08 April 2020

The process of digitalisation, in its many different forms, of both working life and social interaction is now taking a huge leap forward. The transition is faster, broader and deeper than anyone could have imagined. How much of this will be permanent?

Ulf Melin in video call.
Ulf Melin at Teams during the interview. 

Interesting for researchers

Ulf Melin, professor of information systems who works with digitalisation at LiU, makes it clear right from the start: the ongoing coronacrisis is a tragedy that affects both individual people and society at a deep level. The stress placed on the medical care system is enormous; small and large companies are having major difficulties; unemployment is rising steeply. People are falling ill and dying.

However, the crisis and its consequences are also highly interesting for researchers.

Ulf Melin in his office at LiU. Picture from 2019. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

“We who work in digitalisation are experiencing an early Christmas, if we turn our attention away from all other aspects for a while. There’s a great deal happening, in many areas that can be described by the concept of ‘digitalisation’”, says Ulf Melin.

Large parts of our working life have been restructured at a rapid pace as remote operations, using digital tools such as Zoom and Teams. This interview, for example, was performed remotely, using a video link. The amount of physical interaction has been dramatically reduced, and replaced to a certain extent by telephone calls, Skype contact, chat functions, and digifika.

Meetings in new ways

Ulf Melin finds the term “social distancing” slightly misleading. We are less together, that’s true, but we still meet each other.

“I think of it more as ‘physical distancing’. Actually, using digital tools we are interacting much more than previously”, he says.

Ulf Melin has been surprised by how broad and deep the ongoing realignment is. And by how rapidly it’s proceeding. Even though previous research has taught us that crises often give rise to radical change, a lot of evidence suggests that what we are now experiencing is unique.

An example close to home: It took LiU’s largest department, the Department of Management and Engineering, only 36 hours to reconfigure operations to distance mode. And it must be remembered that LiU normally operates as a strongly campus-based university. The work involved a close focus on solving an acute task, and using what was available. Regulations and directives were drawn up on the fly, and in some cases the consultation process was carried out after introduction.

Much can be achieved

This is also one of the lessons the crisis has taught us: people have an amazing power for change. Much can be achieved in an extremely short time.

“Indeed. I’m surprised, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted this. We have been working under a sense of urgency, and a lot has happened in an extremely short period. Take the remote meetings, for example. The technology has been available for several years, but it has always been the second or third alternative people turned to. Now they are using it all the time.”

What does this rapid transition depend on?

“The travel restrictions and the requirement to work remotely, independently of whether they were set by legislation or recommendation, are both crystal clear. They have, quite simply, forced people to find other solutions.”

Does digitalisation apply to everyone? Many people still have to travel to their workplace, don’t they?

“Quite right – we must remember that. People’s work situations differ considerably. But I’m willing to bet that a nurse, for example, who must go to work physically uses digital technology at home”, says Ulf Melin.

Two different steps

Previous research, including some done at LiU, has shown that digitalisation often occurs in two stages. During the first stage, the main question is often which technology or which tool is to be used. The organisation and nature of the operations can then be changed during the second stage. Researchers often use the term “digitisation” to describe the first phase and “digitalisation” the second.

The transition that LiU underwent is a good example of the difference.

Ulf Melin, professor i informatik Avdelningen förinformatik. Föreläsning om digitalisering i offentlig sektor. Foto Pia MolinSeminar. Photo from 2018.
Photo credit Pia Molin

“The first phase dealt a great deal with technology: should we use Zoom or Teams for our meetings? We have, however, subsequently started to think also about the design of exams and courses. Should we change our teaching methods when teaching remotely, and if so, how? Do the students learn different things or in a different way?”

The next question concerns how permanent the digitalisation of work and meetings will be. Are we going to continue as we are now, or will everything go back to normal, as it was in the pre-corona era? Of course, no one can know with certainty, but it’s reasonable to assume the answer is ‘yes and no’. There’s much that leads us to believe that a new normal will be established, in which old and new forms of work and leisure are mixed.

"It will certainly differ between both individuals and organisations. A teacher who feels comfortable with teaching remotely will probably continue to do so to a certain extent, even post-corona. A person who has started to buy medicines through Apotea’s online service and finds it easy to use will probably also continue to do so. These are just two examples", says Ulf Melin.

"But then I also believe that as soon as the crisis is over there will be a pent-up need to travel and do things in real life. In the long term, I believe that there will be a rather more multifaceted palette of different ways of how we work and how we spend time together”.

Winners and risks

Finally winners: are there any overall winners from the rapid digitalisation? Primarily companies and organisations with high digital maturity. Online retailers are one obvious example, but other organisations with expertise in digital processes and tools are also winners.” And risks?  One risk is that of increased monitoring and surveillance, while another concerns the continued digital exclusion of groups on the margins of society.

Ulf Melin emphasises the need for evaluation and reflection. After a rapid and comprehensive change, it’s important to reflect: What happened? What works well? What can we improve? The way forward is not set in stone. Technology is neither “good” nor “evil”. The crucial question is what we want to do with it.

“A hammer can be used to hit someone on the head, or to build an amazing building. It’s exactly the same with digitalisation”, says Ulf Melin.

The interview was conducted April 3 2020. Translated by George Farrants

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