Published on 18 February 2019
Research

Professor of management sciences, member of the RITM Laboratory (University of Paris-Sud), researcher in information systems management, Aurélie Dudézert reveals the critical issues of the digital transformation of companies.

 

This article is based on the book "La transformation digitale des entreprises" published in the "Repères" series of La Découverte editions.

 

Since 2013, companies have been engaged in what they call digital transformation. This is experienced as a global process of transformation of the company which should lead to reviewing its methods of collaboration with customers, its internal work processes and sometimes even its business model. These transformations are presented as necessary to adapt to changes external to the company (ubiquitous, Factory 4.0, etc.).

The organization of work is in turmoil

In terms of work organization, digital transformation is linked to the introduction of information technologies (smartphones, tablets, apps, connected objects, chatbots, social networks, home automation assistants, etc.) in the company. These have three characteristics:

- They are within reach of all of us. Although their operation is often very sophisticated, these technologies have been designed to be easy to use.

- These technologies manage information flows that were not previously taken into account (on our knowledge, tastes, emotions, relationships, physical data, gestures, voice, etc.)

- While the information technologies used until now in companies were implemented to support the management of work processes formalized by the organization and the hierarchical line, digital technologies support information flows focused on direct interactions between individuals.

These technologies put in the hands of employees offer them greater autonomy and freedom of action. By mobilizing them, employees can be more responsive, creative and innovative and thus better meet customer needs. Paradoxically, these digital tools also increase the company's ability to control the employee by allowing it to collect and process more precise or even intrusive data. The introduction of these technologies thus calls into question the autonomy/control relationship established between the employee and the company in the classic Taylorian doctrine of command and control.

To support these changes in work organisation and take advantage of these new opportunities, major French companies have in recent years implemented internal digital transformation programmes. Projects have been launched using significant technical and human resources. Between group programmes (specific training plans, certification of the development of digital skills, characterisation of "digital" skills in business reference systems, etc.) and experimental DIY, a profusion of experiences and practices has emerged in a few years.

After this period of transformation and mutation of work organization, what challenges are these large companies facing today?

Three critical issues

In my opinion, there are three particularly critical points today:

1.Integrating the new work supervision practices developed with digital transformation into the organization's standard.

With digital transformation, some local managers have implemented new ways of supervising work. They have gradually affirmed a practice of work supervision that is less centred on command and control than on a relationship of collaboration and trust with the employee. They consider that the command and control management methods are unproductive, infantilizing and out of step with the reality of the level of the employees hired. They have difficulty accepting the tension between the management methods they currently implement in their teams and the constraints exercised by their own hierarchies structured around command and control.

2. Reconciling the enhancement of creative and autonomous skills with the commitment of employees to the collective project.

Digital transformation practices have led to an overemphasis on employees' creative and autonomous skills. The speeches of company managers, recruiters and human resources managers urged employees to use the potential offered by digital technologies to unleash their creativity and put it at the service of the company. At the same time, the practices have led to a new form of autonomy for the employee, who now has all the necessary knowledge at his fingertips. The difficulty that quickly emerged was how to reconcile the development of this type of skills with engagement in the collective project. This gap between the enhancement of creativity and autonomy and engagement in the company's collective project already existed before these digital transformation projects, but these approaches have further accentuated the problem.

3. Getting out of the fantasies surrounding big data and AI technologies.

Rapidly, large companies have shown a strong enthusiasm for the opportunities offered by the technical capabilities to develop and process the mass of data generated by their employees. Some have begun to experiment with uses, particularly HR data.

However, these projects have shown that the understanding of these technologies is, in many cases, fantasized and far from the technical reality. The myths of the determination of the efficient organization of work by technology (or technofany: technologies will solve all the problems on their own) or technophobia (technologies are alienating, Man at work will disappear) too often structure the approaches implemented without looking at the reality of these technical objects.

Research in information systems management since the 1980s has largely shown that information technologies are not magical or rational. They do not provide turnkey solutions to create efficient work organisation. They are simply machines and programs designed by human beings who have a particular vision of collective action and its effectiveness.

The digital transformation raises fears of the progressive replacement of Man by the machine. Wichy/Shutterstock

Other visions are possible. Nor do technologies oppose humans in the workplace. Employees only use technologies that are in line with their business actions. Introducing technology only fundamentally changes work practice if the objectives of the job change. In the opposite case, the actors suffer the technology but play with it and misuse it to be able to do their job properly according to existing objectives.

Digital transformation as a revelation of paradoxes

Many companies that have implemented these digital transformation programs have not anticipated the profound implications of their implementation on work organization. They considered that it was merely a simple adaptation of working practices to new tools, offering new opportunities for efficiency.

The deployment of these digital technologies within organizations has highlighted paradoxes in the organization of work that existed before the digital transformation but which are now very marked.

Faced with this situation, will these companies choose to turn back and make these projects a simple aside in favour of a vigorous return to Taylorian command and control? Or will they take the risk of undertaking a major overhaul to create new and innovative models of work organisation? In any case, it will be their choice and not a necessity linked to a changing environment.

The original version of this article was published in French on The Conversation