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Enter the Cluster for Digital Innovation

Gerhard Schwabe

Gerhard Schwabe is Professor for Information Management at UZH. He is captivated by the relationship and effects of technology on human collaboration. Gerhard cites a smartphone camera as his favourite digital tool for its unprecedented capabilities to share information efficiently.

Gerhard is co-founder and a steering committee member of the UZH Competence Center for Blockchain and is engaged in several projects supported by Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency. 

We caught up with Gerhard Schwabe to learn about where business and computer science collide.

The field of information systems, or Wirtschaftsinformatik as we call it in German, is rather a young field of research. Can you explain why there was a need to create it in the first place?

Yes, it’s a rather new field that lies at the intersection of computer science and business administration. Traditionally in computer science research the focus has been on technologies that might not be relevant to the economy for another 10 or 20 years.

However, with digitalization becoming more and more relevant in every sector, a strong need was emerging to understand how today’s technology affects the economy as well as the opportunities and challenges it brings. The social aspects and the complexity of the world is just as important to think about as how capable technology is.

And will information systems continue to be an important research field?

Up until now our research held a unique position but the borders between computer science, information systems and business administration are being smudged out.

Our interest is never technology alone but how it interconnects people and organizations. It’s rarely just a technology issue or problem that needs to be solved. Over the years we have developed really good methodologies for this kind of interdisciplinary work.

What are your specific interests?

What I typically do is look at how information technology is changing the world now and what could happen in the next few years. Recently we have had several successful collaborations where we’ve acted as the bridge between computer scientists and business people in solving a problem. An innovation needs to be based on the holistic understanding of a problem and include business models, organizations and technology.

Which external stakeholders approach you for advice?

It’s from everywhere really. Medical practitioners to banks to the public sector. We have even had requests from the police.

So when you’re acting as the bridge between computer scientists and economists on a new problem, where do you start? Who do you talk to first ? 

Well, I must say I’m in two minds about this one. My common sense tells me to try and understand the business problem first and then see what technology can be used to solve it. But there is a trend that whenever a new technology comes to the fore, companies want to try it out. They might ask themselves what drones or blockchain means for them and it’s a good approach. Today, when we’re moving so fast, it’s good to get expert advice.

Does this also explain your motivation in founding the Blockchain Center in 2017?

Yes, the Blockchain Center is a perfect place for companies to go to with questions about how to apply blockchain or if they have some kind of experience or issue with it. There are experts at the center that can help with those questions and it’s multidisciplinary so you’ll even find lawyers there. The Blockchain Center is always about creating the future!

Blockchain is just one of the many technologies that you deal with in your work, isn’t it? 

Yes, that’s right. Actually, most innovations I work on deal with collaboration between people, and blockchain is collaboration on a very large scale. Most of the use is in inter-organizational systems, at least in a business context.

For 15 years, another branch of my research has been around how we can apply digital technology to help give advice. Financial advice, travel advice, any kind of advice really. Funnily enough, I always think I should finish this research area but whenever I do a new technology pops up that alters the possibilities.

So what is the latest trend around using technology to give advice?

What is coming now are conversational agents. Imagine that you are in an advice situation with an expert and a third person comes in, a computer that can talk. This computer will have a specific role as an expert to come into the conversation and explain something. Perhaps it’s with investment advice or in a conversation between a doctor and patient.

Now, what exactly should the computer’s role be in such cases? We are used to conversational agents like Siri or Alexa, but it’s new to involve this voice in a conversation between two people and it raises lots of questions.

That sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing all these insights into your work. Finally, could you recommend a podcast, blog or book for anyone interested in understanding more about this field?

Oh, that is a difficult question. What I really enjoy is Sascha Lobo. He’s a kind of punk that represents Spiegel Online on digitalization topics. I think he gives great insights. That might be something you want to check out!