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Why digital progress may lead to deterioration: the 'booster-effect' revisited

Datum:09 juli 2021
Why digital progress may lead to deterioration: the 'booster-effect'revisited
Why digital progress may lead to deterioration: the 'booster-effect'revisited

During the pandemic, many employees in service sectors have come to rely even more on digital technologies than before. Digitalisation tends to come with promises such as convenience, higher quality, faster delivery, and all those benefits at lower costs. In reality, employees and their clients may sometimes experience just the opposite. Why is that not surprising? How may we prevent such unintended consequences?

Long ago two Dutch researchers introduced the ‘booster-effect’, a concept that did not gain much ground scientifically[1]. However, through the decades, the concept seems to have become rather more than less societally relevant. I suggest getting the concept from the attic, polishing it a little, and using it to reflect on today’s implementation and recent upscaling of digital technologies.

In short, the booster-effect proposes that insufficient attention for work and organization redesign during technological change leads to reinforcement of the existing dominant organizational characteristics. So, a bureaucratic organization only becomes more bureaucratic. Without a vision on how new technology will bring innovation to the organization combined with interventions explicitly directed at the social or organizational structures, technology only brings you more of what you already have. This is a rather ironic message, given that new technology is so often associated with enabling radical innovation, transformation, and even disruption.

Yet, it is a message that rings a bell. We all too often see that a technological invention that managers and policy makers put their hopes and money in does not fulfil its promise. Moreover, it may even have the reverse effect, which might just be this nasty booster-effect at work. A few examples taken from highly diverse settings show its working.

In rural areas of India, mobile phones can be an empowering device in enabling women to monitor their own health, for example during pregnancy. In a recent study, the gap between household and women’s reported access to mobile phones was 45% across states in India[2]. In one study, men took the phones that had been distributed to women for their health monitoring, thereby enhancing their own power instead of empowering the women. Thus, while mobile phones have the potential to reduce health disparities, a project needs to actively target the causes behind the gaps in mobile phone access. In fact, the rapid expansion of maternal mHealth applications may exacerbate already existing inequalities among women from different socio-economic classes in accessing appropriate care. Groups with already easy access to technology benefitting from new applications on the market and deprived groups still staying behind.

Closer to home, all Dutch hospitals have adopted electronic health care record systems that enable improvements such as full patient data accessibility, transparency, and portability. Yet, when the accompanying new vision on clinical working is not adopted, the outcome may be disappointing. That is, when the system does not support one’s existing working logic, professionals will improvise to maintain what they see as their professional way of working leading to in-system and even out-system work arounds. Is the consequence “…garbage in, garbage out”, as one department head sighed? No, the booster effect predicts that without changing the vision underlying and the practices of medical record keeping, a negative spiral will result: garbage in, even more garbage out. In comparison with paper-based records, incorrect digital data may travel fast, multiply itself and be even harder to check and correct.

As a final example, internet would democratize, making information available to all. However, when less educated citizens end up in rabbit holes, one might wonder whether they are not worse off than before. The real danger is that generic, non-targeted investments in digital infrastructures only strengthen the digital divide and thereby the social-economic divide in society.

This story’s conclusion is twofold. First, there is the acknowledged but not always acted upon difference between technological invention and business innovation. Second, the booster-effect serves as a reminder that reliance on digitalisation acting as a silver bullet is not just naïve; it can be utterly counterproductive.  

Finally, how may we prevent technology from only bringing us more of what we already have? In change management terms, transformations require vision-driven engagement in building coalitions and in actively changing the multi-layered, multidimensional social-organizational reality. Importantly, such change does not equate with, nor stop with the implementation of the enabling technology. It is after the implementation that managerial efforts are required directed at supporting the employees in making sense of their emerging technology-in-use and using the technology to improve their work practices. This two-way adaptation takes time and critical reflection, which employees and their managers not always afford themselves. Honestly speaking, my own tendency is also to try and quickly find a way to work with or around the system. In the need to get on with the ‘real’ work, you change as little as possible, prematurely stopping the learning process. This leads to the acceptance of barely satisficing routines; still grounded in the old way of doing things with technology unfit for the old way. Instead, offering resources and incentives to continue the two-way adaptation of technology use and work practices will help to utilize the new technology’s potential for realizing meaningful change.

[1] B. H. J. Heming (1992) Kwaliteit van arbeid, geautomatiseerd... Een studie naar kwaliteit van arbeid en de relatie tussen automatisering, arbeid en organisatie. Proefschrift TU Delft.

[2] Mohan D, Bashingwa JJH, Tiffin N, Dhar D, Mulder N, George A, et al. (2020) Does having a mobile phone matter? Linking phone access among women to health in India: An exploratory analysis of the National Family Health Survey. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0236078.