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Office automation.

During the past several years, much concern has been expressed about the impact of automation on employment and on the economic and social well-being of workers. Historically, such concern has focused on workers in factory jobs; now the impact of automation on the modern office is also being discussed. Some see the automation of the office as a means of fostering economic growth and increasing productivity. To others, it means reduced employment opportunities and the possibility of losing a job.

Many view office automation as a recent phenomenon created solely by the computer revolution. This is a mistaken view, however. Offices have traditionally utilized available technology. Just think of the dramatic changes brought about by the introduction of telephones, manual typewriters, and adding machines. In a sense, the rapid proliferation of computerized office equipment is the continuation of longstanding eforts to improve the tools used by office workers. Developments in computer technology, however, have enabled designers to make improvements with bewildering speed.

The rapid phase of office automation began in the late 1950's with the development of mainframe computers. These large, centralized computers had a major impact upon office work because they provided a tool to process a large volume of information quickly and efficiently. Payroll and billing accounts, for example, which require a great deal of repetitive work, could be updated rapidly by computers. The high cost of mainframes, however, limited their use to large organizations, such as government agencies, banks, and insurance companies.

In the three decades since computers began to be used extensively, their impact fell most heavily on clerical workers. The automation of clerical tasks slowed the growth of many occupations, such as file, bookkeeping, general office, and payroll clerk. But new occupations were also being created; keypunch operator and computer operator were the most visible examples in the clerical group. Overall, employment of clerical workers grew almost twice as fast as the labor force between 1962 and 1982 (see chart).

The invention of the silicon chip and other recent advances in microelectronics technology, however, have led to the development of smaller, more flexible computers and related equipment and made possible the automation of many more office functions. Furthermore, equipment costs have declined, allowing small firms to automate. As a result, there have been more widespread effects on the employment of clerical workers. For example, many typists and secretaries now use word processors instead of electric typewriters; their higher productivity has moderated employment growth in these occupations. A similar slowdown in the employment growth of bank tellers has resulted from the proliferation of automated teller machines and the increased use of electronic funds transfer. The number of workers in some clerical occupations has actually declined recently because of technological advnaces. Optical scanners and the greater use of other terminals and personal computers permit the direct entry of data, bypassing the keypunch operator and causing employment of these workers to fall. Computerized record systems have reducted the number of file clerks. And the employment of telephone operators has declined as electronic switchboarding has been implemented.

Automation Pros and Cons

A number of incentives exist for organizations to automate their offices. Many business owners and managers believe that the competitive position of their firm--and perhaps economic survival--depends upon their ability to increase productivity rapidly. Many organizations also have identified mputerized operations as a way to expand and improve service to their customers. And pressures to automate tend to build as equipment costs decline and capabilities increase.

While benefits can be dervied from automation, firms have not automated to the extent possible ue to a variety of barriers. Presently no national standards exist for either hardware (equipment) or software (programs). This encourages manufacturers to differentiate their products from those of competitors in order to increase the use of their entire line of products. But incompatible equipment restricts the ability of managers to integrate machinery into an office system. The incompatibility may be between the personal computers used by professionals and the central computer on which files are stored or between word processing equipment in different departments. Sometimes office equipment is poorly designed to meet user needs. Problems range from complicated instruction manuals to furniture that cannot be adjusted to the user's body.

Financial barriers include the high cost of office systems and uncertainty about productivity gains. Because claims of increased productivity of managerial and professional workers are difficult to substantiate, some organizations have been reluctant to invest in equipment.

Social barriers to automation refer to people's natural resistance to change, fear of computers, and employee and union concerns about job security, advancement opportunities, and working conditions. Many managers and professionals have been isolated from computers, and many are uncomfortable with the new technology. According to manufacturers of office equipment, the most powerful executives generally are the most likely to resist computers, perhaps because they have succeeded without them and don't see the need for them. Many individuals and unions hesitate to accept automated office equipment for fear that it will reduce job security and eventually lead to layoffs and poorer working conditions. Their concerns about working conditions seem to be justified by recent evidence. Field studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found that time spent working at a visual display terminal (VDT) is correlated with high stress levels among clerical workers. Some evidence also links VDT use to higher incidences of miscarriages and other prenatal complications.

Researchers also point out that workers are concerned about the computer's capability to monitor them, creating electronic sweatshops. Because maximum utilization of automated office equipment is attained by working round the clock, workers fear they will be forced into shift work. Productivity increases permit parttime workers to replace full-time employees, allowing employers to eliminate fringe benefits. The development of more user-friendly systems could also result in lowering the skills needed for some jobs. For example, many word processing systems automatically indicate all misspelled words, relieving the operator of the responsibility of typing accurately. As skills deteriorate, these workers may receive lower pay and have reduced prospects for upward mobility.

In spite of the seriousness of these barriers, experts believe that many of them will be overcome during the 1980's. Technical barriers are expected to fall as national standards for hardware and software rmulated and as manufacturers stress user-friendliness in design. Financial barriers will fall as the costs of office systems continue to decline and as more employers become convinced that productivity increases are attainable. Problems related to working conditions will not be as easily solved, although job security guarantees and extensive training and retraining programs can substantially reduce organizational resistance to new technology. In all likelihood, these issues will be high on the labor-management negotiating agenda in the years ahead.

What the Future Holds

Over the next decade, we will see continued improvements in the capabilities of office equipment. Experts expect a shift in the focus of product development toward managerial and professional workers as manufacturers continue to target this relatively untapped segment of the market. Manufacturers also are working on new technologies. For example, many firms are developing voice data entry systems, in which data are entered by speaking into a microphone. These systems can translate spoken words into a computer language that can be printed out in English. Artificial intelligence systems are also receiving a lot of attention. One goal of artificial intelligence is to program computers to think as humans do. Manufacturers hope that these systems will be able to give expert advice on various situations and create programs for users who do not know how to write programs.

Of course, no one knows for sure how technology will affect employment in the years ahead. Because microelectronic technology saves labor, howeverS, employment in some occupations will very likely decline as functions are automated. Experts also agree that technology results in raspid employment growth in new occupations--computer specialties, for example. What is less clear is how these forces will interact. Will increased productivity result in fewer available jobs or will business expansion create even more demand for rkers?

Many experts believe that the employment of clerical workers will decline in relative importance as more small organizations use existing technology. For example, a report released by the Georgia Institute of Technology focuses on the impact of new technology upon clerical employment in the banking and insurance industries. This study projects little or no growth through 1990, followed by a decline in employment through the year 2000. In another study, Matthew Drennan of New York University studied the effects of office automation in six office industries (banking, insurance carriers and brokers, securities, credit agencies, business services, and miscellaneous services). He projects that clerical employment will grow only slightly through 1990, reversing a 20-year trend of much faster than average growth. The most recent study of this subject also points to a relative decline in clerical employment. In their report on the study, which was conducted by the Institute for Economic Analysis at New York University, the authors conclude that although clerical employment will rise significantly by the end of this century, it will decline noticeably as a proportion of all workers.

Projections developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are fundamentally consistent with the findings of other researchers. In the latest set of BLS employment projections, clerical employment is projected to rise only moderately through the mid-1990's and increase slightly as a proportion of total employment. This represents a significant change from the 1962-82 period when the clerical share of the labor force rose from 14.8 percent to 18.6 percent.

Because there is fundamental agreement that employment in specific clerical occupations will decline with further automation, persons considering clerical jobs should take positive steps to insure their future employability. Many experts believe that basic academic skills may be more important than technical skills that can become obsolete. A recent report by a National Academy of Sciences committee supports this view. Other studies have found that education levels and skill requirements have not been affected by the use of new technology. Employers can train workers for technical jobs, but only if they have a strong basic education. Adjusting to new technologies can be traumatic, but the change will be much easier for those who are properly prepared.
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Author:Austin, William M.; Drake, Lawrence C., Jr.
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1985
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