National Academies Press: OpenBook

Office Workstations in the Home (1985)

Chapter: Overview

« Previous: I. Case Studies
Suggested Citation:"Overview." National Research Council. 1985. Office Workstations in the Home. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/168.
Page 5
Suggested Citation:"Overview." National Research Council. 1985. Office Workstations in the Home. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/168.
Page 6
Suggested Citation:"Overview." National Research Council. 1985. Office Workstations in the Home. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/168.
Page 7

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Overview Dora Miller The twentieth century has seen an unprecedented amount of change. The Industrial Revolution, which started in the eigh- teenth century, spurred raclical changes in the social structure of the family, government, and workplace. These changes have been accelerated by a continued flow of invention. The inventions, in turn, are being fueled by very large expenditures for research and development, providing opportunities for improved living stan- dards. Yet, people still fee] overwhelmed by complex new technology. In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned a study to determine what major technological breakthroughs could be anticipated in the following 25 years. The study group was asked to project the effects of such inventions on society and to suggest actions the government might take to minimize the potentially undesirable ones. This august group, chartered uncler the auspi- ces of the National Academy of Sciences, carefully documented the long time it took for inventions to reach maturity. They recog- nized that the telephone and television had still to make major impacts on life in the United States. The anticipated inventions of major interest to the study group were the mechanized cotton Don Miller is San Jose laboratory staff manager, General Products Division, IBM Corporation. Ted Climis, also of IBM, assisted in the development of this article. 5

6 CASE STUDIES picker and the photoelectric cell. Atomic energy, jet aircraft, rock- etry, and computers were completely overlooked. No mention was made of major medical advances that had significantly length- ened life expectancy. The attitude of the Roosevelt Group was not unlike that of the New York Times, which expressed dismay that a genius named Robert Goddard wasted so much of his time in childish experi- ments on rockets. During the same period a noted British admiral developed a very learned report proving with great dignity that the scoop propeller would be a failure since it was impossible to steer a ship from the rear. Despite such an uneven track record for foreseeing major devel- opments that win significantly affect our society, the rate of change continues to accelerate. Thus we need to continue to select developments with a potential for causing significant changes and then evaluate their consequences. One such change is the acI- vent of telecommuting the use of inexpensive yet powerful com- puters with sophisticated telephone linkage systems. New devel- opments in the information processing industry that make the electronic cottage or home office workstation possible have at- tracted much attention. The mere mention of the concept rapidly elicits strong emotions and polarizes discussion. The following case studies place this phenomenon in perspec- tive. They are not blueprints. They provide a sampling of experi- ences, some successful any others less so, pointing out why such projects were initiated, the levels of expectation, and the results. They reveal the potential that exists for positive results without minimizing problems and unexpected side effects. The home workstation is only one element among many that are causing changes in the workplace. The rise of mail order opera- tions, the entry of large numbers of women into the work force, changes in energy supplies, transportation policies, a population with reduced mobility, and different lifestyles are interacting and influencing the way we work. We have chosen to focus on one of these major developments- specific approaches and responses to homework programs using new information processing technologies. Common threads run- ning through the case studies are (1) the swiftly growing need for information processing, (2) concerns about potential exploitation of the work force and regression in areas where social progress has

OVERV~W 7 already been made, and (3) opportunities to further social prog- ress and improve work activities. Two themes emerge from a review of these projects: the rate of acceptance of new ideas is less affected by the technology than by the willingness of society to experiment with new ideas and meth- ods; and new support structures as weB as changes in the current support structures must be developed before any significant ben- efits from this phenomenon can be realized. We are not standing on the brink of an abyss, nor are we facing any kind of an incipient revolution. Major changes seldom occur in such an uncontrolled environment. There is time for further investigation, analysis, experimentation, and evaluation. At the same time, forecasts indicate that more than 10 million personal computers will be installed before the end of this decade. A computer-literate generation is already graduating from our school system. It would be unrealistic to assume that such capa- bility will not be used or that further advances will not occur. For areas such as programming development the economic benefits of homework can be clemonstrated, and the acceptance among pro- fessionals is quite high. In other areas many questions remain to be asked and answered. The electronic homework concept should be assessed as one more too} to assist in managing a work force already in transition. At the same time, business sense should cause us to apply cost and productivity measures that lead to successful innovation. We believe that the information and ideas—presented in these case studies provide a basis for initiat- ing intelligent investigations. We also hope that they win provide the motivation to experiment and arrive at new and informed conclusions.

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Telecommuting—people working at home with computers connected to offices many miles away—could reshape the way America works. What are the effects of this phenomenon on workers, managers, and labor unions? What is the technology behind this arrangement? What are the legal implications surrounding telecommuting? In this volume, these issues are addressed by experts in computer applications and information systems, business and industry, training and operations, corporate forecasting and analysis, law, organizational behavior, and labor. Case studies of several actual telecommuting systems are presented.

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