From an organizational sociology point of view, it makes sense to make the further development of IT systems a participatory process. The image created by Stable Diffusion XL for the prompt: “Diverse business team listening to mature grey-haired project manager, female manager, discussing collaboration, IT reports, view into a large room, PC, laptops, smartphones, warm light, soft colors, fine details, wide angle, professional photography, bokeh, natural light, shot with dslr, sharp focus”.

Issue: 03/2023

Living Infrastructures

Why Participation Should Not Be Reserved for Pilot Projects

In many IT projects, it is now standard practice to involve future users in the IT design. The earlier, the better. This is because the most significant benefits of participation are achieved in the early design stages when the problem to be solved by IT is reconstructed. However, such in-depth involvement has so far been limited to pilot phases. Participation is no longer envisaged for further systems development or only to a limited extent. Tickets for error messages may still be analysed, but that’s usually it. This is often based on the assumption that once participatory solutions have been developed, they can be rolled out scalable and transferred to other areas. However, practice shows otherwise: numerous challenges of IT systems only become apparent after the rollout. They can only be predicted to a limited extent. IT systems and infrastructures remain ‘alive’ even after they have been developed. Therefore, continuous participatory development seems necessary for sustainable digitalisation projects. L3S member Prof Dr Stefanie B├╝chner and Dr Irina Zakharova, who work on the sociology of digitalisation at Leibniz Universit├Ąt Hannover, take a closer look.

“From the perspective of organisational sociology, there is a lot to be said for making the further development of IT systems participatory,” says B├╝chner. Organisational adjustments to strategies and processes are not limited to pilot runs. But when projects end, the personnel, time and financial resources that made participatory development possible in the first place often disappear. “To avoid pilot cemeteries, it is necessary to discuss realistic paths and resources for sustainable, successful digitalisation and to discuss them with those involved.”

Another reason: contrary to widespread belief, digitalisation often requires considerably more resources after the rollout than it replaces. Data development, data maintenance, process adaptation, and training are just some of the tasks that arise during integration into organisational processes. And just as the need for high-quality data is increasing, data work is also becoming more critical. While medical documentation assistants are taking on this work in the healthcare sector, for example, data work is being introduced in many other areas as an additional task to be completed on the side, as it were. However, in times of a shortage of skilled workers, sustainable digitalisation must also convince employees. Employers who do without it run the risk of young talent migrating to more attractive fields of work where data work is recognised as a job.

B├╝chner and Zakharova see participation as a way of making data work realistically visible, recognising it and entering into negotiations about how it can be optimised. “This also requires a more open clustering of further development needs, for example, via development workshops, regular specialist groups or mentoring networks in which development needs are collected openly and decentrally,” says B├╝chner.

The two researchers recommend drawing on social science expertise, especially when resources are tight, when there have been problematic implementation experiences, or when working with vulnerable groups such as clients of social administrations. Conclusion: Sustainable digitalisation with living infrastructures should be both green and participatory.


Prof. Dr. Stefanie B├╝chner

L3S member Stefanie B├╝chner is a professor at the Institute of Sociology at Leibniz Universit├Ąt Hannover. There, she heads the Sociology of Digitalisation department.

Irina Zakharova is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology of Digitalisation at the Institute of Sociology at Leibniz Universit├Ąt Hannover.