Same but different: when comparable organisations react differently to the same technology
The argument sounded obvious when the Government decided to equip 50,000 homecare workers, homecare nurses as well as social and healthcare workers with mobile units, as the implementation of mobile technology would enable employees to carry out their duties much more efficiently in the future, thus lifting the standards of homecare. Around DKK 317 million was allocated to help the municipalities digitalise their operations.
However, the argument would later turn out to be somewhat simplified. Granted, mobile technology soon became a very efficient communications tool, which both improved documentation and time-optimised processes in one municipality, while in another, the solution had to be discarded because of a poor technological solution and resistance from employees. The implementation of mobile technology was eventually successful, but only once it was reattempted several years later.
This example is from a new study titled: ‘Same but Different: Variations in Reactions to Digital Transformation Within an Organizational Field’ by CBS researcher Tina Blegind Jensen in collaboration with her research colleagues, Associate Professor Mette Strange Noesgaard, Professor Jeppe Agger Nielsen and Professor Lars Mathiassen, and published in the renowned Journal of the Association of Information Systems.
By way of a qualitative study over a period of eighteen years, the researchers have followed the implementation of a digital solution in three municipalities, where by way of 60 interviews with frontline workers and leaders they have generated an understanding of how and why organisations react very differently to the same technology.
“Organisations and companies tend to be easily influenced when it comes to digital solutions. Perhaps they have seen that one solution works really well in the neighbouring municipality or in a rival company, and they wish to see the same results in their own organisation. This is why it was interesting to make a comparative case study to see whether the same technology in the same type of organisation also develops in the same way,” Tina Blegind Jensen explains
And the conclusion is clear: over time, the same technology generates highly different reactions across comparable organisations in terms of strategy, use and view on technology.
“It was the same type of organising, the same type of users – that is, homecare workers – and the same type of tasks that the technology was supposed to support. Yet, the reactions were very different,” the researcher elaborates.
Digital transformations affect organisations like a virus
You may wonder why comparable organisations that introduce the same digital technologies react so differently. However, understanding why becomes easier if you think of digitalisation as a virus that has infected the municipalities and spread across the various units of homecare.
And that was exactly what the researchers behind the study did. Taking its point of departure in the virus theory, developed by the Norwegian Professor, Kjell Arne Røvik, who has pointed out that management ideas can be analysed like viruses, the study shows how three municipalities reacted differently to the idea of using mobile technology. The mobile technology can be considered a virus that infects its host, which then results in various reaction patterns in terms of immunity, incubation, replication, mutation and/or dormancy.
|Organizational reaction patterns
|Infection, replication, and mutation as the organization initially implemented a control-based regime and later morphed it with a trust-based regime.
|Infection, immunity, and dormancy as the organization abandoned and later revitalized the digital transformation initiative.
|Infection, incubation, and replication as the organization slowly matured and adapted the digital transformation initiative.
|Dominating strategic directions
|Improve documentation and time management.
|Take advantage of available government sponsorship with unclear strategic direction.
|Improve reputation and knowledge sharing.
|Initiative replicated initial strategic direction of a control-based regime but later mutated into another direction
|Initiative created strong immune reactions that resulted in inactivation at first, followed by reactivation at a later stage.
|Initiative went through a long incubation period, followed by gradual transformation.
|Effects on work practices
|New documentation practices with a tension between control-based and trust-based management approach.
|New work practices around mobility in homecare when the initiative was reborn after a long dormancy period.
|New communication and knowledge sharing practices gradually institutionalized over time.
This table shows reaction patterns in the three municipalities (here named Alpha, Beta and Gamma) in terms of Organizational Reaction patterns, Dominating strategic directions, Process activities and Effects on work practices. The table is included in the research article
“In much the same way that we humans may react very differently to being infected with, for example, the flu, the same is true of an organisation when it is ‘exposed’ to new digital technology. In one of the organisations, the mobile technology was used as a means to improve documentation practices among homecare workers, while in another organisation, it was used to create a new communications practice with the aim of knowledge sharing,” says Tina Blegind Jensen.
“Many organisations probably imagine that if only they do the same as everyone else who have completed a successful digital transformation, the results will be the same. However, our study shows that it is far from a given, and you need to carry this awareness with you before you jump on the bandwagon of some new technological trend.”
The technology and the organisation should be compatible, the researcher states and then continues to explain that some organisations tend to follow a hype and implement a new digital solution without properly understanding what they want to achieve or how the technology fits into their context.
“You always have to ask yourself what type of culture you are dealing with, what is shared values and what can technology add in terms of the goals you wish to achieve. In addition, you must figure out how the employees work together with the technology. This takes thorough preparation and a fundamental understanding of technology. And it places huge demands on leadership.”
According to Tina Blegind Jensen, not preparing properly can have any number of unwanted consequences for society in general and for individual organisations.
“First of all, you waste a lot of resources when digital transformations fail. So, if your organisation merely jumps on the bandwagon without having a clear idea about what they want to achieve, there is a real risk of making a bad investment.”
However, it can also have serious consequences for the individual organisation, the researcher emphasises.
“Once, you are infected – that is, when the technology has entered the organisation – it will remain an innate part of the organism,” says Tina Blegind Jensen, referring to the virus metaphor.
“The unsuccessful implementation lingers in the consciousness of the organisation in the shape of an underlying vexation, and it may well haunt both management and employees. The bad experience can become a problem, if, for example, the organisation should decide to try again at a later stage.”
Increased self-determination for municipalities can be a good idea
Currently, there are discussions about the Government’s plan to relieve municipalities across the country from unnecessary red tape and regulation.
Does your study support the idea of increasing municipal self-determination rather than imposing digital transformation on them?
“Having national, general directions is certainly sensible, but I am of the opinion that increased self-determination would also make sense, because the municipalities are familiar with their own practices, and they would be better placed to determine what they need to invest in,” is the researcher’s assessment.
Three pieces of sound advice from Tina Blegind Jensen
- Create your own agenda and strategic direction: Do not jump on the bandwagon of some technological trend simply because other organisations utilise it successfully. Knowing what you want from a given technology in terms of your own practice is important, and so is finding out whether or not the technology will support your needs.
- Follow the process continuously and accept unpredictability: Be aware that technological processes can develop in many unpredictable ways. Which is why following the process closely and continually to see how technology works in practice is important. Do employees even use it or are they merely engaging in workaround maneuvers? A digital transformation may lose momentum, but it can rise again with new energy at a later stage.
- Think technology and human in combination: We often talk about how technology can automate and standardise processes. But rather than thinking about all the things we can do with technology, we should think more about the interactivity between humans and technology. It is the interactivity that enables both technology and humans to become even better.