Agile organizations in an era of digitalisation

impacts on leadership and HRM practices

Sabrina Weber, Pforzheim University


In recent years, new forms of organization and work have gained ground in the context of in many companies digitalization (Jürgens et al., 2018). A prominent keyword in this context is ‘agility’. Agile principles of organization and work, including self-organized, collaborative forms and team-based methods, have spilled over from the world of software engineering and smaller companies including start-ups to companies in other fields and of other size. With new forms of organization and work, roles and responsibilities of individuals change (Pfeiffer et al., 2014). These changes also challenge established instruments and practices of human resource management (HRM) and leadership (BMAS, 2017).

Research question

What does agility mean in companies and what impact does it have on the organization’s established leadership and HRM instruments and practices?


An explorative study including 15 companies based in Germany reveals that there are – although there is some variety in the concrete meaning and implementation of ‘agility’ – significant challenges for established leadership models and HRM instruments and practices. Whereas some companies have redesigned their instruments and practices, others are still about to do so. For instance, personal development and career development (have to) change. Classical hierarchical career paths are no longer feasible in agile organizations with new roles instead of positions. Specific roles furthermore tend to be of temporary nature. Personal development in agile organizations is regarded as an individual, employee-driven process.

Agility furthermore implies changing roles for managers/leaders and for HR. HR’s role is mostly described as a coach or companion, in some companies also as a driver of agility. Managers/leaders often struggle with a re-definition of their own role and new forms of leadership, such as ‘empowering leadership’ (Amundsen and Martinsen, 2014). In this context, new tasks in executive development arise for HR.

Finally, our study reveals both perceived advantages, but also disadvantages of agile forms of organization and work. Respondents acknowledge a (positive) increase in autonomy and responsibility of individuals and highlight positive effects of social collaboration, which are both said to lead to job satisfaction. However, some of our respondents also notice (potential) stress at the workplace due to increased autonomy, responsibility, and transparency.


Findings are based on qualitative interviews conducted in 2016 in 15 companies in Germany in the context of an explorative study. In sum, 45 face-to-face interviews had been conducted with mainly managers and leaders (executive board members, HR, and other departments such as research and development).


  • Amundsen, Stein; Martinsen, Øyvind L. (2014): Empowering leadership: Construct clarification, conceptualization, and validation of a new scale. The Leadership Quarterly 25(3), 487–511.
  • BMAS (Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs) (2017): White Paper Work 4.0. Re- imagining work. Berlin: BMAS.
  • Jürgens, Kerstin; Hoffmann, Reiner; Schildmann, Christina (2018): Let’s transform work!
  • Recommendations and proposals form the commission on the work of the future. Hans Böckler Foundation’s Study series No. 376. Düsseldorf.
  • Pfeiffer, Sabine; Sauer, Stefan; Ritter, Tobias (2014): Agile Methoden als Werkzeug des Belastungsmanagements? Eine arbeitsvermögensbasierte Perspektive. Arbeit 23(2), 119–132.