What do experts think about digitalization research? Results of an online real-time Delphi

CAIS used a Delphi study to survey university experts in North Rhine-Westphalia. The results are designed to help organize future research in the field of digitalization.


The digital transformation permeates all areas of society, including the sciences and how they relate to data, theories and methods. At the same time, the complexity of the digitalized world and its dynamics challenge our understanding of how people, data and technology interact. The digital transformation has a direct impact on the relationship between individual and society, with far-reaching changes to society and sometimes disruptive breaks in existing structures being the result. Studies suggest that people vacillate between confidence and skepticism when it comes to technological changes and innovations in their everyday lives (Hampel et al. 2019; Kirchner 2019).

Abbildung 1. Überblick über den methodischen Zugang

But how is university research responding to the upheavals of digitalization? How will digitalization research develop? What should be its focal points? How should interdisciplinary research in the field of digitalization be conceived, so that the focus is on the chances and challenges for people?

Predictions of future challenges

An online real-time Delphi was conducted to identify future focal points and challenges. This format is an adaptation of the Delphi method:

At least two rounds of written interviews collect expert knowledge and assessments on a specific issue, with participants having the opportunity to correct their statements during the process (Döring & Bortz 2016; see also Figure 1).

The aim of the various rounds is to gauge consensus and disagreement with regard to judgments, with these then yielding well-founded predictions.

The results are intended to help focus and organize future research in the field of digitalization. The expert assessments are also designed to help identify guiding questions and focal points for digitalization research. The study is thus a key component for identifying research topics at CAIS (Figure 2).

Online survey of almost 100 scholars

A standardized online questionnaire was used to survey the importance attached to digitalization, relevant topics, and assessments of the future of digitalization research (theories, data, methods, interdisciplinary collaboration). The results were summarized at the end of each topic block and fed back to the participants so that they could modify their answers if necessary.

In September and October 2019, 98 experts (professors and postdocs from various research institutions in North Rhine-Westphalia; w = 18, m = 53, n.a. = 27) participated in the study. 21 had a technical background; 28, a background in the social or economic sciences; six, a background in the humanities or cultural sciences; and eight, a background in medicine or the natural sciences.

Digitalization research is multifaceted

More than three quarters of the experts consider digitalization to be a key and lasting driver of social modernization. Their focus in terms of topics is on algorithms, social media, and Work 4.0, with areas such as IT security and data protection, as well as education and digital sovereignty, also being deemed important (see Figure 3) – areas where university laypersons also see a need for action (Hampel et al. 2019; Kirchner 2019). Although the experts also see the importance of research into artificial intelligence (AI), more than a third believe the expectations regarding the impact that AI will have on society to be quite or very exaggerated.

Digitalization research should be interdisciplinary and transparent

Digitalization is as diverse as the disciplines that should be involved in its study. Although deeming the involvement of computer scientists to be necessary, the experts also believe that digitalization research does not necessarily have to establish itself as a separate discipline, but should be interdisciplinary at least (see Figure 4 & Figure 5). Besides various sub-disciplines in computer science, it should also involve disciplines in the social sciences in particular. According to the experts, what interdisciplinarity also requires above all is for researchers to be open to new methods and to the revision of established theories, while the complexity and dynamics of digital data also demand that the research process be transparent and comprehensible.


Döring, N. & Bortz, J. (2016). Datenerhebung. In N. Döring & J. Bortz (Hrsg.) (2016). Forschungsmethoden und Evaluation in den Sozial- und Humanwissenschaften. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Hampel, J., Zwick, M. M. & Störk-Biber, C. (2019) Technik Radar 2019. Was die Deutschen über Technik denken. Eine Studie von der Deutschen Akademie der Technikwissenschaften und der Körber-Stiftung. Abgerufen am 17. Dezember 2019 von https://www.koerber-stiftung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/koerber-stiftung/redaktion/technikradar/pdf/2019/Technikradar-2019_Langfassung.pdf

Kirchner, S. (2019). Zeit für ein Update. Was die Menschen in Deutschland über Digitalisierung denken. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Abgerufen am 17. Dezember 2019 von http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/fes/15549.pdf