New Topologies of Work: Informatisation, Virtualisation and Globalisation in Automotive Engineering

Part of the Dynamics of Virtual Work book series (DVW)


In current debates about the future of work and organisations, digitisation and virtualisation move to centre stage. The terms ‘Digital Revolution’ (Rifkin 2011) or ‘Second Machine Age’ (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014) equates the ongoing changes with those of the industrial revolution. In ‘Digital Capitalism’ (Schiller 2000) or ‘Cognitive Capitalism’ (Moulier-Boutang 2012), the internet of things, Weiser’s (1991) foresighted vision, is becoming true much sooner than expected. Regarding a future of ‘virtual realities’, or ‘real virtualities’ as Castells (1996) emphasises, place does not seem to be of any interest. The spread of the internet nourished the idea that time and place (of work) would no longer matter. New topologies of work emerge, which demand a rethinking of notions of space and place. This paper reflects on empirical evidence of automotive engineering to draw a picture of these new topologies of work. Engineering work is facing crucial changes as a new phase of informatisation has been entered through the development of digitisation and virtualisation techniques and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). Collaborative engineering methods are being increasingly applied and global engineering seems to be a reachable goal. Engineering seems to be becoming spatially flexible: any time—any place. The empirical findings to be presented are based on two empirical research projects in automotive engineering. Four case studies have been conducted using document analysis and more than 40 guided qualitative interviews with experts in engineering management and engineers at the operational level in engineering centres or units. In summary, we found heterogeneous strategies to deal with the challenges of global competition and the financial crisis. The case companies try to enhance their global strategies, intensify the international division of labour in engineering and focus more on processes than on products. The aims of the companies could be characterised as locally-bounded and globally distributed at the same time, where globally distributed means within the same company and focused on nearshore locations. Consistent changes in automotive engineering has ongoing implications for the product development process and engineering work in the context of informatisation, digitisation and virtualisation. On the one hand, we find changes in work organisation, work content and the status of engineers, whilst, on the other hand, we find tendencies of relocating work through information spaces. Before presenting the empirical findings some thoughts on the differentiation of space and place will be put forward to demonstrate why we need a clear understanding of both and how these terms were used. The differences between and meanings of the terms: informatisation, digitalisation and virtualisation will also be clarified. These terms can be regarded as the central references of this paper and crucial to understanding the current changes in work and organisations.


Information Space Automotive Engineering Virtual Prototype Engineering Work Product Development Process 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of SociologyGoethe-UniveristyFrankfurt am MainGermany

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