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New research: enacting professional service work in times of digitalization and potential disruption

Digitalization is changing many service industries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in standard business-to-consumer services. But also, business-to-business services are also being increasingly blended with digital technologies. Little is known about how this latter type of service is being changed by the onset of robots and artificial intelligence.

New research by House of Innovation affiliated researcher Frida Pemer addresses this lack of knowledge by exploring how frontline workers in business-to-business service industries do their work in the face of increasing digitalization. This research utilizes interviews with 50 professionals and finds that—contrary to previous findings—auditing companies embrace digitalization more than public relations/communications companies. Further, it finds that three factors influence how frontline workers enact their service work: (1) the fit between technological innovations and the type of knowledge a service is built on, (2) the occupational identities of the workers, and (3) the service climate within the companies.

This research is important because it provides new insights into how technological developments and company services fit together to influence the extent to which the company perceives digitalization as being disruptive. In exploring this, the research offers the following six propositions:

(1)   Companies experiencing a close fit between technology and services view digitalization as disruptive.

(2)   Companies experiencing a close fit between technology and services respond by developing more services that rely on technology.

(3)   A well-established occupational identity facilitates frontline workers to expand their service work into unexplored areas of the market.

(4)   Companies with a service climate characterized by high levels of technology readiness incentivize the enactment of digitalization in frontline service work.

(5)   As digital technologies develop, companies offering premium services will increasingly prioritize human contact and relationship-building to maintain their strategic position.

(6)   As digital technologies become increasingly embedded in frontline service work, the ability of workers to take on innovating, enabling, and coordinating roles becomes increasingly important.

These findings are combined in the research into a conceptual model of how macro-level phenomena such as digitalization are enacted at the microlevel by frontline service workers. Future studies ought to test the generalizability of these findings in other knowledge-intensive business to business services. Further, as technological developments enable an increasing number of tasks to be performed by robots and through AI, future research should investigate how frontline workers change their work practices and behaviors as they face new types of human-to-robot and robot-to-robot interactions.

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