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Subtracting just as important as adding in digital transformation journey, study argues

25 May 2023

Digital transformation has the power to revolutionise work. However, new research has shown that simply adding new technology is not enough to unlock its true potential in the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

New research from Copenhagen Business School, along with Leuphana University and the University of Turku, argues that subtracting is just as significant as adding in the digital transformation journey. 

The study centred around one of the world’s oldest car manufacturers, which employs over 200,000 individuals worldwide. The company embarked on its digital workplace transformation strategy in 2016.

“The subtraction logic, that is, the process of removing obstructive routines and technologies, is often disregarded in digital workplace transformation, despite being equally crucial,” says co-author and Associate Professor Abayomi Baiyere at the Department of Digitalization, Copenhagen Business School.

The research findings reveal two essential approaches to successful digital transformation: the addition logic of incorporating new technology and the subtraction logic of eliminating outdated technology that sustains undesired practices.

By underscoring the importance of subtraction logic, the study sheds light on a critical aspect frequently neglected in digital workplace transformation.

“By recognising the value of subtraction logic and not taking a one-sided focus on just the addition logic, organisations can foster innovation, adaptation, and employee empowerment,” adds Associate Professor Abayomi Baiyere.

Subtraction logic
Subtraction logic as deinstitutionalisation refers to the process of removing established practices to make way for new ideas and approaches, enabling innovation and adaptation within an organisation or society. It involves challenging traditional norms, rules, and behaviours to embrace change and new technologies.

“Subtraction in digital transformation requires careful consideration of which established practices need to be abandoned to achieve transformation goals. Organisations like the car company aiming for employee empowerment need to remove practices that oppose or undermine this notion, such as excessive managerial approvals,” adds co-author Dr Markus Zimmer from Leuphana University of Luneburg, Germany.

The paper discusses how the car company rejected existing approval rules that caused delays in decision-making. Besides rejecting existing rules, the company also removed its business travel system, which enforced formal approval for trips. This change was viewed as a way to empower employees, rather than restrict them. Initially, some managers resisted the change by insisting on approval via email, but the removal of the system helped establish new approval processes.

Similarly, hierarchy had a significant impact on the allocation of IT equipment, which served as status symbols tied to one's position. 

However, the car company challenged this norm by eliminating permission rights to the IT ordering system. This change enabled employees independently to order IT equipment that aligned with their actual job needs, rather than their hierarchical position.
Although some managers questioned how employees could afford expensive smartphones, the new IT ordering system empowered employees to embrace the revised rules and push the boundaries.

“These conflicts occur because some individuals are reluctant to let go of privileges and control associated with the old practices,” adds Zimmer.

The research advocates for embracing the dual process of adding new elements while simultaneously subtracting unwanted ones and urges organisations to contemplate not only their desired future but also the aspects they wish to leave behind from the past.

The research advocates for organisations to adopt a balanced approach that includes both addition and subtraction. It urges them not only to envision their desired future, but also to consider the aspects they need to leave behind from the past. 

“Our hope is that organisations use our research to approach digital workplace transformation not only by incorporating new practices and new technologies but also by eliminating those that impede their transformation goals. 

“Taking such a balanced view may help managers avoid frustrations caused by the dominant ‘addition narrative' logic,” concludes Baiyere. 

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