The first one comprises communication actions about the benefits of these technologies within companies, raising employees’ awareness of their potential uses.
The second register concerns the mechanisms to be put in place when rolling out a tool to enable employees to familiarise themselves with its features (workshops run by digital ambassadors, online tutorials to teach users to master a tool’s functions, or assistance in getting to grips with new technologies from designated local trainers).
The third register, a very important one but one that is often forgotten in support schemes, reminds us that usage practices are not solely a matter of communication and proficiency in using the technologies. They are the result of the social processes happening in local contexts, processes in which the members of a working collective (be it permanent or temporary) have discussions and agree on the value added to their work by these technologies, on the usage practices they think it would be useful to develop for their work (at a given moment), on the collective usage rules, or even, sometimes, on the changes to be made to successfully match their work activities and the features offered by the technologies.
Digital transformation is not only a question of proficiency in using the technologies, but also a co-construction of uses related to the activity.
On the one hand, the word “digitalization” evokes major macro-economic shifts linked to automation and shifting borders and regulation methods in sectors such as retail, hospitality and transport. People talk about the platform economy, in which supply and demand are put in touch with each other through digital platforms (AirBnB, Uber, etc.) [1, 2]. At the macro-economic level, the questions concern the changing number of jobs and transformations in employment status.
At individual company level, meanwhile, the concept of digital transformation is used not only in reference to these wide-ranging changes (which generate significant questions about employment and the future of certain business activities), but also to refer to the introduction of digital technologies in day-to-day work (smartphones, tablets, instant communication, collaborative tools for sharing documents, videos, diaries, etc.). In this sense, digitalisation is just the latest in a series of transformations undertaken since the beginnings of computerisation in the 1990s and the introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the 2000s, bringing about changes in working activities and work coordination methods .
The “support work” of the digital transformation
For shedding light on this facet of the digital transformation within companies, this paper is based on a survey conducted within Orange in 2017-2018, targeting around fifteen local operational managers  and around fifteen other staff members responsible for digitalisation, called “messengers”. These messengers are very varied: digital ambassadors, ambassadors for educational and digital innovation, digital project managers, digitalisation managers for the various functions, community managers on internal social media, etc. For the local operational managers, traditionally referred to as “communication channels” for the company on account of their role in relaying and implementing transformations within their teams, digitalisation is just one of multiple changes (the others being job-related, organisational or procedural). This article focuses more precisely on a lesser-known aspect: the ways in which “messengers” support “digital transformations” .
The analysis identifies several discursive registers used by these messengers, which reveal different representations of digital technology, as well as various ways of spreading it.
How do “active digitalisation messengers” understand the different aspects of the digital transformation? What dimensions do they consider particularly crucial? What mechanisms do they use to support and guide their colleagues?
Some researchers have focused on support mechanisms. Marie-Anne Dujarier , for instance, identifies three distinct types of mechanism at work in executives’ management of major changes: process mechanisms (new rules and procedures to follow), goal mechanisms (setting objectives to be met) and enrolment mechanisms (delivering messages to explain and guide).
The interviews conducted with messengers at Orange enabled us to identify three main discursive registers used, which also correspond to three ways of justifying digitalisation and providing concrete support and guidance concerning it. The combination of these registers shows how digitalisation leads to opportunities for tangible action, not just abstract talk, to carry out the support and guidance work these messengers are involved in.
Three registers to define the digital transformation and support users in rolling out technologies
Digitalisation as a “stance” or a “line”
The first discursive register identified focuses on the stance or philosophy associated with digitalisation, which is defined as a change in mindset or values that leads to changes in individual behaviour (“curiosity”, “openness”) and in organisational structures (“decompartmentalisation”, “agility”). This approach is similar to the line taken by the company management and in communication actions. It is the approach employed by messengers who hold a cross-departmental role in their entity and are not so closely involved in production activities.
“For me, the digital transformation is a philosophy, a way of doing things (…) the idea that “with digital technology, I can do things differently”. (Digitalisation Manager)
“For me, it’s about all the managers and all the employees subscribing to the culture I am trying to cultivate… digital values, which means developing a cross-cutting approach, managing with your team and listening to feedback, showing recognition to your team, knowing how to let go when everything goes wrong, knowing how to launch things in the knowledge that you are going to suffer setbacks, but it doesn’t matter…”. (Digital Transformation Manager)
Digital technology is seen here as “opening up new possibilities”. This vision is a resolutely optimistic and all-encompassing one, because it holds that digitalisation in itself has effects on the ways in which people work (collaboratively, sharing information, etc.), without any need to tackle the organisational transformations this change would entail in any specific or targeted way.
Digitalisation as a matter of familiarising users with a technology’s features
Alongside this highly ideological vision, other active messengers see digitalisation as a much more technical matter. In their eyes, digitalisation is above all about using the technologies, familiarising yourself with their features, and incorporating their use in your everyday life, without specifically asking what they add in a professional context. This register is complementary to the first, in that it provides it with more opportunities for action: supporting users is not a matter of rhetoric, but a question of familiarising them with digital technologies, through training, assistance and monitoring of usage practices, thus reinforcing the role of the process- and goal-based mechanisms mentioned above.
“What I will call a “digital stance” entails knowing the digital technologies, knowing a bit about what I can get out of them, and thinking about how I can use them to make my life easier”. (Digitalisation Manager, Technical Support)
These practices are central to the work of ambassadors and spreaders of digital technology in the workshops they lead, in which they exchange tips, tricks and operational knowledge. Active messengers stress that it is only through these actions that digital technologies can really make sense and give a concrete dimension to all the words.
Digitalisation as an adjustment between digital technology and work activities
The third register places the emphasis on how digital technology fits into everyday working practices and is, in a way, geared towards helping the company’s functions evolve by answering concrete questions in matters such as customer relations. Supporting users in this context means starting from the knowledge employees have and the needs they express in their everyday working lives to show them how digital technology can offer them not a disruption or a radical shift, but the opportunity to work better in line with their existing practices.
“I have trained about 200 technicians to use the internal social network… I really focused that training on how it was used by technicians, taking the time to debate the issues involved with this kind of tool, and of digital technology in particular, using lots of examples they were familiar with from the technologies they use every day in their personal lives”. (Educational and Digital Innovation Ambassador, Training)
The idea is to create a link between the technical approach and the practical approach, by organising collective discussions on the value added by a new tool in the workplace . One digitalisation manager helps stores to fill, or even create their Facebook pages to increase their influence, as well as encouraging managers to post on Twitter. Another helps his colleagues to find usage practices that might be of interest to them on the internal social network.
“You come and see us, and we listen to you. We show you what we have already done, the features of the technologies and what they can be used for. We write your specifications with you. So, you say:
“In my day-to-day work with my team, this is what I do. And I need A, B and C. And then, once we have got your specifications, we help you to build a community, we “name” it so that it looks like a website, and we put all the features inside. We deliver it to the manager and then – and this is essential – we come and train the team on how to use the community”. (Digitalisation Manager, HR)
The idea of digitalisation being a philosophy or a state of mind is not totally missing, but it is based around action on the ground and a conviction that it is necessary to start from existing initiatives when developing usage practices and seeking to lend legitimacy to transformation processes.
The three registers presented therefore make it possible to legitimise digital technology and to give it meaning; they also give the active messengers concrete ways of acting and justifying their actions. The register of “cultural revolution” conveys an image of digital technology as something positive and unavoidable, while the desire to familiarise employees with the technologies and work on their appropriation of it in their everyday work provides a means of action (training, workshops, debates, etc.). Using technical matters and work activities as a way in, active messengers manage to interest stakeholders on the ground by helping them bridge the gap between digital technology and their everyday lives. These three registers are often intertwined in discourse on the subject and tend to mutually reinforce each other rather than cancelling each other out.
Local managers and digital technology: a transformation like any other?
Even if the local managers interviewed have no specific role in digital transformation as such, they still have to guide and support their teams as equipment, organisational structures and practices are updated. In this respect, digital technology is part of their remit.
Compared with active messengers, local managers tend to emphasise the fact that digital technology has been in operation for a long time and that the current changes are simply the natural continuation of changes that have already occurred in technology (computer science, advent of the Internet, etc.) and in the transformation of jobs, organisational structures and the service provided to the customer.
Managers interpret digitalisation not as a change of “stance” or “culture” (expressions heard from active messengers), or as an organisational transformation, but as a more tangible and nuanced evolution. They consider digital technology in relation to production challenges.
Like some active messengers, some local managers use employees’ work activities and needs to lay down the roots of digitalisation and employ the third register, focusing on the relationship between digital technology and work activities. Local managers in sales entities tend to associate digital technology with cost savings or profit gains and benefits in terms of simplification, time optimisation, and better coordination, be it in finding information, managing procedures more autonomously, or keeping records. In this respect, in their eyes, digitalisation is not only the natural continuation of past technical changes, but also an extension of existing management practices. For managers, harnessing digital technology for the benefit of work activities means making it a tool to boost revenue and productivity. More generally, for them, the use of digital technologies must result in more successful achievement of the goals they have been set, greater autonomy for their teams, simplification, time optimisation or better coordination.
”That’s how I think of it these days. Digitalisation is a way of organising ourselves differently to save time and optimise our time.” (IT Department Manager)
Finally, the managers we met see digitalisation, within the context of the goal-based mechanisms mentioned above, as a component of the rationalisation processes that have been going on for decades at several levels of the company.
“Business comes first. That’s what life’s all about. If I come along one day and propose an action plan for digitalisation, people will ask me, “How much does it cost? How much will it bring in?” If I can’t convince my audience, I’ve already lost. Digitalisation only works if you can sell it from a business standpoint.” (Store manager)
For managers and active messengers alike, supporting the digital transformation is about providing meaning, lending a certain coherence to the requests made, and tackling any concerns or reticence that may arise.
But what distinguishes managers from active messengers is a managerial (goal-oriented) approach to their implementation of the digital transformation, which provides a degree of reassurance about their tasks and duties. Their modes of action aim at incorporating the discourses on digitalisation into the reality of everyday work, its management constraints and in the continuity of previous reorganizations or technological changes.
Consequently, the managers play an important role in the appropriation of digital technologies within working collectives. The development of collective uses depends equally on their capacity to orchestrate discussions about the necessary adjustments between digital technologies and their team’s activity.