Office Automation is a general term that includes a wide range of applications of computer, communication and information technologies in office environments. Though automation is in a continual state of flux, the size of the market is huge, with annual investments measured in billions of dollars. Automation has altered not only our work environment, but our very concept of work.
The technology we see today had its start in the 1960s, when 3 clearly identifiable streams of development became evident. The first was computing, where the earliest applications were automated payroll and inventory-control systems. Other applications were also limited to the processing of numerical data. These systems were usually operated only by programmers in the data-processing division of the organization, who jealously guarded their computers and the power their knowledge of the computer gave them. Nevertheless, the applications of computers in organizational settings grew to include more and more kinds of data processing.
The second stream of technological development was in the area of text processing. In the mid-1970s IBM introduced a product called the MCST - Magnetic Card Selectric Typewriter. This device had a box crammed with electronic equipment. The operator would insert a specially coated card the size and shape of a standard IBM punch card into a slot on the top of the box and would type on the attached typewriter as usual. The card served as a memory device, on which the text would be written in a code based on magnetized spots. Once it was entered, the text could be edited and played back, causing a new copy to be typed out on the attached typewriter. Compared to current word-processing systems, this one was primitive, but it worked.
While the first 2 streams were centered around the processing of information in the office, the third, COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY, focused on the movement of information from one place to another. A wide range of techniques to achieve this end were introduced, from telex and facsimile services to services using specially conditioned TELEPHONE lines and others using sophisticated satellite links between distant points (see SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS). The industry today includes several types of coaxial cables, fibre optic lines, cellular telephones, and packet-switched radio and telephone links.
The most dramatic shift for business in communications technology has been the Internet. Increasing use of the Internet in the form of e-mail and websites is transforming the work environment. The Internet has broken down traditional geographic barriers to communication, opened up markets, and created an environment of almost instantaneous feedback. As the government policy of convergence makes high-speed Internet the norm, businesses will rely more and more on the Internet for their communication needs.
When the 3 technologies are incorporated into an office environment, many improvements become possible, but they are mostly improvements in the speed with which work is done rather than in the kind of work that is done. Office automation in the 1980s began a new trend - the integration of previously separate capabilities into single powerful "work stations." Even the most basic home office today contains, through the use of a single computer, the following capabilities: word-processing and home publishing abilities; access to information previously stored on files at other locations, together with the ability to communicate with other stations on the Net or on other nets; electronic messaging systems, including any combination of text, graphics and voice, connecting users to others on the same net or, through gateways, to people on different nets in other places; activity-management systems, including time management, project planning and scheduling, and electronic calendar capabilities. Information management systems range from straightforward storage and retrieval systems, where the user does much of the work of storing and retrieving, to sophisticated natural-language expert systems. These provide assistance for people who deal with large volumes of diverse types of rapidly changing information. Decision-support systems incorporate sophisticated programs on large databases that allow the user to perform complex analyses in a way that improves the speed and quality of decisions that are made.
Today, we continue to see major developments in several areas. The power of the computers driving most technology continues to increase exponentially. Not only can computers process and hold more information, but they also process this information with greater efficiency and speed. More significantly, computers allow the individual to perform a multitude of tasks almost simultaneously. For example, on a single computer a worker can be connected to several websites at the same time, receive e-mail, and work on a number of different files. As well, the cost of the technology continues to diminish to such an extent that computer literacy in the workplace is now expected.
The Impact of Office Automation
The computer is changing the office environment much like the automobile has changed the city. Effectively integrated office automation systems may result in the restructuring of entire organizations, with the emergence of new structural configurations and the elimination of departments or entire divisions. The new information technologies have led to a large reduction in the size of the average organization's middle ranks. Moreover, the workers who remain are no longer tied to a centrally located office: telecommuting has become a new trend in the business world. On the positive side, this trend enables individuals to work from the comfort of home; on the negative side, this lack of a common office environment may contribute to the erosion of the city core. The new technologies may also have the potential to strengthen the power of trans-national corporations in Canada, contributing to the erosion of Canadian autonomy and displacing many people whose jobs will be automated. In most organizations office automation has been viewed as a means to computerize old procedures and to make employees more productive, rather than to make the organization more effective.
There is a rising level of fear of the new technologies and the impact they will have on job security and on the privacy of the individual (see COMPUTERS AND SOCIETY). There is also concern that the Canadian ECONOMY will suffer greatly if Canadian organizations do not develop and adapt to the new technologies. Whether or not Canadian industry will learn to use information technologies to their advantage in the increasingly competitive world system remains to be seen. It is safe to say, however, that the technologies will have a significant impact on the working lives of millions of Canadians in the coming decades.
See also INFORMATION SOCIETY.