Comes the revolution in office productivity

By , Business editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Gerhard Friedrich thinks big. Mr. Friedrich, head of the office consulting group at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), aims at ''radically and dramatically'' increasing productivity in offices - say 200 percent in two years.

As for 10 or 15 percent productivity gains, ''that's all right,'' he says. Buying a word processor for a secretary might do that. With a word processor - sort of a fancy electronic typewriter - a secretary can, for instance, type a letter and make it perfect on a visual display terminal before printing it on paper. That saves retyping or otherwise fixing up a letter. Or she can put different addresses and names on top of the same letter body without retyping the whole thing.

But Mr. Friedrich aims at having an office completely rethink its operation - not just add the new high-technology equipment sold by DEC and a number of other companies. ''You have to look at the basic mission of the office,'' he says.

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Efforts to improve the productivity of white-collar workers are just now picking up steam. ''We have an almost virgin part of our economy which is called the office, for productivity improvements,'' says Carl G. Thor, an economist with the American Productivity Council, Houston.

Last month the council released the results of a survey of corporate efforts to improve office productivity. C.Jackson Grayson, chairman of the center, reported: ''Companies with white-collar productivity efforts in place are showing an average gain of 9.5 percent in effectiveness and efficiency. If procedures used by the companies in our study were universally applied, more than $95 billion could be saved annually. These savings, used in other areas, could foster strong economic growth.''

Some companies making strong productivity improvements in their offices are treating the techniques used as proprietory information. They want to keep it secret from their competition.

But Digital, based in nearby Maynard, Mass., is glad to tell its story, obviously hoping to step up sales of its office automation equipment.

Two yearas ago Friedrich launched four pilot programs within his company, with varying results. ''The key to what we do,'' he explains, ''is giving the end users [the office workers] total responsibility for both measuring and putting together all the plans themselves. It is not something we do to them.''

As the consultant, he helps them with education, tools, and support for the equipment. But it is their show.

This, he goes on, helps avoid office worker opposition as a result of a sense of new technology being foisted on them. The workers are encouraged to reexamine total office procedures with the goals of their work in mind, thinking of what degree of individual discretion and autonomy they will need to do the best job.

After doing this, he reports, one group of 28 people in manufacturing administration recommended that their function be eliminated. It was. The work was shifted to other offices. To give such a suggestion, the workers had to be sure they would have jobs afterward, and they did.

''You don't want just to automate nonsensical tasks you are now doing,'' Friedrichs said.

Another group of some 200 people in Burlington, Mass., Digital's New England sales and software office, figures it has improved productivity some 200 percent , although the current recession and weaker sales may have trimmed that percentage a bit. That productivity gain includes not only more sales per salesman but more complete and faster service for customers. It was done with electronic mail equipment, word processors, and a data-based management system. The salesmen now have an automated quote system. They punch in data about the customer's needs and specifications. The computer provides a price. The computer also guides the salesman in figuring out various elements of the computer system - central processing needs, accessories, cables, supplies, office space needs, floor loading limits, air conditioning needs, elevator size, and so on.

Before, such calculations might have taken a salesman a week or two to work out. Now they can be done in minutes, Friedrich noted.

Mr. Friedrichs has also worked with DEC's corporate purchasing organization, where the group has decided on organizational shifts, job changes, new systems, and better use of old office systems which, Friedrichs believes, could result in a 500 percent gain in productivity.

With this early experience behind it, Digital is now trying to spread the office productivity gains to other parts of the corporation and to a limited extent provide the information to customers.

The high-technology equipment, he notes, will become cheaper and cheaper with time. That will make the trade-off between equipment and labor even more advantageous for advanced office technology.

Offices, he adds, are usually looked on as overhead or cost centers, rather than as resource or profit centers. Thus they often lack clear goals and objectives. ''In general,'' he says, ''offices aren't managed. They have a lot of responsibility, but no authority. They have no performance criteria.''

At present, the average corporation spends some $2,000 to $2,500 on equipment for an office worker. One estimate is that this could rise over the next decade to $15,000 per worker.

One result, Mr. Hower said, will be a shift in the bulk of office work from routine tasks to nonroutine activities. ''It will create a more intelligent and creative workplace,'' he says.

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