Office automation Essay

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

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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