Since remote working took prominence due to the corona pandemic in the year 2019, “Office automation system” piqued my interest, as it ties directly with the current working conditions. The Office environment is constantly evolving. Gone are the days of using manual typewriters, physical files and cabinet storage, copying and physical mailing for work. These physical processes have been replaced by electronic information systems.
With overhead cost constantly on the rise, comes an increasing need for collaboration and information processing. The need for an office automation system becomes apparent.
The need for a system that helps increase efficiency and productivity whilst also maximising effectiveness in the workplace is needed. Time and resources are two assets that are crucial for any business. When a business integrates OAS, performance is improved, files can be shared and stored digitally, meetings can be carried out virtually, internal company communications can be carried out through electronic mails, company digital assets can be shared digitally thereby improving collaboration.
Reports generations, bulk data manipulation can be done using a spreadsheet, which in turn reduces the workload, whilst also improving the accuracy of tasks that were not previously automated.
This blog post will provide an overview of the evolution of technology within the workplace for the past seven decades. Understanding the trend and development within these decades helps provide a more concrete understanding of the improvement’s office automation brings to society.
As much as information systems are essentials for businesses and society, it also posses ethical and legal challenges to its users. The blog post will also show some success data metrics of an OAS system and its impact on society.
Evolution of technology within the office
Over the decades, the state of an office environment is constantly changing. In the decade of 1950s, offices were rigidly structured, perhaps, as a result of the industrial revolution and world wars. Only top-ranking employees worked out of private space, while every other employee worked out of open spaces. As a result of having an open office where top-ranking employees can have a birds-eye view of the employees thereby ensuring maximum productivity, open communication and collaboration were not in existence because a system like this was a reminiscence of factory floors. Men occupied top positions whilst women were employed as secretaries or shorthand typists.
Within this decade, manual typewriters and adding machines were the forms of technology used in the workspace. “Manual filing system” was the order of the day, where employees have to handle a large amount of paperwork, sorting and filing systematically so as not to lose important office records.
In the 1960s, cubicles were introduced in the workspace, employees had a three-walled space which provided privacy and gave a sense of ownership over their work. To reduce the manual process of duplicating documents by hand, the first Xerox machine was introduced to the workspace.
Although manual copying was solved by technology like this, it poses another challenge of large spaces, both physical storage of the photocopier, and the storage of documents created by this technology.
In the 1970s massive computers were introduced to the workplace, these large computers could fill up an entire room. In the decade of 1980s, Personal Computers (PC) were introduced to the workspace. This technology changed how businesses operate. Businesses realized that personal computers could increase the productivity levels of employees whilst also reducing tedious manual tasks done by employees. With a personal computer, employees had a hard drive, floppy disk, memory and storage capacity to store and manipulate documents and files.
Introduction of a technology like this brought room for a new set of career paths. Career paths like support technicians, system administrators, application specialists were introduced, thereby increasing the workforce, providing a positive societal impact.
In the decade of 1980s and 1990s, there was a significant increase in the advancement of technology in the workspace. The worldwide web(www) was introduced to the public. This invention changed how businesses operate. There was an improvement in communication in the workspace, electronic mail was widely adopted making it easier to send and receive emails.
In this decade, Microsoft, an American multi-technology company released an operating system, Windows 1985. This operating system was used in collaboration with the adoption of personal computers. Personal computers were capable of connecting to the world wide web, facilitating communications through the use of electronic mails, provision of storage, retrieval and manipulation of documents.
In the decade of 2000s and 2010s, the millennium brought with it its evolution and revolution. With the presence of time, the technologies in previous decades evolved. These technologies were readily accessible to employees and employers at an even cheaper cost. High-speed internet became prevalent in society; laptops, smartphones and tablets made it easy to perform work from any part of the globe.
In these decades, businesses saw a shift to how they operated, businesses realized the importance of remote work. Large physical office spaces were no longer prevalent as there was a shift to home offices. There was no longer a need for physical storage spaces, as files could be created, edited, shared and saved online.
Tools for word processing, desktop publishing, financial analysis using spreadsheets were all integrated within a computer system. For a collaborative effort, when it comes to data exchange, any system that supports instantaneous sharing of digital assets were used for office automation. Some examples are, sending electronic mails, sending voice mails, sharing of assets in online conversations while using a computer are all categorized as electronic sharing systems.
The introduction of these systems drastically reduced the need for manual paperwork. “Traditional mailing” was replaced by integrated electronic office systems, containing mixed media document editors, electronic mail systems (Ellis and Nutt, 1979). Electronic mails and voice mails were employed to facilitate the way members within an organization communicates with each other.
With the dot com boom, it created a host of technology companies, companies that focused on creating tools that can be used to replace manual efforts in the workspace and in personal life. These decades (2000s - 2010s) created a host of information technology tools that specifically handled sections of a typical office.
Information systems such as employee management systems, financial management systems, Inventory management systems, Decision support systems, Management information systems, Ticketing management systems, knowledge management systems, Desktop publishing applications, Sales and marketing systems were integrated into the workings of an office.
In describing the hardware and software used by an office management system, it is observed that new office technologies being created already have in-built information processing technologies. What this implies is that office systems, for example, a personal computer can effectively perform data processing tasks as well as performing word processing activities. Confidential organizational documents can be stored and managed digitally using digital Data Storage and Data exchange systems.
With digital data storage systems, employees can retrieve and create digital assets from anywhere in the globe, in as much as access to the internet exist. Desktop publishing applications created an opportunity for employees to collaborate together concurrently on digital assets. OAS uses a variety of hardware, including computers equipped with modems, video cameras, speakers, microphones, scanners and fax machines.
With multiple information systems being accessible through smartphones, laptops and tablets; came the need for groupware information technologies. Groupware refers to a set of web technologies connected to computer networks through a local area network (LAN) (Rozalia, N. et al. 2006). The goal of groupware technologies is to facilitate secure communication, and collaboration within an organization (Rozalia, N. et al. 2006).
In other for an electronic sharing system to function properly, users of this system must be able to use them without having any ties to a physical office. This includes scheduling meetings online through a video conferencing tool, being able to access files stored in a server while using a secure connection, being able to access scheduling software, financial software, inventory software and any other software used for day-to-day operation.
The last two decades have witnessed major advances in artificial intelligence (AI). Artificial intelligence can be used to create knowledge-based systems which in turn, aids the employee (Ellis and Nutt, 1979). In a business, software and AI-enabled technologies can translate complex documents, write business reports, retrieve and analyse complex business information.
To build an office automation system, users’ daily activities are made digital. These activities make up a workflow. Being able to move a user’ workflow into a digital environment, allows for greater transparency.
Employees and employers benefit from this system. Employers and businesses benefit more from an OAS. For a user, manual processes are automated, giving room to perform even more tasks. For businesses, the system provides workflow visibility which leads to identifying bottlenecks, thereby providing improved efficiency and generation of higher profit margins.
With improved visibility also comes performance metrics generation, this data helps in making smart business decisions. When automation is employed, manual processes which consume time are reduced. A reduction in this operation time benefits both employees and employers.
An office automation system is only as good as the people who make use of it. This implies, businesses will have to train their employees to learn the inner workings of the system. Time spent on learning the system could be expensive, and as such, possess a drawback to businesses. Alternatively, when users are familiar with the system, the system produces more rewards in terms of its efficiency and effectiveness.
An office automation system is only as good as the people who make use of it.
An office automation system integrates multiple technologies which are suitable for performing work. An example of an algorithm used in the workplace is a binary search algorithm. A business could have a knowledge information system that stores answer to questions that have been previously asked. In a knowledge information system, every data stored is assigned to a unique identifier, a number. When a user opens this system and searches for the unique identifier (a number). An algorithmic thinking process is as follow
Step 1: Start
Step 2: User can input knowledge identifier number
Step 3: System cross-checks the user’s identifier number with a random in memory identifier number
Step 4: If the random in memory identifier number is greater than the user’s identifier number, then ignore all identifier numbers lower than the in-memory identifier number
Step 5: Repeat this step until the user’s unique identifier number is found.
Step 6: If the user’s unique identifier is found, return accompanying knowledge data to the user, If the user’s unique identifier is not found, exit.
Step 7: End
Integrating automation into businesses introduces a de-humanized system. A de-humanized system is essential for critical aspects of a business, for example, in handling finances, such systems are efficient and effective. The challenge comes when dealing with other aspects of businesses where a human touch is essential.
Knowing when to employ full automation, or partial automation is essential for business growth.
Measuring Success and Impact on Society
According to a survey carried out by Statista (Attitudes on remote working 2020 | Statista, 2021), 87% of employees are satisfied with the tools and processes that enable remote team communication.
The survey from Statista shows that 23% of employees identified reduced bureaucracy and policies. Policies within a “paper-based approach” office, would have prevented them from effectively performing their job. Bureaucracies and takes away discretion from employees in an organization.
Globally, it is estimated that 56% of companies allow their employees to work out of the physical office space, working remotely. In 2020, 4.7 million people work remotely. Using office automation tools to carry out their jobs. Monotonous activities in the workplace can be reduced with an office automation system. Activities that contribute less to productivity are automated thereby giving the employee more value for work done.
The survey shows that 52% of employees identified an increase in productivity levels when allowed to work remotely using available automation tools. When employees have access to all tools needed to perform their work from the comforts of their choosing; office distraction is eliminated, cubicle or office walls are eliminated, and employees can focus on work.
In 2010, a survey of 25,000 rail passengers in Britain suggests that over half, 54 per cent, of business travellers spent at least some of their travel time working and a third, 35 per cent, claimed they did this for the majority of the time spent travelling (Lyons et al., 2011).
In 2017, Forbes reported that automation results in cost savings of about 40% to 75%, with payback ranging from several months to several years (Kirk, 2021). When companies invest in automation; tech recovers the investment over time, thereby boosting the economy. Automation reduces the labour force. The system reduces the cost of operation, businesses might decide to lay off workers since the system can perform tasks with much more accuracy than humans.
As much as office automation systems are great for both employees and employers, it poses challenges to society. Automation leads to a point known as “the displacement effect”.
Displacement effect involves the substitution of machines for labour which leads to displacement of employees for tasks that are being automated. The displacement effect could cause a decline in the demand for labour and the equilibrium wage rate (Agrawal, A et al. 2019).
Legal, Ethical and Professional Issues
With employees being able to work from anywhere in the world, if not checked, security violations and data breaches can expose confidential information, thereby leading to ethical and legal issues. If not properly checked, OAS systems are capable of understanding what is being displayed on an employee's computer screen. Mouse movements, keyboard strokes could be monitored. This takes away an employee's "privacy" which raises ethical concerns.
Repetitive stress injury (RSI) is an injury that occurs to computer users. It occurs from prolonged working time and static posture of thousands of repetitions under low impact loads such as working at a computer keyboard (Olatunde et al., 2013). prolonged working time and static posture. When companies fail to set policies that govern how technological devices/information systems are to be used, it could potentially lead to an abuse of such systems.
To prevent discrimination acts, companies need to ensure that frameworks are put in place to reduce statistical biases when it comes to making decisions based on outcomes from AI-based decision-making processes or a software system (Stephanie, 2019).
In 2014, Google, a prominent technology company, publicly released a breakdown of employees in her workspace. 83.4 per cent were male, 59.6 per cent were white, 30 per cent were Asian, 2.9 per cent were Latino, and 1.1 per cent were black. In 2020, Google released an updated report showing 5.9 per cent were Latino and 3.7 per cent are black.
Information technology as a professional field prides itself as one which is free to all, but clearly, there is a glaring underrepresentation of minorities in this field. This underrepresentation indirectly translates to inadequacies in tools built for minorities.
In 2018, Google released a report showing only 2.8 per cent of people in leadership and technical roles are Black. This trend is noticed in FAANG companies – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google –. The root of this underrepresentation is not far-fetched, Companies are reluctant to recruit from historically black colleges as most of their recruiting occurs in Ivy leagues institutions. This unwritten rule implies that job candidates living in underrepresented countries are not given a chance to build software within these companies.
When employees from underrepresented countries get hired, they have to overcome multiple hurdles, being a token hire, to prove themselves to the organization. A common misconception raised when the topic about the underrepresentation of minorities is being discussed is “Lack of qualified candidates”, but this is far from the truth, the culprit is the unwillingness of companies to open the door for underrepresented candidates.
Higher earning income families in each ethnic group are more likely to have access to computers and the internet, as compared to lower-income families within the same class (Farlie, 2003). Increasing racial and societal class translates to racial and ethnic biases when applying for jobs
It is important to talk about this issue as when there is a wholesome integration of multiple nationalities in building a software product, different perspectives will be included, covering all use cases.
In research by Buolamwini, Buolamwini showed a glaring discriminating act by IBM, Microsoft and Megvii of China. The discriminating act shows that facial recognition systems in an attempt to guess the gender of a face, it identified black-skinned women as a black male (Buolamwini, 2018). The system had a 1 per cent error rate for lighter-skinned men, but for dark-skinned women, it had an error rate of 35 per cent.
What does the future hold?
Over time, technology evolves, and with these advances in technology comes a constant change in the way businesses operate. A combination of hardware and software tools will help businesses improve the way they perform work. Automating manual efforts, ranging from a simple task to a more complex task whilst using technology helps businesses position themselves for the global market.
When existing businesses integrate office automation systems, it poses a steeper learning curve for older employees working in the company. Security violation, an improper delegation of responsibility within a system, the correctness of programs used, contradictory information state between the programs are challenges that businesses have to navigate.
A possible concern for the integration of multiple technologies to form an automation system is, when a system failure occurs, it can lead to a partial or total failure of the automation system. This implies that employees within an organization will not be able to communicate with themselves, automated processes will fail to function and total reliance on a system like this will potentially lead to losses for a business.
It is recommended to have a partial automation system, thereby, when a system fails, the business can still perform its core operations. A more significant advancement in office automation systems will occur when there is a deeper integration of artificial intelligence into tools been created. Artificial intelligence will provide an even seamless automation process in businesses. Looking at the system from a broader perspective of an office information system, the benefits of an office automation system outweigh the negatives.
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