Digitalization – serious monkey business

Clemens Lutsch

Imagine that you are chosen to handle digitalization for your company. Of course, you hear the talk of heads of politics and business ringing in your ear. You have quite possibly already visited trade shows loudly promising digital transformation and industry 4.0, but delivering very little on the matter. What’s the reason for this letdown? Is digitalization an empty word, a bubble filled with hot air? Is it just monkey business?

The monkey business of digitalization

What has gotten into the author? Google Trends clearly shows that digitalization is a hot topic!

„Digitalisierung“ in Google Trends (D) over the last five years. [Google is a trademark or registered trademark of Google Inc. in the US and/or other countries.]

What we’re witnessing is a black box trending. What people are searching for is as varied as their understanding of digitalization. The term lacks a common definition, taking different shapes depending on what advocacy group, application domain or industry is using it.

We’ve all got a gut feeling what digitalization is about. But the exact focus, the separation from other IT topics, the unique aspects of digitalization are hard to pinpoint. Still the topic is at the top of the agenda and we have to get started. So we visit futurology conventions, read books with trustworthy titles containing “4.0”, start a digitalization committee and leaf through trade magazines. All of which doesn’t clarify how digitalization applies to our day-to-day work. It is no surprise then that Bernhard Rohleder, CEO of German IT trade organization Bitkom, exhorted that half of all German businesses still have “No real digital strategy” (see german article on Heise) leading up to the 2016 German national IT summit.

Three quick apps or one good plan?

Despite all this monkey business – can we grasp this intangible topic? Let’s use the brochure „Zukunftschance Digitalisierung“ (digitalization – future opportunity) from the German Ministry for Economic Affairs: „Modern information and communication technologies facilitate many work processes. New digital technologies turn classic production flows and business processes upside down.” OK – well, we can work with this. The quote contains surprisingly solid hints even if it seems as nebulous as most other statements on the digital transformation process.

For the reorganization of complete “production flows and business processes” digitalization is not a new close combat technique for modern businesses (or aspiring-to-be-modern businesses) but a transformation process that holistically covers all aspects of work. Please note that it covers actual work, not technology, apps or sensors. Those are only pretexts to think about cool apps instead of the apps’ actual purpose.

Proceeding with digital transformation for digital transformation’s sake really is monkey business, as alluded to in the beginning. Nothing is changed (for the better) by building an app, by meshing systems, by automation or by IT-based process optimization without knowing why.

Understanding digital transformation

The real business of digitalization is about new ways of understanding context and improving results through new methods and processes.

This sounds like work – isn’t digitalization supposed to reduce work? The answer is yes – and no. Yes, it’s more work. Digitalization means living through a complex process of change management that overthrows outdated models of work, old content, roles and technologies. And no, digitalization changes work – hopefully for the better, so that the change management results in a leaner, more powerful and humane company with updated business models.

But what these business models will look like in detail is difficult to predict at the moment. There is a good deal of uncertainty about the role of people inside the construct of digitalization. And without a catch-all solution (“Just do big data”) we’ll have to work and fight our way into the topic. We could proceed data-driven and let the mass of data and information guide our actions. Or we can remember the people at the heart of all this activity. Digital transformation is not an end in itself.

Multi-faceted transformation processes



Human Resource Management

  • Assistance systems
  • Human-robot collaboration
  • Human-machine interface design
  • Usability
  • Latitude for actions and decisions
  • Task design and task diversity
  • Information requirements and information supply
  • Qualification and expertise
  • Enabling and responsibility
  • Visionary product and process design
  • Learnable design for technology
  • Organizing authority and responsibility
  • Locating decision capabilities
  • Introduction of systems
  • Learnable process design
  • Developing expertise and human ressources accoding to technology and innovation
  • Interpersonal processes and communication
  • Cross-location and cross-business processes and value creation
  • Technological ressource flexibility
  • Person-based privacy and personal rights
  • Flexible working hours
  • HR strategy and management
  • Skilled labour availability
  • Demographic change
  • Adapting education and training

Activity spheres for humane work design in Industry 4.0 (Source: DEUTSCHE NORMUNGS-ROADMAP Industrie 4.0)

As the above table shows, we have to understand digitalization in Industry 4.0 as a collaborative, coordinated activity of technology, organization and human resource management. This means that one-sided actions put stress on the other facets of digitalization. For example, investing too much in new technology without regard for necessary adjustments in organizational issues and employee qualification, maintaining success would be unlikely.

In further articles we want to highlight the various domains affected by a holistic digitalization strategy.

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