Social interaction, digitalisation and loyalty

David Öborn Regin, Karlstad University

In this paper, I want to discuss how an increased use of digital systems and management tools could be seen as changing social relations and loyalty bonds within organizations. The starting point is the changed role and function of administration within public organizations. The paper is based on a theoretical framework of loyalty and social interaction, and empirical material from an ongoing research project partially focusing on the role of administration in public organizations.

One could argue that the social interactions and relations in organizations are undergoing a major change as more of the governing and communication goes via digital systems as tools for planning, evaluation and control. It has placed the person exercising the managerial power further away from the subject of that power, and in doing so, hiding it. Administrative system has ”been developed, managed and implemented by designers, technicians and public administrators, who are invisible in the moment of interacting with the system” (Haraldsson & Lilja, 2017, p. 167). An intermediary of anonymity and distance through the digital systems has replaced the direct interpersonal social relationship.

Use of digital systems have also in other ways changed the social dynamic within organizations as information gathered in administrative systems replaces individual contacts and local knowledge (Bruhn 2015). That reduces the need for social interaction and the importance of silent skills and bonding. The social bonds in organizations could perhaps be seen as partially replaced by digital connections and interfaces. A pre-study indicates that the specialization in administration, and the increased amount on “every-day administration” places on the professions has increased a fragmentation of work and reduced the experience of a common task and social environment.

One can argue that loyalty, and the idea of common interests is a crucial part of building collective agency. In theories of loyalty the aspect of closeness, in task and geography, and the time spent together on a common task are central to create and uphold bonds of loyalty. The increased use of digital administrative and managerial systems could in one way be seen as reducing the ground for local loyalties based on physical closeness. On the other hand, it could be seen as opening up new avenues to loyal relations between different parts and agents within organizations.

In a study of public administration in Sweden, Forssell & Westerberg (2014) outlines the development of changes in that sector and describes  a process of both amateurisation and professionalization.  The everyday administration are placed on the “professions” and a new kind of specialized administrative units grows larger, closed connected to the organizational management.  The new administrators do not have their loyalty towards core business but against the administrative objectives and control systems " (Forssell & Westerberg, 2014, p. 238). These changes affect power relations between groups within (and between) organizations. There has been an overall change in, for example, Human service organizations, from nursing logic to market logic that effects the social positions within the  hierarchy, and what is perceived as the core functions - old professions are challenged by new (Hasenfeld, 2009).

I have two starting points – (1) the change of social interaction as an effect of digital administrative systems and (2) the changes in the division of labour, and perhaps status, related to administration in organizations. I am interested in see how that changes the informal relations and expectations in the work place, and the possibility to formulate common stands. In my paper, I would like to explore the idea that a concept of loyalty as a guide for social action could be a possible way to explore changes in the social dynamics within organizations by looking at organizations (and its surroundings) as a field of competing loyalty claims.

What I am interested in is whether it would be useful to see behaviors in organizational changes, changing professional roles, formal tasks and informal expectations of roles and people based on a weave of loyalty relationships and loyalty requirements, and how those are affected by new digital bindings.