Digital data at work: Management consulting, Public government and Healthcare compared

Digital data at work: Management consulting, Public government and Healthcare compared

Digital data at work: Management consulting, Public government and Healthcare compared. 

Ulrik Bisgaard Ulsrød Røhl, Ph.D. fellow 

Department of Politics and Society 

Aalborg University, Denmark 

Kasper Trolle Elmholdt, Ph.D, Assistant Professor 

Department of Politics and Society 

Aalborg University, Denmark 

Ninna Meier, Ph.D. Associate Professor 

Department of Sociology and Social work 

Aalborg University, Denmark 

Division: Organization & Management 

 

Introduction: 

Technology, organization and work co-evolve (Barley, 1996). Suggesting that we think of this in 

terms of socio-material assemblages, Orlikowski (2007, p. 1445) shows how “assemblage shifts over 

time as interests, computers, networks, choices, algorithms, websites, preferences, links, identities, 

and capabilities change”. The production and use of digital data through algorithms, machine 

learning, and artificial intelligence technologies has to date mainly been methods for inquiry rather 

than objects of exploration in terms of how they are put to use and what the consequences are. This 

is not surprising as developments in how the production and use of digital data are moving fast across 

professional fields, driving institutional change (Hinings, Gegenhuber, & Greenwood, 2018) in 

expertise-based forms of work. But how do technological changes such as AI, machine learning 

algorithms, and data analytics in general shape the organization and practice of professional 

knowledge work? How are their products, i.e. digital data, used in professional work? Based on 

ongoing qualitative studies in management consulting, public government, and healthcare, this paper 

explores how digital data is put to use in three different professional settings and ask: “How 

does digital data affect knowledge work?” In doing so, we will further the empirical knowledge base 

and theories of how use of digital data alters professional knowledge work in practice. 

To explore how professionals use digital data and what the consequences might be for professional 

knowledge and work, we draw on empirical examples from three larger studies of different 

professional practices respectively; management consulting, public administration case work, and 

healthcare. Management consulting, public government and healthcare share similarities. 

Professional learning, knowledge and judgment are essential in all three fields, typically supported 

through a case-based reasoning – what is learned in one situation can be brought to bear on the next 

situation. As such, it is not unproblematic to assume that professional knowledge can be separated 

from practice in these kinds of settings. Greenhalgh and Wieringa (2011) suggest that phronesis, 

situated practical wisdom, is often downplayed in favour of understandings of knowledge as 

objective, context-free, and easily separated from the knowledge production process – in other words 

data abstractions. At the same time, the ways in which professionals’ use digital data in their work 

might offer insights into what kinds of professional knowledge are produced hereby and how this 

impacts professional work more broadly, for instance in terms of education, on the job training, or 

management (Beane, 2019), which is our focus. 

Digital data and professional knowledge 

Our first case take place in management consulting, which is a relatively week profession without 

much institutional shelter (McKenna, 2006). This case is based on ongoing ethnographic fieldwork, 

where we focus on a management consultancy’s attempt at advancing a digital data tool that combines 

machine learning and behavioral science for people analytics with their public sector and private 

sector clients. Indeed, consultants play an important role in driving institutional change (Abrahamson, 

1996, Dimaggio and Powell, 1983), carrying and circulating (rationalized) ideas and imaginaries of 

new management practices. By studying this practice, we show how the digital data mediated 

knowledge base alter the professional practice of management consulting. 

Our second case is drawn from public government, a traditional case-work setting in public 

administration in the field of agricultural policy. Digital data practices are already significantly 

changing how bureaucracy is practiced and works (Clarke & Margetts, 2014) and how professional 

expertise and knowledge is understood and distributed. Here, public government professionals handle 

‘cases’ based on complex legal rules, procedural standards for decision-making, and accumulated 

work experiences. Clients are farmers and the core task is to implement public agriculture policy, 

while providing equal high quality public service to all clients. Case work is standardized, automated 

to a high degree, and each case is divided into separable parts (that case workers can have or produce 

data on). Thus, the ‘production’ flow of cases can be monitored and managed. Digital data are 

produced in part by data from individual farmers and from public databases. The case is thus expected 

to highlight changes due to the expansion of data analytics in the field of public management (Clarke 

and Margetts, 2014). 

Our third case is drawn from healthcare, which provides a case of strong professions (Abbott, 1996). 

Here we discuss how digital data and machine learning algorithms are increasingly positioned as 

solutions to quality and safety challenges, coordination challenges, and challenges relating to 

prioritization and use of resources. Clinical work is both standardized and particular to each patient: 

the healthcare practitioner’s professional judgement and decision is still seen as essential to ensuring 

safety and quality of care although use of AI technologies are high on the policy agenda (Government, 

2019). AI technologies that offers increased diagnostic accuracy or prediction of the next step in the 

patient’s pathway are especially well-positioned to alter professional knowledge and decision-making 

in practice, because they will perform professional knowledge work alongside healthcare 

professionals (Faraj, Pachidi, & Sayegh, 2018). How will professionals’ navigate in and use the 

growing amounts of digital data and how will this shape their knowledgebase? 

Comparing those three practices in the full paper allow us discuss how the use of digital data shape 

professional knowledge, judgement, and responsibility. 

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