'Office of future' to enhance decisionmaking

The plane has just landed in North Platte, Neb. I'm due in Los Angeles for a sales meeting but a snowstorm is closing in. During the flight, I had found something amiss in my quarterly sales figures so I need quick verification.

With the portable terminal in my briefcase, I get a seat on a train, notify the Los Angeles office to change the meeting time, and access the company's financial data base to check the suspect sales figures.m

Such a terminal -- just one component of the "office of the future" -- isn't a common item yet. But, along with many other information and communications tools either here or on the horizon, it promises to make our work lives easier, allow managers and secretaries to use time more effectively, and expand the office to wherever the office worker happens to be. At the same time, this new technology will require changes in work habits and, in many instances, reshape job responsibilities.

The office will be transformed over the coming decade. Yet it is not likely to be the revolution many are predicting. The transition will be evolutionary instead.

By 1991 many managers should be using work stations equipped with telephone and computer. This will allow messages to be sent more efficiently and vast amounts of information to be called up at a moment's notice. This arrangement will ultimately enhance one of the manager's prime responsibilities: decisionmaking.

The work station also paves the way for electronic mail, a system by which a consultant in Cambridge can type a message on a terminal which sends it electronically over the telephone to a colleague in San Francisco. The method is much faster and less costly than sending a typed letter through the US mail service and still allows the recipient to review the message at his or her convenience since it is stored in computer memory.

This is not to say that telephoning and typing will be obsolete in 1991. There will always be times when an immediate, personal telephone response or a signed document is required.

Electronic mail systems generate different cultural responses than do conventional paper or telephone systems.We will learn to evaluate people by electronic "first impressions" and not their persuasive or sultry voices. We will no longer be able to measure, at a glance, the volume of message slips to help plan the day. Excuses such as "I called you back and you were on the phone ," or "I didn't receive the message," will no longer work.

In 1991 managers won't be able to say they are lacking the information needed to make a critical decision. The work station will collect and analyze virtually any kind of data. In fact, it's already happening. Today it is possible to subscribe to computerized information banks that can be accessed over telephone lines. If a consultant needs to know about a particular company, he can type in its name and print out abstracts of all articles mentioning the firm from 2,000 recent publications.

Meanwhile, individual corporations are beginning to build their own data banks. By means of a terminal, managers can determine the sales of each employee, by product, for a given period. With this information, the manager can begin to ask questions on the spot. How will profits change if a different product mix were sold? How will additional sales of one particular product affect delivery schedules at the plant? This allows the person to consider different business alternatives.

Not only the life of the business manager, but also the world of the secretary will be changed. The word processor has already started to alter the secretary's role by eliminating much repetitive typing.

For the present, a secretary can look to the word processor to store standard paragraphs, rearrange text within a document, or move copy from one document to another. New programs allow the word processor to correct spellings and check hyphenation.

Add the likelihood that many managers will begin writing their first drafts on the computer and the typing load will decrease even more dramatically. Thus it is apparent that the secretary's job must change over time.

Rather than typing, the secretary will be responsible for seeing writing projects through. She (or he) will spend more time revising, editing, and distributing the final document or message. Increasingly, the secretary will act as administrator, data collector, and problem solver.

However, the discussion above implies that office terminals will be as simple to use as telephones and copy machines. Before that can happen, a massive effort will be required to create "friendly" equipment. These are machines which allow us to retain many of our current work habits.

Waste baskets, for example, are useful organizational tools. One can throw information into the waste basket at any time, but it doesn't really disappear until 6 p.m. Some word processors now have electronic "waste baskets" which give the disposer a grace period before the document is actually destroyed.

New filing systems will need to understand our work interactions and cues, and be able to mimic these as accurately as possible. As you can imagine, "user friendly" software is very complicated to write because the author must understand the complex and widely variable work habits of individuals. It will take time to evolve to the point where management or secretarial work stations are as easy to use as the telephone.

Communications technology is also going to be very important in the automated office. The cost of communications over telephone lines has been decreasing at a rate of 10 percent annually over the past five years. This cost decline is particularly important since many of the features and functions mentioned depend on the communication, of data or words over telephone lines.

We should not imply, however, that just because the cost of telephone service is decreasing, our equipment communication problems are solved. Compatibility is a chief obstacle. Competing brands of equipment, and even the models within a manufacturer's line, do not speak the same computer language. It's as though one spoke English and the other spoke Russian.

The future office environment will still include managers, secretaries, and many more computer terminals. The challenge to management will be to utilize personnel effectively. The equipment will be so inexpensive and so easy to use that patterns of decisionmaking will be possible. Decisionmaking can be moved to even higher levels within an organization, or it can be pushed down to include many more people.

It will be up to management to understand this new office technology and ensure that the company is best organized to take advantage of the most precious resource of all: its people.

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