Tailoring jobs to computers, and computers to people

A lawyer buys a microcomputer for his one-man practice. First he hires a $5 -an-hour secretary and teaches her to run the thing.

Next he has to replace her: Her newfound skill has made her a $12-an-hour secretary and she has been hired away from him.

On the other hand, it doesn't always happen that way.

For this secretary, who had some well-rounded office management skills, becoming an initiate in the growing computer clique more than doubled her hourly value.

Yet for others the computer age now means sitting screen to screen in big offices typing names or numbers onto keyboards all day. It doesn't demand skill, and it doesn't develop skill.

Still, the incentive to learn the new electronics of the office is a solid one: ''The better you know this stuff and take advantage of it, the more valuable you are,'' sums up Frederick Williams, professor of communications at the University of Southern California.

The worker who uses a range of skills - like the law office secretary - has the most to gain from learning the new technology, according to Dr. Williams, whose recent book, ''The Communications Revolution,'' is on the social aspects of the high-technology deluge. A computer is apt to make job like the secretary's less tedious, more efficient, and, by some accounts, more high-powered. But the advantages are more ambiguous for the clerk or typist in a bureaucracy typing numbers from forms into the computer all day. In some cases , Williams points out, the work is so basic and repetitive that it doesn't even require the typist to speak English.

At this extreme, many of the workers could otherwise be migrant workers, picking fruit and vegetables in the fields. A working day of typing names and numbers is a step up. But does the step lead anywhere? Can they progress? Can this new work open the doors of upward mobility to them and their children?

If not, says Williams, we could be caught with a technological underclass that can't jump the gap into the more skilled side of the computerized world.

In the meantime, ways of making the working life of computer clerks and word processing typists more pleasant are developing. Little things make a difference , such as well-controlled lighting, equipment shape and position, a certain amount of human interaction during the day, and personally delivering finished work to whoever needs it.

Williams finds in giving seminars to organizations that sometimes people even need help overcoming the sense that they aren't doing anything when their work is mostly invisible to them, stored in the machine's tiny memory.

This is fine tuning, but at middle- and upper-management levels new ground is being broken. The computer is spreading into the offices of people like financial planners and marketers, beyond the realm of full-time programmers and data processors.

So not just secretaries, but their bosses as well, will have screens and keyboards. There a manager can rough out memos as conveniently as dictating them and call up files electronically more quickly than sending someone after them.

Innovative and technically curious professionals have already computerized themselves. Others, notes Alexia Martin, a management systems consultant at SRI International, resist using the computer because it smacks of typing - a task they have traditionally had someone else do. One easy answer is to call it keyboarding, she suggests, a term with less low-prestige baggage.

Companies selling electronic office equipment are starting to sink more money into research on how people use it. In a way, Martin says, equipmentmakers are ''just beginning to figure out what these people do'' so that computers can be tailored to specific jobs the way word processors have been to the work of typists.

For instance, she cites a firm doing profiles of salespeople to suit an electronic system to their needs, rather than to computer programmers. Since sales teams were found to be generally social, verbal, aggressive, status-conscious, and tough-minded, and to have short attention spans, the vendor will lean toward robust, masculine casing that projects prestige similar to a good-quality stereo or camera. Whatever the packaging, however, the systems's uses should be evident to a novice within 15 minutes of first sitting down with it.

Companies are beginning to adjust. IBM coined a concept called an information center where managers can go for ad hoc advice and programming help for whatever tasks they want their machines to do.

Boeing and Control Data Corporation have automated even that idea with their TEACH and PLATO programs, respectively, which work as step-by-step guides that can be applied flexibly to whatever task comes up.

Amoco Production Research in Tulsa, Okla., teaches its professionals - mostly scientists - just enough to use the system and lets them come back for more training as they want it. Martin says there is a tendency to overtrain, telling users more than they can yet see the use for.

Still other professionals bring their own microcomputers into work, sometimes even when there is a larger system available to them. Or they have access to a computer at work and buy another for working at home.

Don McConnell, vice-president for marketing at Computerland, a chain of 267 personal computer outlets (over 300 by the end of the year, the company projects), says that more than 80 percent of the personal computers they sell go into a work place of some kind. Most of them are not for keeping the books of a business, as in the case of the one-man law practice, but are headed for the desk of a professional person. Ninety-six percent of them, incidentally, are men.

Many professionals, Mr. McConnell speculates, want to break away from the larger system for greater privacy, independence, and access to computer time.

For people who want to learn whether they can use a computer at work or at home, or how they can use one better, Dr. Williams teaches evening classes in cooperation with his wife's Commodore computer store. Similarly, retail outlets throughout the country also help set up classes and seminars.

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