Myth of digitalisation – reasons for not happening


“The digital transformation is not happening.” This finding applies to many areas. It means that while digital tools are being introduced for individual practices or services are being offered in a new digital form, more than 80% of the potential that has already been recognised today and successfully leveraged elsewhere is being ignored.

The fact that the digital transformation has not yet taken place is often explained by resistance, for which a wide variety of fears and the fundamental human unwillingness to change are cited as reasons. But this standard explanation falls short. For one thing, very few know and understand the transformation practices. Concrete options are not recognised, suppressed or not thought through consistently. Often, there is even a perverse and self-contradictory belief that complexity must be reduced, while at the same time everyone must be taken along. (It is correct to respect complexity in its entirety, but to make it manageable in implementation with specific practices from technical to project management) On the other hand, for many people the transformation projects do not appear trustworthy. There is an all too obvious lack of desire to improve the world and solve a concrete problem of people. The perception has spread among the public that all serious thinkers are negative about digitalisation and that real idealism – whether shared or rejected – takes place in the non-digital realm, using digital media at best. Idealists who advocate digitalisation mostly argue in one way or another in a totalitarian way, for example by striving for eternal life (which, according to the current state of cosmology, is only conceivable outside the universe).

The real obstacle to digitisation is therefore that, firstly, problems are far too seldom discussed, secondly, digitisation is even less often linked to problems, so that thirdly, there is almost no sense of urgency

QUESTION: When was the last time you experienced a discourse a.) that dealt with a substantial problem of human beings, b.) for whose existence there is high evidence and c.) that could be significantly improved by digital solutions in the short to medium term? If you can (hopefully) think of such a discourse, it probably took place in a special workshop, at a private event with curious people or in a special print product. It is rarer to find such discourses in the feuilleton of German-language newspapers, for example. (Some time ago I was allowed to give an interview to the feuilleton of the Wiener Zeitung on the topic of optimal choice of therapy that takes into account the particularities of patients) Of course, there is a lot of talk about digitalisation – dystopian, utopian, or weighing in the sense of “it’s been around for a long time” or “it won’t happen for a long time yet” – but usually there is no reference to the problem. If it is established at some point – for example, because actors want money – then the defensive struggle begins.

It is preferably directed against the existence of the problem or its solvability, or it builds up threatening backdrops, for example by inflating diffuse threats through data misuse to such an extent that there is no more room in people’s thinking for reflection on the problems being discussed. The real obstacle to digitisation is that, firstly, problems are discussed far too rarely, secondly, digitisation is even less often linked to problems, so that, thirdly, there is almost no sense of urgency. The lack of linkage has a lot to do with a lack of knowledge and know-how. The transformation practices are much less known than the technical aspects and project practices. And even where they are known, applying them in a concrete context proves difficult if one does not have both: knowledge of good practices from other contexts and enough curiosity to understand the context very broadly and in depth. It is interesting that the barriers to digitalisation in the public sector and in the private sector are very similar. Interestingly, we can observe them in the inter-institutional context, respectively at the system level, as well as within organisations.

In organisations, common, shared problems are rarely seen as an asset (which they could be) and are kept quiet for a variety of reasons. Bringing problems and digital solutions together, which would be the task of a CDO, is usually not an established practice and therefore takes place erratically at best. And digitisation projects are often communicated as a combination of highly abstract considerations and trivial examples, with the interests of individuals often shining through. In addition, there are many practices that are not only ethically questionable, but also harmful. So no one need be surprised that progress is very slow. If there is no “job to be digitally done” and the willingness to implement it in a comprehensively competent manner is lacking, major progress cannot be expected. The end result is that some have still not implemented what others tried out experimentally 20 years ago and have been practising regularly for 15 years.

If one also wants to create sufficient preconditions, one must invest even more in people.

In the private sector, companies eventually go under because of such failures. This can take a long time if you have exceptional products, protectionist protection or close relationships with customers – and many a company survives anyway thanks to a late but consistent orientation towards digitalisation. But away from niches offering very simple, very personal or even very complex services, companies practically cannot survive more than a decade behind. In public administration, on the other hand, non-digitisation has become a chronic system characteristic in some countries, which is gladly supported by a digitisation façade. In extreme cases, some countries/regions/cities have their own processes and also offices for digitisation, whose owners are consistently bullied: Overwork, outdated IT strategies and terrorising demands for compliance illustrate how low the democratic maturity of these supposed showcase democracies is.

Sometimes even citizen participation is used to make the façade of the administration “colourful”. However, it is not yet clear whether this can lead to a reorientation of the administration internally towards solving the problems of the inhabitants. What is good is that the core of promising action strategies to accelerate the digital transformation is obvious: the linking of problems with digital transformation practices must be pushed forward. Since this is 80% the task of the management cadres, their further training is a necessary, if not sufficient, measure. They need to understand what is possible, they need to be able to design projects, and they need to know what will facilitate the success of the implementation. If you want to create sufficient conditions, you have to invest even more in people. The last decades of digitalisation have taught us that digitalisation in a business context almost always depends on very few people. It needs assertive visionaries and it needs decision-makers’ networks that promote take-up by others. Individual top people who are also top-networked, plus in-depth knowledge among all senior executives, accelerate the digital transformation and make it more sustainable.

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AUTHOR: Christopher P. Lueg

Christopher Lueg is a professor at the University of Illinois. Before that, he was a professor of medical informatics at BFH Technik & Informatik. He has made it his mission to rid the world of bad user interfaces. He has taught Human Centered Design and Interaction Design for more than a decade at universities in Switzerland, Australia and the USA

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