Sub-theme 59: The Politics and Ethics of Digitalizing Organizations

Lise Justesen
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Ursula Plesner
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Elena Raviola
University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Call for Papers

In the discourse on ‘digital transformations’, digitalization is often framed as a strategic concern, a necessary component in new business models, or a technology driven phenomenon. In this sub-theme, we take another approach. We examine digitalization as an organizational phenomenon, which calls for non-technical considerations about political and ethical dimensions of specific digital technologies and digitalization projects. Following at least a decade of positive hype about digital transformations, more concerns about its impact on societies, economies, power relationships, knowledge and individuals’ everyday experience are now being voiced, and there is rising public and academic debate about the dark sides of digitalization (see also the forthcoming issue on this theme in Organization). The various contributions show how digital technologies affect individuals (e.g. Zuboff, 2019), organizations and professions (e.g. Foer, 2017), entire industries (e.g. Taplin, 2017), and societies (e.g. Morozov, 2011; Zuboff, 2019) in highly problematic and ethically dubious ways. This literature tends to focus on spectacular cases like the firing of employees based on obscure algorithms (O’Neil, 2017), how predictions generated on the basis of big data reproduce inequalities (Eubanks, 2017), or how individuals are surveilled and controlled in increasingly sophisticated ways in the workplace (Head, 2014).
In this sub-theme, we surpass both utopian and dystopian grand diagnoses and turn to more mundane organizational analyses. By focusing on digitalization as an organizational practice, we encourage critical and constructive thinking about ‘digital transformations’. Picking up on the 36th EGOS Colloquium theme, Organizing for a Sustainable Future, we begin to address questions such as how to organize around digital technologies in a responsible manner.
Scholars have begun to examine various aspects of digitalization as precisely organizational phenomena, which are “bounded” for instance by socioeconomic factors like the pricing of labor, organizational power relations and the nature of work tasks (Fleming, 2018). Attention has also been given to how values become inscribed into algorithms (Kraemer et al., 2011) and how algorithms made to generate ‘decisions’ or grounds for decision-making in ways that are highly political (Eubanks, 2017); how search engines have a politics of exclusions inscribed into them (Introna & Nissenbaum, 2000); or how design decisions about video surveillance have important political consequences (Introna & Wood, 2004). The digitalization of organizations, which is based on algorithms, presupposes infrastructures (Bowker et al., 2019), i.e. processes of analyzing, categorizing, standardizing and relabeling of tasks, elements in workflows, and functions; what Bowker and Star (1999) have referred to as “sorting things out”. When organizations are digitalized, that is, when work processes become thoroughly entangled with digital technologies, what looks like technical solutions to efficiency or quality problems become politically and ethically laden performative aspects of organizational realities.
Studies on professions and professionals have also highlighted the consequences of new infrastructures for knowledge and expertise (Faraj et al., 2018), including how the increasing quantification and standardization that algorithms allow for might transform professional work and identities (Plesner & Raviola, 2016; Beane & Orlikowski, 2015; Plesner et al., 2018; Petrakaki et al., 2016); how the cooperation around digital technologies reconfigures boundary relations among occupational groups, with important consequences for e.g. jurisdiction and status (e.g. Barrett et al., 2012); and how digital technologies affording constant connectivity challenges work life balance and professional autonomy (Mazmanian et al., 2013).
In this sub-theme we wish to highlight political and ethical aspects of everyday practices related to digitalization (Wajcman, 2015), such as consequences of replacing professional judgment with automated decision-making in public administration (Justesen & Plesner, 2018) or delegating trading to algorithms on trade floors (Beunza & Millo, 2015; Lange et al., 2018). It has been argued that the opaqueness of algorithmic decision-making poses serious democratic questions because criteria for decision-making processes remain out of sight (Eubanks, 2017). Their black-boxed status forecloses important political and ethical debates and might produce new forms of inequalities that seemingly nobody can be held accountable for. Others have argued that algorithms are not inherently opaque, but call for precisely ethical discussions of how algorithmic accountability is both possible and desirable (Neyland, 2016).
We think organization studies should be able to help practitioners deconstruct ‘the digital transformation’, move from abstract worries or discussions of ‘disruption’ and ‘the future work force’, and engage with particular technological solutions in specific organizational settings with attention to the values, politics and ethics inscribed into digital technologies in practice. As Fleming (2019: 32) suggests in the context of his discussion of robotics, organization studies as a field needs to “speak out about the pressing ethical topics confronting organizations and society today”. Organization studies have the ability to contribute with analyses and concepts, which may help practitioners navigate digitalization projects. For instance, the notion of “blended automation” (Beunza & Millo, 2015) directs attention to where social cues and human interaction is needed and automation needs to be bounded. Or “the management of visibilities” (Flyverbom et al., 2016) helps us understand that the visibility afforded by digital technologies is not a given, but a phenomenon that is constructed – and can be constructed in different ways.
We invite both empirical and conceptual contributions that develop organizational perspectives on the politics and ethics of digitalization by engaging with themes such as (but not limited to):

  • The politics of automating work

  • Ethical aspects of automating decision-making

  • Responsible management of digitalization projects

  • Connections/disconnections between digitalization strategies and organizational goals and values

  • Political implications of specific organizational digitalization projects

  • Digitalization, diversity and inequality

  • Digitalization and new forms of accountability

  • Boundary work and the reshaping of expertise around digitalization and automation projects

  • Organizational consequences of quantification



  • Barrett, M., Oborn, E., Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (2012): “Reconfiguring boundary relations: Robotic innovations in pharmacy work.” Organization Science, 23 (5), 1448–1466.
  • Beane, M., & Orlikowski, W.J. (2015): “What difference does a robot make? The material enactment of distributed coordination.” Organization Science, 26 (6), 1553–1573.
  • Beunza, D., & Millo, Y. (2015): Blended Automation: Integrating Algorithms on the Floor of the New York Stock Exchange. SRC Discussion Paper No. 38. London: London School of Economics.
  • Bowker, G.C., & Star, S.L. (1999): Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Bowker, G., Elyachar, J., Kornberger, M., Mennicken, A., Miller, P., Nucho, J., & Pollock, N. (2019): “Introduction to Thinking Infrastructures.” In: M. Kornberger, G. Bowker, J. Elyachar, A. Mennicken, P. Miller, J. Nucho & N. Pollock (eds.): Thinking Infrastructures. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 62. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 1–13.
  • Eubanks, V. (2017): Automating Inequality. How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. New York: S. M. Press.
  • Faraj, S., Pachidi, S., & Sayegh, K. (2018): “Working and organizing in the age of the learning algorithm.” Information and Organization, 28 (1), 62–70.
  • Fleming, P. (2019): “Robots and Organization Studies: Why Robots Might Not Want to Steal Your Job.” Organization Studies, 40 (1), 23–37.
  • Flyverbom, M., Leonardi, P., Stohl, C., & Stohl, M. (2016): “The Management of Visibilities in the Digital Age.” International Journal of Communication, 10, 98–109.
  • Foer, F. (2017): World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. New York: Penguin Press.
  • Head, S. (2014): Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans. New York: Basic Books.
  • Introna, L., & Nissenbaum, H. (2000): ”Shaping the Web: Why the politics of search engines matters.” The Information Society, 16 (3), 1–17.
  • Introna, L., & Woods, D. (2004): “Picturing Algorithmic Surveillance: The Politics of Facial Recognition Systems.” Surveillance and Society, 2 (2/3), 177–198.
  • Justesen, L., & Plesner, U. (2018): ”Fra skøn til algoritme: Digitaliseringsklar lovgivning og automatisering af administrativ sagsbehandling.” Tidsskrift for Arbejdsliv, 20 (3), 9–23.
  • Kraemer, F., van Overveld, K., & Peterson, M. (2011): ”Is there an ethics of algorithms?” Ethics and Information Technology, 13 (3), 251–60.
  • Lange, A.-C., Lenglet, M., & Seyfert, R. (2019): ”On studying algorithms ethnographically: Making sense of objects of ignorance.” Organization, 26 (4), 598–617.
  • Mazmanian, M., Orlikowski, W., & Yates, J. (2013) “The Autonomy Paradox: The Implications of Mobile Email Devices for Knowledge Professionals.” Organization Science, 24 (5), 1337–1357.
  • Morozov, E. (2011): The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: PublicAffairs.
  • Neyland, D. (2016): “Bearing Account-able Witness to the Ethical Algorithmic System.” Science Technology, & Human Values, 41 (1), 50–76.
  • O’Neil, C. (2017): Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. London: Penguin Books.
  • Petrakaki, D., Klecun, E., & Cornford, T. (2016): “Changes in healthcare professional work afforded by technology: The introduction of a national electronic patient record in an English hospital.” Organization, 23 (2), 206–226.
  • Plesner, U., & Raviola, E. (2016): “Digital technologies and a changing profession.” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 29 (7), 1044–1065.
  • Plesner, U., Justesen, L., & Glerup, C. (2018): “The transformation of work in digitized public sector organizations.” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 31 (5), 1176–1190.
  • Taplin, J. (2017): Move Fast and Break Things. How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Wajcman, J. (2015): Pressed for Time. The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Zuboff, S. (2019): The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs.
Lise Justesen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Together with Ursula Plesner, she is currently working on a large research project on “The Transformation of Work in Digitized Public Sector Organizations”, focusing on changes in bureaucracies, accountabilities and professional relations. Her research interests cover topics such as technologies of management, accountability and valuation practices. Lise has published her work in journals such as ‘Accounting’, ‘Organization and Society’, ‘Organization’, and ‘Journal of Organizational Change Management’. She is the co-editor, together with Martin Kornberger, Anders Koed Madsen and Jan Mouritsen, of the book “Making Things Valuable” (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Ursula Plesner is an Associate Professor at the Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Her research currently revolves around the impact of digital technology on work and professional relations. Ursula runs the “Digital Organization” cluster, which is part of CBS’ Business in Society research platform “Digital Transformations”. Her work has been published in, for instance, ‘Strategic Organization’, ‘Organization’, ‘Journal of Organizational Change Management’, and ‘Qualitative Inquiry’. Her book “Digital Organizing: Revisiting Themes in Organization Studies” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.
Elena Raviola is Professor of Business and Design at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her research focuses on media industries, with particular interest in news organizations and the transformation of news production and journalism in relation to digitization. She has conducted ethnographic studies in several news organizations in Italy, Sweden and France. Elena is leading the research centre Business and Design Lab, a platform between the Academy of Design and Crafts and the School of Business, Economics and Law, in Gothenburg. Her research has been published, among others, in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Organizational Change Management’, ‘Journal of Change Management’, ‘Information, Communication & Society’, ‘Journal of Media Business Studies’, and ‘International Journal of Media Management’.