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ERA Action 11.3 Workshop on the digital transition and working life

20 June 2023

By Luca Pietrantoni (University off Bologna), Katrine Moland Hansen (University of Bergen) and Sergi Martinez Rigol (University of Barcelona)

On 16 June the Coimbra Group, represented by members of the Employability Working Group, Sergi Martinez Rigol (University of Barcelona) and Katrine Moland Hansen (University of Bergen), and by expert Prof. Luca Pietrantoni (University of Bologna), participated in the ad hoc ERA Forum online workshop on the “Digital transition and working life: R&I actions, gaps and challenges”. This meeting contributes to the implementation of the ERA Policy Agenda Action 11.3 (“ERA4FutureWork”) which aims to identify and recommend best practices, gaps and future priorities for R&I investment, leading to a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) for the future of work.

For this second ERA4FutureWork workshop, after the one on the “Green transition and working life” in April 2023, the Commission’s DGs for Research and Innovation (RTD) and for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (EMPL) have partnered with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland and the Project Management Agency Karlsruhe at KIT on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The workshop’s two main objectives were to identify emerging trends and knowledge gaps at the intersection of the digital transition and working life in the EU, and to formulate research and innovation questions and priorities for the next decade, including how to address them.

The first session focused on the digitalization and transformation of work. The keynote address was delivered by Tuomo Alasoini, PhD, Adjunct Professor and Research Professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, who discussed the current state and future prospects of digitalization and work transformation in Finnish workplaces. Following this, a presentation by Professor Anne Kovalainen, Dr. Sc. (Econ.) in Economic Sociology from the University of Turku, provided insights on platformisation as a new development in the economy and society and – its implications for future research.

Regarding the digitalization and transformation of work in Finnish workplaces, it was observed that there is a varying degree of digital maturity and use of data analytics between different sectors and public sectors. However, the gaps in digitalization are widening rather than leveling. Employees generally have a more positive than negative attitude towards data collection. Digitalization is seen as important for companies due to its association with innovation performance. Differences in digital sophistication exist, and the digital divide is widening. It is predicted that digitalization will further increase productivity differences between companies. The discussion has mainly focused on work-displacing effects and speculation about possible mass unemployment, but neither management nor personnel seem to be overly concerned about widespread job reduction due to digitalization. The integrative effects of digitalization within organisations have been typical so far. In the future, the effects of evolving AI will most strongly impact professionals and white-collar workers, rather than blue-collar or lower-level white-collar workers. In Finland, it may curb the growth of high-skilled professions, but it is not expected to lead to a decrease.

The two presenters talked about the rapid evolution in work environments across Europe. The platformisation of work, characterized by the growth of digital platforms as mediators of labour processes, is transforming the way we understand and conduct work. These platforms have introduced new dynamics into the labour market. They are reshaping work relationships, working conditions, and the very nature of work itself. In this context, transparency becomes crucial. It ensures that workers have clear information about their rights, pay, and the algorithms controlling their work. It can help to maintain fairness, reduce exploitation, and improve working conditions. At the same time, transparency is vital for businesses to help build trust, improve their reputation, and attract a more skilled and dedicated workforce.

Long-term transformations, such as technological, ecological, and demographic changes, reshape the workforce landscape, the geography of work and exacerbate skilled labour shortages. These changes pose significant challenges to the economy’s value creation model, with the skilled labour gap in Germany projected to reach up to 5 million by 2030. In addition to societal challenges, such as reorganizing qualified immigration and revitalizing academic and vocational training, there are specific work design needs. These needs include creating demographically resilient value, fostering trust-based international collaboration, encouraging autonomy, and co-creating platforms. There’s also a need for organizational and individual resilience during ongoing change, expert and simulation-based methods for predictive assessment of collaboration processes in companies and business networks, and a drive towards sustainable work in digital ecosystems. This involves advocating for self-determination and sovereignty in virtual and real living and working environments.

Following the presentations, a group session took place where participants shared their views on future competencies and skills in digital environments in breakout rooms. The group session was followed by plenary feedback, exchange, and a brief break. Issues that were highlighted included: the relationship between institutions, platforms, and governance is a crucial aspect, as are the effects on education and the need for digital literacy, data analytics, and communication skills. The platformisation phenomenon also raises questions about the role of human-to-human learning, motivation in the school system, digital divide, citizenship, and participation. The integration of the educational area and work life was emphasized, and discussions centered on creating management processes in digitalization, and exploring issues such as gender dynamics. The need for synergies between research and education and training at all levels was also discussed.

The second session focused on R&I for the future of value creation. Alexander Lucumi, Head of the Department from the Project Management Agency Karlsruhe (PTKA), KIT, presented on the “R&D Program: The Future of Value Creation – Research on Production, Services, and Work.” Following this, Oliver Sträter from the German Society for Work Science (GfA) & University of Kassel, Head of the Department of Work and Organizational Psychology, discussed humane work design to meet future work challenges.

Prof. Oliver Strater highlighted the R&I gaps was asking “Where are we with the current methods and approaches?” from “humane driven design” to a “human reactivity considered” approach. There are different “control modes”. The strategic control mode considers higher-level goals and interactions, looks broadly into the past and future, and recognizes and explains uncertainty, using adapted guidelines, planning, and considering dependencies for decision-making. The tactical mode focuses on defined individual goals with a broader look into the past and minimal future projections. Uncertainties are recognized and decisions are made based on guidelines and limited planning. The opportunistic mode is characterized by poorly defined goals, a present and immediate time horizon, and limited recognition of uncertainty. Decisions are made based on habits and pattern recognition. Finally, the scrambled mode lacks goal interactions, has no time horizon consideration, and does not consider uncertainty, leading to random decision-making.

The importance of humane planning and design tools is demonstrated in two different sequences.

Classic design and proactive design approaches differ fundamentally in their sequence and focus areas. Classic design starts with assessing existing technical abilities, followed by developing design elements like blueprints or prototypes. This design is tested and validated for functionality, applied in real-world scenarios, and continuously used, with ongoing updates and refinements as necessary. On the other hand, proactive design commences with an innovative technical idea. Rather than adapting to existing capabilities, it shapes the process around how the design will function in its intended environment right from the beginning. This is followed by creating an integral concept encompassing all design aspects, and the design is developed based on this. Lastly, like classic design, the final product is continuously used with regular improvements and adjustments made as required.

In the digitalization process of an SME in Italy, a Classic Design approach starts with assessing current technical capabilities, followed by the development of a digital system, such as digitizing paper files. This system is then tested and validated before being implemented across the organization. The system is continuously used, with periodic adjustments and updates. In contrast, a Proactive Design approach begins with an innovative idea, like an e-commerce platform, considering the real context and user needs from the outset. An integral concept of the platform, including features to improve customer experience, is created and developed. Once launched, the platform’s performance is continuously monitored and adjusted to better meet user needs.

Research and Innovation highlights the need for more advanced methods to model, assess, and design work in adaptive AI systems. AI technology has resulted in adaptive and creative systems, such as autonomous driving and human-robot collaboration, or tools like ChatGPT and image generation programmes. However, there is a contrast between this reality and traditional work design and assessment methods, which are often reactive and predetermined. Examples of these methods include designing functional sets before ergonomic assessments. Advanced work design and assessment methods that are proactive and resilient are required to design and assess adaptivity and creativity in AI systems. There is a need for a more humane approach to design in the Metaverse, starting with human properties. This includes facilitating psychological equality in hybrid situations and developing collaborative design methodologies in IT environments. In addition, creating methods for adaptive system design and establishing ethical standards are crucial for humane AI design. It’s important to note that while automation can increase efficiency, the quality of human interaction and personalized service is often crucial in many sectors, and the balance between automation and human involvement is a subject of ongoing discussion and research.

Like in the first session, this was followed by a group session where participants discussed humane work design, collaboration, and networking in hybrid communities. This session was concluded with plenary feedback and exchange. Challenges for research on work design were identified, such as dealing with increasing mental demands due to digital systems, addressing the gap between knowledge work and production, understanding the emerging behaviour of AI systems, and ensuring resilience and leadership in the face of changing work environments. Future studies should focus on increased heterogeneity, gender aspects in human-centered design, and the difference between human-centric and humane approaches. The need for digital innovation in the public and private sector alike was also highlighted.

All presentations from the workshop are available on the Coimbra Group Intranet (for CG Members only).