Digital transformation in social work – a small report from Hamm/Germany

Considering the fact that digital transformation affects all societal areas, it has become apparent that societal participation requires digital participation. Due to digitization new factors of societal exclusion have emerged. Caritas has to approach this problem to limit the digital gap.

Christine Kaier (Caritasverband Hamm e.V., Germany),

Social work as a profession is faced with societal changes and developments. It is obvious that the digital transformation affects the work of social organisations. However, it has been observed that social organisations partly underrate the fast dynamic of this digital transformation which has an impact on all dimensions of social organisations and their services. Social work requires a strategic process to cope with the complexity and the challenges of digitization.[1]

Therefore, a project group consisting of European social professionals created the position paper “Social work and digitalisation”[2] summarizing seven hypotheses which provide a good and systematic overview about important topics like digital participation, data and privacy protection, developing new methods and tools respecting theories and principles of social work. All in all, the project group encourages social workers and responsible persons of social organisations to take a proactive and co-designing part in the digital transformation.

If you want to know more about digitization and social work in Germany, this videocast with Prof. Dr. Kutscher is highly recommended – unfortunately it is only available in German:

Sozial braucht digital/social requires digital – Caritas Germany campaign 2019

Social work has to deal with digital transformation – but how exactly social organisations in Germany do that?

In 2017, the federal consortium of non-governmental, social welfare organisations (BAGFW) and the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) started a strategic collaboration to shape the digital future of social organisations and their target groups by analysing new challenges in a digital society, providing guidelines for social organisations and supporting them within the digital transformation.[3]

Caritas Germany is one of the six umbrella organisations participating in the BAGFW. Consequently, the Caritas Germany campaign of 2019 followed the motto “Social requires digital” to reshape internal structures and social services, to identify potentials and risks and to incorporate the needs of target groups and Caritas’ employees.[4]

“Digital is real”

Reading this statement, we all have ideas about what is meant: video calls, online shopping, online booking of appointments, e-learning and many more digital tools that we are using in our daily lives. It is still interesting to transform this “daily use” in data. In Germany, 86 percent of the population are “online” – this fact implies that 14 percent are “offline” and have no internet access. The following diagram shows the internet use of the German population including specific parameters[5]:


Edited/reduced version (including English translation)

For most of the Germans using the internet is a matter of course. They live in hybrid social environments connecting the analogue and digital world. But it is notable that the (mobile) internet use of some population groups is significantly lower, e.g. elderly people or people with a lower level of education. Considering the fact that digital transformation affects all societal areas, it has become apparent that societal participation requires digital participation. Due to digitization new factors of societal exclusion have emerged. The Caritas has to approach this problem to limit the digital gap.[6]

The digital gap is not the only challenge that comes along with digital transformation. Also, creating new accesses to the hybrid social environment of the target groups is essential. Different Caritas associations throughout Germany participate in pilot projects within the campaign 2019. One of the projects deals with the implementation of a safe messenger that the target group can use to contact Caritas’ professionals. Other digital projects focused on, for instance, e-learning, using Virtual Reality in retirement homes or developing an app for Caritas’ volunteers.[7]

Caritas 4.0 – social services 4.0.

With the campaign 2019 Caritas Germany provided a “vision” to all Caritas’ association throughout Germany – developing a Caritas 4.0 that is co-designing the digital transformation and is implementing technical tools in a reflexive way. How do we, as Caritas Hamm, realize this vision? And what challenges we have to face?

In 2019, Caritas Hamm included dealing with the digital transformation as one of the main goals to their strategic management. A detailed analysis of the current conditions concerning digitalization and its relevance towards target groups, Caritas’ employees and external stakeholders is the first task of the strategic process. Therefore, workshops have been instigated and a working group was set up to develop a digitalisation concept.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some digital tools have been introduced faster than originally planned. For instance, the social workers had to offer counselling via digital tools and also the professionals have to communication digitally with each other. Among technical challenges – yes, using zoom or bluejeans or teams was not really natural for us, but we’ve made it – social workers faced new methodical demands. Established methods of conversational skills cannot be transferred easily to the digital communication as the professionals have to cope with a different perception and a different setting. Fortunately, institutions for professional further training identified this need and developed training programs for social professionals related to digital counselling. Also, another difficulty, like mentioned above, relates to the access of some target groups to digital tools. For instance, how Caritas can support homeless people by keeping pace with digital tools?

Meeting of the team “integration/migration”

Another important issue that comes along with digitization: Data protection and ethical actions in a digital environment. New technological systems can support the autonomy of its user but this gain in autonomy can result in losses of data sovereignty. Caritas Hamm is using systems that protect the personal data of the target groups and constantly modify them to ensure an up-to-date data protection. But this is just one task class="text-left"dealing with data protection and ethics. Social professionals also have to teach their target groups how to handle their personal data safely in digital systems. The target groups have to be sensitized for publishing personal data and potential consequences.

Moreover, the digital transformation causes other demands towards the management level of Caritas Hamm. Usually, the refinancing of social services is locally bound in Germany. The digital transformation could partly blur these “borders”, so that Caritas Hamm has to deal with new strategies of refinancing. Also, the public relations work has extremely changed under the impact of digital tools. Therefore, Caritas Hamm is offering the podcast “nachgedacht” (“thinking about…”) in collaboration with Caritas Dortmund since February 2021. The Caritas’ directors of Hamm and Dortmund will look from different perspectives at day-to-day topics or will talk about the daily work routine of different Caritas’ departments. In the latest edition home schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed.

Hybrid social environments – hybrid social services

Despite the mentioned challenges (just a few of them), Caritas Hamm is on track linking analogue and digital tools in their services to create hybrid social services that meet the needs of their target groups. Participating in the WELCOME project entails an extension of the Caritas’ social services, but also is a great learning experience about implementing digital tools. In summer, the first prototype of the WELCOME application will be tested in the three host countries Spain, Greek and Germany. The results will not only be important for the further development of the WELCOME application, but also can be informative about using digital tools in Caritas’ social services and providing food for thought for further ideas.

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[1] Kreidenweis, Helmut (2019): Digitale Transformation – Grundlagen, Strategien und Rahmenbedingungen. In: Archiv für Wissenschaft und Praxis der sozialen Arbeit. Soziale Arbeit in der digitalen Transformation. 02/2019, p.6ff.




[5], p.14/15



support of migrants and refugees language teaching personalized embodied conversation agents social and societal inclusion decision support multilingual language technologies virtual/augmented reality knowledge processing