When new digital technology is integrated in old organizations

As a recently graduated engineer in the late 1990's Fredrik Svahn early discovered the tension that appeared in large projects when traditional industry production went over to use digital software. Many years later, supported by four million SEK from the Wallenberg foundation, Fredrik has started a research project where the intention is to do a survey of how Volvo Cars integrates the mechanics with modern electronics.

– When a car becomes digital you change its architecture and the way it is organised. But you usually do not change the organisation of the company to reflect the new technology. And then tensions arise that cause problems. The Wallenberg project is meant to map out these tensions and then visualise them and show where the tensions usually appear, says Fredrik Svahn.


fredrik svahn
Photo: Peter Larsson

– Or, you can do it the other way round:

we now need a shift in technology, our new product will be digital but we will also keep a lot of the technology that is already in use. What changes do we need to make in the organisation to make this shift successful?

Fredrik Svahn tries to summarize his research project in a short and concise way: The start of the project was slow. Many pieces needed to fall into place but the start-up meeting has been completed and the project has now started.

It is important that Volvo Cars is interested already from the beginning and it is also important to get good contact with key personnel in the Division for Research and Development and the Division of Digitalization (formerly Division of IT) with whom Fredrik is planning to work the coming years.

But there is no lack of enthusiasm. The informatics researcher with a background in natural science – and with a cross disciplinary approach – has devoted a fair amount of his research career to this set of problems. And he wants to dig deeper into that area.

Driven by frustration

Since his first employment at Saab in Linköping, where Fredrik Svahn was constructing aeroplanes, via consulting assignments at Ericsson AB, and Volvo Cars in Gothenburg during the IT boom, he ended up at the Viktoria Institute, today's Rise Viktoria.

– I experienced a big frustration over the fact that many of the problems engineerers are facing are caused by organisational problems – one gets squeezed since software does not fit in the way the big companies are structured. That frustration is the reason for what I've been working on ever since.

– The manager of my consulting company at the time was understanding and allowed me to spend one day a week at the Viktoria Institute to abreact – which resulted in my industrial PhD position, and also that I started to work with Ola Henfridson, and that I in 2012 got my PhD, Fredrik Svahn says.

Fredrik later on got a postdoc position at the Department of Applied IT, which was a step towards a position as lecturer in 2014. Fredrik got his title as associate professor a while ago, he and his colleagues has started the international master's programme Digital Leadership, he has published research articles in prestigious journals as MIT Sloan Management Review, he is supervising a PhD student, and has also started another smaller research project targeted on the forest industry. And also bring the Wallenberg project home.

Back to Volvo Cars

Fredrik's focus in the near future will be on the return to Volvo Cars – yet again in a big project. But this time he is going to study the business, not be a part of it.

The plan is to investigate four different aspects of the work at Volvo Cars to get a full picture of the development of new products.

– In the project we will map the physical architecture, thus the components in the car, and also the functional architecture which shows us how new functions are linked together.

– I will then examine the formal organisation of Volvo Cars and see what hierarchies we can find. Finally I will explore the informal organisation – how people in fact are interacting and what coexisting informal organizational structures that can be distinguished.

– When we have these four surveys done and can visualise them, we have very good stuff to use in the development work. One way to use the material is to say – given the organisation we have – it might not be a very good idea to use this specific design. It might be technically motivated but we will still do this in a different way.

– Or, you can do it the other way round: we now need a shift in technology, our new product will be digital but we will also keep a lot of the technology that is already in use. What changes do we need to make in the organisation to make this shift successful?

Fredrik is hoping for to be able to visualise all the different flows and models to contribute to an understanding of the development work. A big and complicated project, but nothing he fears.

– I have had a lot of benefit from working for ten years in the activities I'm now doing research on. It has made it easy for me to to acquaint myself with the study object and to become one of those I am studying. I feel comfortable in big projects.

fredrik svahn

Associate professor at the Department of Applied Information Technology
Division of Informatics/Information Systems