Interest in digital transformation is growing globally, including developing countries which seek socio-economic advancement. Earlier we have briefly defined digital transformation for Development (DX4D) as radical structural and process changes in development, enabled by digital systems. We have argued that with DX4D, vision matters – a clear vision is required to intentionally deploy digital systems for development purposes – and that with DX4D, visions differ – digital systems and technologies can enable different development outcomes.
But whose vision? Who leads those digital transformations? It is the central argument of this post that, irrespective of different visions of development, it is development sector stakeholder organisations that lead DX4D. Consider the examples tabulated below:
|Digital . . .?||Transformation?||Development?|
|Financial Services (SDG 8) Fintech (e.g. M-Pesa)||Domination of financial institution-centred models (i.e. banks) disrupted by digitally-enabled peer-to-peer and micro payment models (e.g. mobile money).||Financial inclusion of previously excluded poor and marginalised. Well-established direct positive correlation with human development.|
|Labour (SDG 8) Digital labour platforms (e.g. UpWork)||Disruption and transformation of the forms of employment (e.g. micro work, online work, digital work on demand).||Positive livelihood outcomes, but also many negative outcomes and contestations for developing country workers.|
|Healthcare (SDG 3) Health data integration platforms (e.g. DHIS2)||Integration of data silos thereby transforming healthcare provision and medical recordkeeping.||Step-change in the effectiveness and reach of healthcare services, including disease surveillance, immunisation campaigns, primary healthcare, cancer tracking, reproductive health, etc.|
|Education (SDG 4) Digital learning platforms (e.g. Moodle)||Empowering of teachers, transformation of pedagogic processes and structures.||Improved access to and quality of learning, leading to positive livelihood outcomes.|
In each of these DX4D instances, there is a single organisation, or conglomerate of collaborators, that espoused the vision and took the lead:
- M-Pesa, as a fintech platform, was developed and continues to be operated by private sector organisations Vodafone and Safaricom in Kenya. The platform operates in seven African countries, has more than 50 million users, and reached almost 20 billion transactions by the financial year ending 31 March 2022.
- Upwork, as a freelancing platform, was developed jointly by private sector organisations Elance and oDesk from the USA – a newly formed entity continues to operate the platform. Through the platform, clients and freelancers from over 180 countries (a large share from the global south) interact.
- DHIS2, as an open source health information system platform, was developed through global collaboration led by the HISP Centre at the University of Oslo, but national ministries of health (in more than 75 developing countries) are the organisations that actually implement and use the system.
- Moodle, as a learning management platform, continues to be developed by many open source contributors around the world, but it is organisations, such as schools, universities, businesses and government departments, that adopt and incorporate the system into their operations – 6 of the top 10 countries where Moodle is used the most, are developing countries, representing 48% of the sites across the top 10.
From these illustrative examples we can observe how central the role of organisations is to DX4D. In some instances (e.g. M-Pesa and Upwork), it is the same organisation that came up with a vision, went on to develop the digital system, and continues to lead the operation – the developers are therefore directly responsible for leading the transformation. In other instances (e.g. DHIS2 and Moodle), the developers of digital systems differ from the adopters or implementors thereof – the visions of the former are therefore contextualised by the latter, who then take direct responsibility for leading the transformation. Organisations are therefore the structural vehicle for undertaking DX4D.
So, organisations have a pivotal role to play in DX4D, but so what? Recognition of the centrality of organisations in DX4D has at least three implications:
- From an organisational perspective, it emphasises the need for those who engage in DX4D to have a clear vision about the desired development outcome, as well as a sufficient change management strategy to pursue the desired transformations.
- From a digital systems perspective, organisations require adequate technical competencies to implement new digital systems, as well as a good understanding of how digital systems interact, and disrupt, prevailing structures and processes that relate to development outcomes.
- From a development perspective, organisations that lead DX4D must be aware of, and competent to engage with, the political economy in which such initiatives are embedded. For example, the disruptions caused by digital labour platforms have resulted in many unanticipated negative consequences, such as exploitation of gig workers. This gave rise to projects like Fairwork, which advocate gig worker rights, thereby exerting pressure on platform organisations to adjust their ways.
As we pursue a better understanding of DX4D, the illustrations and arguments outlined above prompt at least one action. Organisations sit at the heart of DX4D in practice, and a better understanding of their role – their visions, the requisite competencies and the processes they follow – should be included on a future DX4D research agenda.
It is surprising to discover how little research is available to help development organisations with the knowledge and competencies they need to succeed with DX4D. It is also unthinkable to separate research on the transformational and development outcomes of DX4D without accounting for the role of the organisation.
While this post cannot answer the ‘so what?’ comprehensively, it is hoped that both researchers and development practitioners might develop a stronger sense of the importance and urgency of better understanding the organisational implications of DX4D.
 Sarma, M., & Pais, J. (2011). Financial inclusion and development. Journal of International Development, 23(5), 613-628. Available: https://doi.org/10.1002/jid.1698
 International Labour Organisation (2021) World Employment and Social Outlook: The role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work. Available: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_771749.pdf (Access: 13-03-2-23).
 Graham, M., Hjorth, I., & Lehdonvirta, V. (2017). Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 23(2), 135-162. Available: https://doi.org/10.1177/1024258916687250
 DHIS2 In Action. Available: https://dhis2.org/in-action/
 Is technology key to improving global health and education, or just an expensive distraction? Available: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/technology-health-education-developing-countries/
 M-Pesa customer numbers from 2017 to 2022. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1139190/m-pesa-customer-numbers/
 60+ Top Upwork Statistics in 2023: Clients, Revenue & More. Available: https://sellcoursesonline.com/upwork-statistics
 Moodle Statistics. Available: https://stats.moodle.org/
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