The electronic mail system at Manufacturers Hanover Trust paid an extra dividend during the recent New York city subway strike when a few of the bank's key executives could not get to work.
From their homes, hotels, or temporary offices, they used electronic machines that look something like typewriters and are called "portable word-processing terminals" to plug into the electronic mail transfer system used by the bank. As a result, the flow of information suffered very little from the strike.
Businessmen, faced with masses of paper work, are rapidly turning to electronic mail systems to reduce costs. With approximately half the US labor force engaged in services or moving information, potential productivity gains for the economy are huge.
An electronic mail system has three basic components: a central or "base" computer that serves as the "mailbox"; word processors, which can either be small and mobile like portable typewriters or large and stationary like those at airport reservation counters; and the telephone system.
The transfer of a message occurs when a user attaches a telephone receiver to the acoustic couplers on a word processor and then dials the telephone number of the base computer. The computer recognizes an individual code which the user types on the word processor.
The user now has access to the memory of the computer and can send messages to the main "mailbox." These messages may be picked up by whoever has similar access to the computer. The user can also receive messages on his terminal's display screen.
This all happens in the amount of time it takes to make a phone call. Since the computer can take many messages at a time, the chances of getting a busy number are slim.Moreover, the computer is always "at home." And it is this facet of electronic mail that proponents say is its greatest help for productivity.
American Telephone & Telegraph reports that about 72 percent of all business telephone calls are not completed when first placed.
Kathy Richards, an office automation specialist with Bechtel Power Corporation, in San Francisco, asks: "Can you afford a two- hour delay on a multimillion-dollar construction project because the project manager can't be reached by telephone?" Bechtel is now able to leave in the "mailbox" messages from the home office to the field for any of its nationwide construction projects.A manager can check in on his terminal on a regular basis, or whenever he has the opportunity. The company plans to develop a worldwide "mail" system for its offices and projects.
Besides improving the flow of information, Bechtel's electronic mail system also solved a storage problem caused by the large volume of written correspondence. The company found that its home office was generating 100,000 pages of text a month, or two file cabinets per home office worker. It would need four floors of office space at an annual cost of $1 million to store this paper output.
But when it stored the paper work in minicomputers linked by electronic mail, it could store and retrieve 1 million pieces of mail while taking up no more office space per user than a standard TV set. A similar volume of paper mail would fill 50 file cabinets.
Dr. Thomas Marill, president of Computer Corporation of America, a pioneer in electronic mail systems, says that if 30 percent of an information worker's time is devoted to communication transfer, a 10 percent improvement in productivity due to electronic mail transfer would enable a company to do the same amount of work with 1.5 percent fewer workers.
Robert Dickinson, Exxon's manager of office systems technology, found that the paper load before the introduction of an electronic mail system was such that one memo at corporate headquarters generated 50 more pieces within the US and 19 internationally. Three years ago, he found, 95 percent of Exxon communication began as longhand.