18 November 2021

What are the obstacles to digitalisation for established companies? And how can they overcome these difficulties? Sandra Sjöbäck and Amanda Spaak have answered these questions, and as a result have been awarded one of this year’s two Christer Gilén scholarships. “It’s fantastic”, they say.

Amanda Spaak and Sandra Sjöbäck.
The winners: Amanda Spaak and Sandra Sjöbäck.

Theory and practice

In their degree project “Digital Business Transformation in Incumbent Firms”, the two students explore digitalisation in six large, well-established Swedish companies, primarily in the manufacturing industry. Their dissertation was written in the spring term of this year, as a part of the master’s programme Industrial Engineering and Management. It was awarded the Christer Gilén scholarship in economic leadership, organisation and innovation, a prize worth SEK 10,000.

Today, both Sandra Sjöbäck and Amanda Spaak work in Gothenburg, at the same consulting firm where they carried out their project.

“It’s so nice to get a scholarship,” they say. “We didn’t actually know that we’d been nominated for it, so it came as a big surprise.”

Their dissertation consists of a literature overview and interviews with twelve key figures from the six companies. In explaining their decision to award the prize, the judges pointed to the degree project’s skilful combination of theory and practice.

Stuck in the first phase

The degree project found that the digitalisation work of companies is often not as advanced as the authors, and people in general, believe. All companies were found to be in the first stage, “early in transition”, with some being at best on their way to the next stage: “digitally advancing”. All companies are far from having reached the third and most developed stage: “digitally mature”.

In the dissertation, digitalisation is defined as both the companies’ internal work and what they offer externally to customers.

“Generally speaking, large and established companies haven’t matured much when it comes to digitalisation. They also run into challenges different to those faced by smaller, newer companies”, say Amanda and Sandra.

The causes of these difficulties are insufficient knowledge and problems recruiting employees with the right skills. The size of the companies can also make them sluggish and slow to change. Furthermore, compared to start ups in the tech industry, it’s not always “so much fun” to work at these companies, as one interviewee put it.

“Suddenly these companies are up against completely new competitors, such as Google and Microsoft. This is the case with recruitment, but also with sales, when what these companies offer becomes increasingly digital. Of course, it’s tough.”

Focus on the core business

The result of the dissertation is a framework containing several recommendations to work effectively with digitalisation. One such recommendation is to enter into partnerships with smaller, specialised companies, thereby gaining access to key skills. Another recommendation is to work in an agile and iterative way (in cycles) in collaboration between different divisions within the company. This is in contrast to the traditional “drainpipe” model, where decisions from an organisation’s leaders work their way slowly downwards.

“It’s also important to find the connection between your core business and digitalisation. There’s no reason to stop doing what you’re good at, but we think there are ways you can do it even better”, say Sandra and Amanda.

In their dissertation, they were careful to put a lot of work into the method section in the beginning. This made the rest of the work easier. They also know each other well and have worked together before.

“We had the same ambitions and were agreed on how much detail we’d go into. And we complement each other well too. Ultimately, Sandra is more of a creative ideas person, while I’m the one that puts the ideas into words”, says Amanda.

“Yes, that’s a good description. I think we’ve worked together very well”, says Sandra.

• You can read the dissertation here:

The judges’ citation:

“In this well-produced and well-described case study, the authors develop a model showing how established companies can deal with problems in their digital transformation. This well-written dissertation identifies the different stages of maturity in a company, and how these stages affect the company’s digital transformation. The authors have a commendable way of showing their ability to connect relevant theories to their question.”

Four tips for a good dissertation

  • Choose who you work with

- The work is a lot more fun and easier if you work with someone you know and who thinks like you.

  • Put enough work into the method section

- We put three weeks’ work into it at the very start. After that, we could just get going. It made things a lot easier, and we had a clear picture of what we were going to do.

  • Make an outline

- We made a bullet-point list of the facts we wanted to include and followed it closely. That way, we didn’t miss anything important.

  • Ring people instead of emailing them

- We rang the people we wanted to interview. Everybody said yes, even though they were senior employees at big companies.

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