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American Express Company: Project Homebound James G. Raney, ~Jr. On October 15, 1982, American Express International Banking Corporation began a pilot test of Project Homebound, a home- based alternative office system for the disabled. It involved the conversion of 10 home sites throughout the boroughs of New York City into fully automated electronic word processing workstations. Using a touch-tone telephone, a user dictated into a round-the- clock central dictation system from anywhere in the world. A homeworker accessed the system and transcribed the dictation on a word processing terminal. The typed data was transmitted via a computer-linked data communication line to a control cen- ter, where it was printed out. If revisions were required, the docu- ment data were transmitted back to the home site via a telecopier. The pilot test showed Project Homebound-to be viable and cost- effective. The performance of the homebound participants dem- onstrated that there is a rich, basically untapped resource of trainable, extremely competent, and highly motivated people. On Labor Day, 1983, the system was fully integrated into the company's total operation, and the homebound participants, who had been employed as independent contractors during the pilot, James G. Raney, Jr., is senior vice-president, Global Operations and Systems, American Express International Banking Corporation. 8
AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY 9 became regular, full-time, payrolled employees of American Express. BACKGROUND Project Homebound evolved in an environment influenced by new technology, the potential of an electronic cottage industry, business and community concerns, corporate social responsibil- ity, and the desire to tap the abilities of unemployed handicapped individuals. According to a prediction made by the Center for Futures Re- search at the University of Southern California, there could be as many as 5 million people employed at home in computer-related jobs by 1993. Another prediction suggests that development will occur even sooner, before 1990, and that the figure will be as high as 10 million. In The Third Wave, futurist author Alvin Toffler foresees a revolutionary new production system with a potential for rendering many of today's operating concepts unrecognizable. In New York City, as in many business communities, there is concern over the continually escalating cost of office space and the increasing shortage of space available for company expan- sion. There is also growing concern over the steadily rising cost of transportation and the effects of long distance commuting on a working population that is no longer clustered in urban areas. Therefore, it is only logical to investigate the option of a decen- tralized office system offering technical ant! clerical support. It has become increasingly apparent that the private sector is expected to play a more substantial role in helping to solve some of the social problems of this country. The private sector spends approximately $6 billion yearly on disability payments, and more than $40 billion are spent by the federal government on various social service benefits. President Reagan has emphasized the need for government and private sector partnerships, and has en- couraged private sector initiative in the area of social responsibil- ity. Meanwhile, the handicapped population has been continually seeking a fairer share of employment opportunities, an opportu- nity to be self-sufficient, contributing members of society. Our company has a long-standing commitment to this goal. The coming of age of high technology and the advent of tele- commuting and the electronic cottage concept have created a po- tential employment opportunity for a previously invisible seg-
10 CASE STUDIES ment of the unemployed handicapped population: those men and women who are unable to commute to work but who could other- wise compete in the traditional job market. These physically disablecI homebound people come with a set of credentials that renders them uniquely qualified. They are al- ready accustomed to a relatively isolated environment, and the systems developers and implementers are free to concentrate pri- marily on the technical aspects of the home workstation experi- ment and do not need to focus on the social and psychological implications. EQUIPMENT Project Homebound is the first home-based electronic word processing program to have tested and proven the feasibility of a totally telecommunications-based, automated off-site word pro- cessing workstation. It proves that work done at a remote loca- tion can have a production turnaround identical to that done on- site. Each home workstation is equipped with a Wang WP-5 stand- alone word processing terminal, the Ranier "Telestaff" central dictation system, and an Exxon SQIP-2150 telecopier unit. Each piece of equipment is linked by touch-tone telephone lines to a control center at American Express headquarters. The central dictation system to which material is telephoned consists of endIess-Ioop recording tanks, a supervision console, and a printer, all located in the control center. Ten tanks are used. Each tank has its own pair of telephone lines, one for incoming dictation and one for outgoing transcrip- tion. The tanks can simultaneously accept dictation and release dictated material for transcription. Because there can be only one dictator and one tr~nscriptionist accessing a single tank at a time, the incoming and outgoing telephone lines connected to each tank are programmed to hunt sequentially to the next respective avail- able tank line. Through the supervision console, the control center can iden- tify what is stored in each recording tank at any time. The identifi- cation of each document consists of user identification code, date and time of dictation, and its length in voice-minutes. The super- vision console can also identify which documents have been com- pleted, when, and by whom. Because the console allows the man-
AMERICAN EXPRESS COAlPANY 11 ual inputting of data, information about hard-copy assignments also can be logged into and monitored by the system. The printer, which is a part of the supervision console, can gen- erate reports on whatever relevant usage and production informa- tion is sought. The telecopier, a method of photocopying over telephone lines, dispenses with costly and time-consuming courier and postal ser- vices. Hard-copy assignments are transmitted to the home sites by the control center, which dials the line in the home. The home unit, totally unattended, can open up the telecommunication line, accept copies, and terminate the connection. The word processing terminals in the homes, as well as two cen- tral mainframe computers, are equipped with telecommunication protocol software and data transmission lines. Keyboarded data are transmitted to the control center through one of the main- frames via dateline dial-up. The transcribing unit is equipped with a headset and either a foot pedal, for those who use their lower limbs, or hand-control set, and a dictation control phone through which the transcriptionist accesses the central system, selects the recording unit from which to transcribe, and manipu- lates the speed, sound, and voice-recall controls. MONITORING AND CONTROL A carefully devised monitoring system is essential for measur- ing and assessing the performance of a homeworker and for pro- ducing the necessary administrative data. All work flowing through the control center is tracked and monitored, providing an accurate measurement of both the volume of workflow and the actual use of the overall work-at-home system. The supervision console has been programmed to automati- catty log assignments according to user, function or officer title, division or department, and user-department chargeback account number, all coded into the user identification code. The printer is able to generate detailed summary reports of use and production in a variety of formats according to the specifics of a given admin- istrative need. The word processing terminal automatically registers proctuc- tion line count and on-line system time at the conclusion of each document. This partially measures the production of each home- worker. The transcribing unit of the central dictation system au-
12 CASE STUDIES somatically logs in the identification code of the transcriptionist upon completion of each dictated document. The supervision con- sole of the central dictation system also allows the manual input- ting of data pertaining to hard-copy assignments. A daily timekeeping form, programmed into the word proces- sor, necessitates the maintenance of a daily production log by the homeworker. The information to be manually entered consists of document name and originator, exact time started and com- pleted, whether the document is a dictated assignment or tele- copy, and whether it is an original assignment or revision. This approach accounts for the off-line time involves! in producing a document, which is as important as on-line time in properly as- sessing the production of a homeworker. PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS We encountered problems in three areas: the installation of ad- ditional telephone lines in each of the homes, adaptability of tele- communicat~ons software, and transmission of ciata from the home-site through a central computer to the control center. The installation of three additional telephone lines, one for each piece of equipment, was ordered for each home workstation. We soon discovered, however, that certain residential structures, de- pending on the year of construction and occasionally on the area, were cabled for a limited number of lines per living unit. For apart- ment buildings, written approval from the owner was required to pull additional cabling into an apartment. In some cases, pulling a cable up the side of a building was required to access an upper floor. Without proper authorization this would constitute unIaw- fu] defacement of private property. We also discovered that the software's capabilities were not wholly satisfactory for large-scale off-site telecommunicated word processing. The volume of work and the length of docu- ments produced caused uncontrollable disk overflow at the home sites. The vendor rectified this problem. The flow of word processing data to the control center through the data-processing function of the intermediary computer re- suited in total format distortion. We solved this problem with ad- ditional data processing programming to recapture the original data format function at the conclusion of transmission through
AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY 13 the computer. This finally achieved the level of computer automa- tion initially envisioned. Vendor commitment above the call of duty was essential~to Project Homebound. Vendors provided equipment instalIat~on, follow-up service calls at each home, and training at each site. This was the first time that the companies involved offered indi- vidual in-home service and training. The extra effort demon- strated by vendors, as well as the personal commitment of our own staff, helped Project Homebound become a success. HOME WORKSTATIONS AND THE LAW A number of legal factors affect the acceptability of establish- ing a home-based work force: other residents of the affected area; the personal welfare of the homeworker, including protection against exploitation; and the physical safety of the homeworker. While zoning regulations differ greatly from area to area, com- mon rules governing home workstations include: (1) that there be no business transacted on the premises involving heavy physical traffic, (2) that work being done is strictly service-oriented (i.e., work performed for a company headquartered at another ad- dress), and (3) that the noise level is not out of the ordinary. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers the employee's home an inspectable location, although it is improbable that OSHA would conduct an inspection unless there were a request, complaint, serious accident, or fatality. OSHA does not exempt the home from its rules on safety of the workplace. These rules include: (1) smoke detectors in the work area; (2) an ABC fire extinguisher that can be manipulated by the employee; (3) clear, unobstructed exits; (4) removal of hazards that can cause falls; (5) adequate electrical circuitry with equip- ment preferably on a separate circuit, with 3-wire connections and 110 or 120 amperage; and (6) furniture appropriate for the equip- ment. Care should be taken that children do not have access to the equipment. Federal law (Section 516.31 of the Code of Federal Regulations), which covers wage and hours, directs that a homeworker hand- book be maintained for each nonexempt homeworker. Because the dual recor~keeping system of Project Homebound provides adequate mandatory documentation for the proper computation
14 CASE STUDIES of both regular time and overtime worked, rendering a home- worker handbook superfluous, American Express has petitioned the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor for a waiver of this requirement. RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING The New York City Private Industry Council (PIC) is one of the institutions originally created by Congress under Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs to find ways to train the chronically unemployed for unsubsidized j obs within the private sector. PIC heard of Project Homebound while we were formulating recruitment and training strategies and notified American Ex- press of the availability of 10 fully trained, physically disabled, homebound word processing operators. These operators had been trained by Brooklyn College in an earlier PIC-directed project sponsored by the Equitable Life Assurance Society. The participants in the Equitable program had been carefully screened, evaluated, and trained. From an initial 200 applicants, 43 were accepted for evaluation. The final screening provided 14 trainees, all of whom completed the training program with excep- tional success. Equitable hired 4 of these 14 graduates and worked actively with PIC to place the remaining 10 within the private sector. After a visit to home sites, these 10 graduates were retained for the Project Homebound pilot. MANAGEMENT OF HOME-BASED STAFF The electronic cottage concept encompasses the relative isola- tion of the home-based work environment. Management must look at the sociopsychological implications of this situation. It requires formal study by social scientists and business manage- ment theorists. In the meantime, there are only the data from a small number of programs on which to rely. Standard management practices and techniques are, for the most part, inapplicable. Remote staff management is an un- charted course, and "telemanaging" has as yet no proven set of guidelines. The need for special training in effective and efficient teleworking techniques became apparent during the Project
AAlERICAAT EXPRESS COMPANY 15 Homebound pilot. Succinct instructions ant! answers to ques- tions are essential, as is control of conversations. Office acculturation, the subconscious absorption of working knowledge as opposed to that acquired through a direct learning process, is an informal but very important part of developing knowledge. In the absence of the information exchange provided in a traditional workplace, goocl communications become crucial. Instructions to home-based workers must be explicit, ~nc3 expec- tations fully and clearly defined, until total familiarity with the standards and specific requirements of a company can be assured. The predictions of Toffler and the Center for Futures Research at the University of Southern California have the ring of real pos- sibility. There is no question that computer technology is a gov- erning factor in the direction our lives will take in the future. Ad experiments with the electronic cottage concept have tested the technology of commuting to work via telephone lines. When weighed against initial expectations, not all of the efforts have been considered totally successful, but none can be considered total failures. Put in perspective, each was a visionary exercise, a ground-level test of an advanced concept of the future. Project Homebound and other similar experiments have pro- vided invaluable knowledge on which to base further efforts.