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Office Modernization Requires a Functional-Integration Approach.

Office Modernization Requires a Functional-Integration Approach

Worldwide trends in employement suggest that if we do nothing to further modernize office functions, the wheels of our industrial society will be severely strained. The reasons become evident if we examine certain demographic statistics.

During the present century, the labor force has moved from the farm to the factory to the office. A hundred years ago in the United States--and the rest of the world parallels at least qualitatively the US experience--nearly 50 percent of the labor force was engaged in agriculture. It required half of our working population just to feed us. Modernization and agricultural technology have reduced that need. Fewer than three percent of the labor force is needed in the agricultural sector. By 1950 the agricultural labor force was down to slightly over 10 percent, and industry, which absorbed many of these agricultural workers, was about 40 percent.

In recent decades, more and more of the labor force has moved into the information sector, so that today, information workers account for 50 percent of the labor force. Information workers include managers, professionals, clericals and technologists--those whose work is largely concentrated in the office environment. A significant fraction of these workers are clerical or support personnel. Thirty percent of this work force is drawn from those in the 16-to-24-year-old age group. Population trends indicate that the rate of growth of this age group has been diminishing and will continue to do so. Stated very simply, we may not be able to find a sufficient number of qualified people to supply the needs of the office/ information economy in coming years.

The conclusion is that we must further modernize the office just as earlier generations modernized both the farm and then the factory through mechanization. This conversion will permit greater output with fewer people as the needs of the developing economies shift.

A Neglected Investment

The office, in fact, has been neglected as an object of capital investment. Where the average farmer or factory worker is now backed by around $50,000 of capital equipment, the capital equipment investment per office worker is a small fraction of this amount. To manage the increasing information-based economy, as a society we must move to increase investment in office facilities and services. It is significant to us as communicators that office modernization must include enhanced telecommunications coupled with value-added services that are computer based. Therefore, the response of technologists to information sector consumer demands is required.

Analysis of a large number of offices throughout the developed world has revealed that the average office worker-- whether managerial, technical, clerical or professional--divides his or her time approximately equally in three broad functions: publishing, communicating and data-base management (that is, storing /retrieving information). Publishing is anything from generating a letter with a single copy for the file to issuing multipage widely distributed publications. Communicating is transmission by voice over the telephone as well as writing by post, using delivery systems that have evolved over a hundred years. The latter has been characterized by increasing use of telex, facsimile and computer-based data communications. Data-base management is still largely accomplished by means of pieces of paper and the filing cabinet, occasionally augmented by computers.

Pervasive Communications

Of these three principal preoccupations of office and professional workers, communications is the most pervasive and ubiquitous. This is because both the publishing and data-base functions exist largely in order to be communicated. For that reason, a letter that is written or a report compiled is intended for distribution, whether to one individual or a multitude of receivers. Each document dispatched to a recipient represents another communications link. A data base is useful in an office environment only insofar as it is accessible to users, whether local or remote. The economics of data-base storage and maintenance is, in the long run, subject to availability and cost of communications links. This eliminates unnecessary duplication of the data-base, and provides for remote access and file manipulation management.

Attempts to modernize the office to date have been directed mainly towards adopting what specific technology has had to offer to each of the functions separately and distinctly. Thus, the publishing function in the office moved from mechanical typewriters to electrical to electronic and now to digitized word processors, text processors and personal computers, with an assist along the way by copiers, duplicators and automated printing devices. The communicating function has been largely a universe unto itself with increasingly sophisticated devices that simplify the operation and add capability--but still use the old methods of voice and telex/telegraph-grade networking. As for the data-base management function, we still rely mainly on the ancient filing cabinet and human retrieval, although magnetically stored files in computers are playing an increasing role.

The challenge we have identified-- which I wish to emphasize here--is to respond to the perceived consumer demand for interaction and integration of the functions broadly identified as publishing, communicating and data-base management.

A Key Office Element

It would seem that the importance and pervasiveness of communications as a key element in office systems would accelerate the embracing of new technologies to parallel those employed in document creation and processing. The pace of technological change in communications has been evolutionary. The introduction of technological advances into the consumer's telecommunications world, such adapting specific and unique system solutions to some office communications problems. The emergency of delivery services using fleets of wheeled vehicles from bicycles to jets, facsimile networks, data links and local-area networks are more evidence of a problem than a radical solution. All too often, system solutions have not been interactive or integrated-- they do not "communicate.'

Impact of Technology

In what ways, then, can we expect technology to impact this most important segment of office and business productivity? Several factors in the present technological environment give hints as to the directions toward which communications and computer technology will move. These are: the proliferation of personal computers and smart terminals in both the office and the home; the diminishing costs of communications transmissions through satellites, fiber optics and microwave links; and the increasing use of electronic typewriters, word processors and personal computer terminals that implicitly capture created textural material in coded form.

Benefit for Each Link

Thus, each link of the communications chain has had the benefit of some form of electronic modernization and cost reduction. Encoding of created documents has certainly benefitted the senders in improving the efficiency of the publishing function. The availability of personal computers and smart terminals benefits the receiver and enables greater efficiency in handling files; that is, data-base management. And, economical quality communications links make possible the movement of bits back and forth between these two constituencies.

This movement of information back and forth between electronic media and optically visible alphanumerics is taken for granted within the office and certainly has escalated the efficiency of each of these functions. Ahead of us, is the challenge to move these bits--which already exist in digital form within the office--out of one office to one or many other offices, be they next door or a continent away, and into receiver terminals whatever their type.

Maximum Flexibility

Computer technology can respond through flexible and adaptive software, coupled with responsive telecommunications networks. The consumer demand I am therefore addressing requires the provision of maximum flexibility in the handling of these bits along with related services that can be accomplished concurrently.

Taking Full Advantage

This is precisely what the proponents of electronic mail, messaging and data-base accessing are endeavoring to do. Our objective is to take full advantage of the widespread availability of computers and terminals in the office and in the home to enable them to communicate with each other, regardless of protocols and other frequent incompatibilities. At the same time, there are other added-value services.

We are, therefore, endeavoring to address a perceived consumer demand for:

Protocol, code and speed conversion

Text/address storage and manipulation

Information/data-base accessing

Efficient interfacing with telecommunications networks

Sender and addressee authentication

Delivery confirmation

Cost control, management and accounting for all the above

Two Catalysts at Work

The economic catalyst for all this is the fact that in most offices there is no longer an incremental cost to transfer information into encoded bits. The technological catalyst is the emerging software with which an intermediate enables point-to-point communication of the byte--not-withstanding possible incompatibility of disparate terminals or computers.

The scenario one can now project for the future of the modernized workplace essentially provides for universal office-to-office or person-to-person text communications along with data-base management. Personal computers in use in the United States alone are projected to grow to 40 million by the end of this decade. At least half will be in offices and business establishments. When added to the growing population of central computers and minicomputers, a majority of business establishments and a significant fraction of homes will be equipped with some form of terminal, usually with a printer.

An Increasing Challenge

We envision, therefore, a pattern of growth similar to the evolution of voice communication after the telephone instrument emerged. It should, in principle, be possible for messages--including text, data and graphics--to flow from any terminal to any other terminal world-wide. The telecommunications traffichandling capacity of national and international networks will thus be given an increased challenge; however, a challenge readily met through expanding capabilities in transmission and network switching of both analog and digital data.

The emergence of ubiquitous electronic mail and messaging capability is inevitable. The technology is here. Those of us responsible for applying computer-telecommunications technology have only to accept the challenge.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Graham, J.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Jan 1, 1985
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