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Digitalisation can take organisations to great heights. However, according to Peter van Baalen, professor at the University of Amsterdam, clever and technologically advanced innovations are no guarantee for success. ‘The design may be smart but once a new car gets out of the garage and really has to get going - when the rubber meets the road - then things get exciting.’

In 2010, Encyclopaedia Britannica was published on paper for the last time. The growing popularity of the internet and the CD-ROM put a halt to the paper version of the famous reference book. Although that may have been big news to some, in fact it wasn’t ground-breaking at all. The internet and CD-ROM s simply provided a digital version of the same thing, Peter van Baalen stated during his inaugural lecture 'Digitalising organisations'. The speech, held in mid-February of this year, marked his acceptance of a professorship in Information Management and Digital Organisation at the UvA. 

The emergence of a worldwide online knowledge platform such as Wikipedia, however, is a form of real innovation, he illustrates. True innovation in the digitalisation of companies goes beyond what Van Baalen likes to call ‘representative digitalisation’ – smart digital technologies replacing existing activities, or, in short, automation. 

Just as important as the technologies themselves is their acceptance and integration, he stresses. ‘Take that newly developed car. Once it is outside, surrounded by traffic, you’ll find out whether it works. It has to handle other cars, people taking certain decisions, traffic lights, signs,… What happens then?’ says Van Baalen shortly after his inaugural lecture.

At the intersection of IT and organisations

The author of a number of  books including ‘IT in SMEs’ (Small and Medium Enterprises) has been doing research on the intersection of IT and organisations for decades. Van Baalen is studying the way human beings and organisations handle technology and technological innovations from a socio-technical point of view. 

Technological innovation can disrupt the workflow within organisations and is increasingly encroaching upon more complicated, non-routine tasks. Management nevertheless often underestimates the complexity of its organisation and the importance of issues such as motivation, power and resistance. For example, when deciding which internal communication tools to use, employees tend to choose those tools that colleagues with a higher expert status favour, says Van Baalen, referring to own research: ‘If a company wants certain tools to be used but staff only use part of them, that costs a lot of money. These kinds of issues are being handled in an inefficient and over-simplified manner.’   

Digital platforms and hybridization

International digital platforms bundling and organising knowledge and creativity – labelled ‘generative digitalising’ by Van Baalen – can be even more disruptive than smart technologies. ‘From a technological perspective, a digital platform can be quite simple but in terms of innovation, the impact can be much bigger.’
Although technically, the driverless car, for example, may be much more revolutionary than the taxi platform Uber, the latter is much more innovative. Innovation is less and less about technological advances and increasingly about the way capacity is being organised, Van Baalen points out. At generative digital platforms in the corporate world, external parties account for a significant part of the innovative process. Apple, for example, cleverly draws from the wisdom of the crowd for the development of apps: the more developers, the more good apps.

As a professor of Information Management and Digital Organisation, Van Baalen will be looking for answers to questions regarding the hybridisation of companies: new forms of organising where the question of who owns the technology hardly matters anymore and the power increasingly shifts towards the crowd, the user. ‘How can a company take advantage of such open, generative platforms? How can a company incorporate this within the existing organisation and adapt the decision-making process to it? Gathering lots of information is not enough; how does one make the right decisions based on all that information?’ 

Van Baalen will also further investigate implementation aspects of innovation. He expects major changes to occur due to the emergence of the “Internet of Things”, in which an increasing number of objects are connected to the internet and therefore interconnected as well.
Both in the field of representative as well as in that of generative digitalisation, there are huge changes ahead but what they will look like is hard to tell. The research domain seems endless: ‘Often, one can only conclude in retrospect that a certain innovation was disruptive.’

Ambitions for the College of Economics and Business

The 56-year old Van Baalen switched from the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) of the Erasmus University Rotterdam to the UvA just over a year ago. Besides being a professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business, he also heads the College of Economics and Business (CEB).
Being the former scientific director of RSM’s Centre for E-learning, he also has solid ambitions in that area for the CEB. A ‘significant part’ of the lectures should be offered in a blended form. By enabling students to follow lectures digitally, the time professors and students spend face-to-face can be used more effectively – a concept that is known as “flipping the classroom”.  This is referred to as blended learning and it will affect both teaching and  learning. Less transfer of knowledge in the classical sense during lectures means there will be more time for elaboration and discussion. Van Baalen: ‘In future, it will be much less use to attend a lecture unprepared. The attitude “the teacher will tell” will no longer do. I have a mission: students have to start studying at an earlier stage.’
Flipping the classroom will not only deepen and broaden students’ knowledge: the fact that the lectures will be to a lesser extent linked to a specific time and location should also attract new target audiences. Van Baalen expects to be able to offer two or three courses partly online starting in September 2015.
Getting blended learning on track is just one of his ambitions for the CEB. Van Baalen is also working on new curricula for the bachelor programmes Economics and Business Administration: , ‘In five years’ time, we’ll have a high-profile and internationally oriented undergraduate programme that is solid as a rock.’

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