Opinions - 02.02.2016 - 00:00 

Digital work: evolution or revolution

The digitalisation of work is triggering off new and sometimes radical changes. Information Management Professor Jan Marco Leimeister shows what we can – or have to – do in order to counter these changes and, at the same time, to exploit the opportunities they offer.


29 January 2016. Our lives are being influenced by digital technologies to an ever stronger extent. Digitalisation is changing our society, our economy and our lives with unprecedented speed – and thus also the way in which we organise work and in which enterprises organise their working and production processes. By now, we are unable to conceive of the performance of any activities without the support of digital technologies.

Digital work in all industries

What is much more impressive, however, is the fact that today, a great number of activities are inconceivable or unfeasible without digital technologies. In the latter case, we are speaking of digital work, by which we understand all target-oriented activities for the production of services or goods with the significant aid of digital tools. Digital work is carried out in virtually all industries and areas and paves the way to the exploitation of great potentials with regard to flexibilisation and the optimisation of processes and costs. Thus in times of high demand, for instance, companies are able to make use of digital technologies to specifically access external resources in order to benefit from the skills and knowledge of such external actors.

Leading software companies such as IBM and Microsoft already systematically outsource jobs to internet-based platforms in order to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of their IT development processes. From an entrepreneurial perspective, the creation of values is thus shifted from classic make-or-buy decisions to the management and integration of globally distributed resources. This makes clear that the digitalisation of work is the trigger and companion of new and sometimes radical changes. Yet what can – or must – we do to counter these changes and, at the same time, exploit the opportunities they offer?

Step 1: "Understanding" the significance of the digitalisation of work

First of all, we have to understand the far-reaching implications of digitalisation. Above all, information and communication technologies (ICTs) open up new degrees of freedom with regard to the planning, control and monitoring of working processes: for instance, companies are able to control working processes in real time, access the internet and social media for specific projects and task purposes or produce goods and services in various locations, in a mobile way and independent of time. This is only possible because ICTs allow for (parts of) tasks to be dismantled, distributed, parallelised and standardised and, subsequently, to be aggregated.

Another option is the partial automation of working processes, which leads to a situation whereby both people and machines are necessary for the production of goods and services. Another thing that is not to be scoffed at in this context is constituted by the developments concerning artificial intelligence and the possibility of machines being "able to learn", which means that working processes cannot merely be partially, but fully automated. It is becoming apparent that digital technologies will pervade companies’ production processes to an increasingly high degree. A much more important insight in this connection, however, is the fact that such developments entail completely new forms of work organisation. So-called "crowd work" is a case in point, where companies outsource tasks to an undefined crowd of potential participants – the "crowd" or "crowd workers" – through the internet. However, companies will first have to learn to deal with such digital forms of work and to be able to understand the potentials they give rise to.

Step 2: "Leveraging" the opportunities of digital work

Digital forms of work organisation such as crowd work allow for impressive results. They range from very fast services (such as the translation of a complex text in only a few hours) and unprecedented products and services (such as the cartography of planets, the development of software and systems or the creation of knowledge bases like Wikipedia) to solutions to academically or societally relevant questions (such as the mapping of complex protein structures).

For companies, the digitalisation of work offers wide-ranging opportunities, among them faster development cycles through interlinkage with globally distributed competencies, more flexible organisation structures through cooperating and networking within the value-creation chain, the emergence of new business areas such as cloud computing and analytics in the context of the Watson technology, etc. Employees are equally able to profit from digitalisation. A higher degree of self-determination and flexibility is generated, for example, by the possibility of receiving work orders through the internet from all over the world and of establishing working hours, workload and functions flexibly according to personal requirements. In this way, digitalisation also provides employees with access to new industries and occupations.

Step 3: "Adapting" production processes, working concepts and occupational profiles

It is in the nature of digitalisation that it is accompanied by various challenges. Elaborate measures for the creation of appropriate incentive structures for (globally) distributed employees, the danger of a drain of in-house know-how or the inadequacy of current control and monitoring mechanisms for the management of interactive value-creation chains are cases in point. This means that enterprises are facing the challenge of rethinking their working processes – pressure is constantly growing along these lines, particularly because local companies do not only compete with their geographical neighbours but with global competitors. Standardisation and automation may lead to a polarisation of activities on the part of employees: demand for both repetitive, less complex digital work and – in contrast – highly specialised, knowledge-intensive and managerial work may increase, whereas tasks of medium difficulty may decrease. In this situation, employees can either "hyperspecialise" in certain areas or be engaged in management. Ultimately, this will also result in new occupational profiles, which will sooner or later necessitate adaptations with regard to vocational and educational training.

There is, then, the necessity to prepare people for these changes and to accompany them on the way. This is imperative, however, to ensure that "good rules" are established for the digital work of the future and to lay the foundations for competitive and socially desirable concepts. No matter whether we regard the digitalisation of work as an evolution or a revolution: it is necessary in both scenarios to rethink old structures and adapt to new challenges – particularly against the background of the fact that changes in the world of work are inevitable and that we should be ready to identify and help to shape them early on.

Picture: / denisismagilov

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