digitalization. The digital innovations we see today are in-fact primarily combinations of already existing technologies. Crucially, it is the enhanced infrastructure that is facilitating the kinds of innovation we read and hear about almost daily. Technology allied to optimal infrastructure can be used for new purposes in new settings many of which promise to revolutionise everyone’s day to day. All of this means it feels new because the change visibly affects us all, on several levels.

In this sense, the tone and content of digitalization reporting may therefore be said to be  faddish in the sense that the concept is suddenly enjoying a short period in the spotlight, discussed by all.

As individuals, whether in our personal lives or as employees, we experience significant change when we start using digital technologies. Digitalization changes the way we interact and communicate with others. The rules, conventions and norms of social interactions have evolved as a result of new communication channels. Mastering 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. This same explosion in media affects us in many other ways. For example, we traditionally tended to watch the news chosen by and presented to us by a news channel that we trusted to filter and verify pertinent facts. Nowadays we are faced with an overwhelming variety of news sources. This bewildering range of media outlets make it difficult for us to understand what is ‘fake news’, what is real, and which source best presents a truly independent array of facts. 

On an organizational level, digitalization makes certain jobs redundant, at the same time creating the need for new roles. Heavy, manual labour tasks may be more efficiently performed by robots instead of by humans, but the implementation of digital technologies also requires systems technicians and subject matter experts to be organised in new functions where businesses previously relied on the IT-department, or on third parties to whom these services have been outsourced.

More fundamentally, the digitalization of organizations also makes it possible for people to work from anywhere. This affects infrastructure requirements reducing the need for large static head offices for example. At the same time the practice of management and leadership may require significant rethinking if the physical presence of employees is no longer a pre-requisite. Beyond this, the possibilities and challenges that comes with digitalization requires leaders to rethink company strategy, questioning their position in the value chain of their industry. The impact that Uber and Lyft had on the taxi industry is a well-known example of how an industry can be revolutionised by digitalisation.

On a societal level, digitalization changes the business landscape as new business models emerge (think AirBnB and Uber), and as the behaviours and expectations of consumers and citizens rapidly evolve. New technologies making it possible to collect, store and analyse data about consumers and citizens opens up new possibilities for targeted marketing and other activities by a range of interest groups. It also promises benefits on a global scale. It is for example possible to trace the spread of worldwide phenomenon such as disease or terrorist activity allowing targeted and incisive responses that were previously not possible. Equally possible, the same infrastructure can create a surveillance system that could compromise the freedoms and information integrity of all of us. It is clear that the possibilities are endless, encompassing everything from the universally beneficial to the morally repugnant.

The idea of a world enhanced by constant digital development is seductive for those of us that are fascinated by technology. Drones dropping emergency medical packages at remote dwellings, self-driving vehicles eradicating accidents, robots performing precision surgical tasks, ‘humanoids’ helping with household chores and even robot cats that bring a little fun into the lives of dementia sufferers are all undoubtedly positive possibilities for the future. But for those of us that are not so enamoured by technology, such developments may come across as rather frightening.

Regardless of whether digitalization creates faddish or fundamental change, it seems to me that its development must be studied and problematized. The Digma programme (of which I am Programme Director) is tasked with researching, reflecting upon and problematizing past and current developments in order to develop knowledge that may be used by policy makers, companies and citizens to create the future we want. The blog team are researchers who aim to develop an understanding of the effects and inner workings of digitalisation and via this website and blog section we aim to keep you updated, sharing our points of view and research findings.

We’re glad to welcome you on our journey!