Office automation refers to the varied computer machinery and software used to digitally create, collect, store, manipulate, and relay office information needed for accomplishing basic tasks and goals. Raw data storage, electronic transfer, and the management of electronic business information comprise the basic activities of an office automation system.
The history of modern office automation began with the typewriter and the copy machine, which mechanized previously manual tasks. Today, however, office automation is increasingly understood as a term that refers not just to the mechanization of tasks but to the conversion of information to electronic form as well. The advent of the personal computer revolutionized office automation, and today, popular operating systems and user interfaces dominate office computer systems. This revolution has been so complete, and has infiltrated so many areas of business, that almost all businesses use at least one commercial computer business application in the course of daily activity. Even the smallest companies commonly utilize computer technology to maintain financial records, inventory information, payroll records, and other pertinent business information. "Workplace technology that started as handy (but still optional) business tools in the 1980s evolved into a high-priority requirement in the 1990s," summarized Stanley Zarowin in Journal of Accountancy. "As we enter the new millennium, it has taken another quantum leap, going from a priority to a prerequisite for doing business."
THE BASICS OF OFFICE AUTOMATION
Generally, there are three basic activities of an office automation system: data storage of information, data exchange, and data management. Within each broad application area, hardware and software combine to fulfill basic functions.
Data storage usually includes office records and other primary office forms and documents. Data applications involve the capture and editing of files, images, or spreadsheets. Word processing and desktop presentation packages accommodate raw textual and graphical data, while spreadsheet applications provide users with the capacity to engage in the easy manipulation and output of numbers. Image applications allow the capture and editing of visual images.
Text handling software and systems cover the whole field of word processing and desktop publishing. Word processing, the most basic and common office automation activity, is the inputting (usually via keyboard) and manipulation of text on a computer. Today's commercial word processing applications provide users with a sophisticated set of commands to format, edit, and print text documents. One of the most popular features of word processing packages are their preformatted document templates. Templates automatically set up such things as font size, paragraph styles, headers and footers, and page numbers so that the user does not have to reset document characteristics every time they create a new record.
Desktop publishing adds another dimension to text manipulation. By combining the features of a word processor with advanced page design and layout features, desktop publishing packages have emerged as valuable tools in the creation of newsletters, brochures, and other documents that combine text and photographs, charts, drawings and other graphic images.
Image handling software and systems are another facet of office automation. Examples of visual information include pictures of documents, photographs, and graphics such as tables and charts. These images are converted into digital files, which cannot be edited the same way that text files can. In a word processor or desktop publishing application, each word or character is treated individually. In an imaging system, the entire picture or document is treated as one whole object. One of the most popular uses of computerized images is in corporate presentations or speeches. Presentation software packages simplify the creation of multimedia presentations that use computer video, images, sound, and text in an integrated information package.
Spreadsheet programs allow the manipulation of numeric data. Early popular spreadsheet programs such as Visi Calc and Lotus 123 greatly simplified common business financial record keeping. Particularly useful among the many spreadsheet options is the ability to use variables in pro forma statements. The pro forma option allows the user to change a variable and have a complex formula automatically recalculated based on the new numbers. Many businesses use spreadsheets for financial management, financial projection, and accounting.
DATA EXCHANGE While data storage and manipulation is one component of an office automation system, the exchange of that information is another equally important component. Electronic transfer is a general application area that highlights the exchange of information between more than one user or participant. Electronic mail, voice mail, and facsimile are examples of electronic transfer applications. Systems that allow instantaneous or "real time" transfer of information (i.e. online conversations via computer or audio exchange with video capture) are considered electronic sharing systems. Electronic sharing software illustrates the collaborative nature of many office automation systems.
Office automation systems that include the ability to electronically share information between more than one user simultaneously are sometimes referred to as groupware systems. One type of groupware is an electronic meeting system. Electronic meeting systems allow geographically dispersed participants to exchange information in real time. Participants in such electronic meetings may be within the same office or building, or thousands of miles apart. Long-distance electronic sharing systems usually use a telephone line connection to transfer data, while sharing in the same often involves just a local area network of computers (no outside phone line is needed). The functional effectiveness of such electronic sharing systems has been one factor in the growth of telecommuting as an option for workers. Telecommuters work at home, maintaining their ties to the office via computer.
Electronic transfer software and systems allow for electronic, voice, and facsimile transmission of office information. Electronic mail uses computer based storage and a common set of network communication standards to forward electronic messages from one user to another. Most of these systems allow users to relay electronic mail to more than one recipient. Additionally, many electronic mail systems provide security features, automatic messaging, and mail management systems like electronic folders or notebooks. Voice mail offers essentially the same applications, but for telephones, not computers. Facsimile transmissions are limited to image relay, and while usage of this communication option has declined somewhat with the emergence of electronic mail, fax machines remain standard in almost all business offices in America. In addition, new technologies continue to transform fax use, just as they have influenced other modes of corporate communication. For example, facsimile converters for the personal computer that allow remote printing of "faxed" information via the computer rather than through a dedicated facsimile machine are now available. Indeed, these facsimile circuit boards for the microcomputer are slowly replacing stand-alone fax machines. Simultaneously, other traditional office equipment continues to undergo changes that improve their data exchange capacities as well. Digital copiers, for example, are increasingly multifunctional (with copying, printing, faxing, and scanning capabilities) and connectable to computer networks.
DATA MANAGEMENT Office automation systems are also often used to track both short-term and long-term data in the realms of financial plans, workforce allocation plans, marketing expenditures, inventory purchases, and other aspects of business. Task management or scheduling systems monitor and control various projects and activities within the office. Electronic management systems monitor and control office activities and tasks through timelines, resource equations, and electronic scheduling. As in data exchange, groupware and network computer systems are gaining in popularity for data management. Under such arrangements, multiple members of the office environment are provided with access to a variety of information at a central electronic location.
OFFICE AUTOMATION CONSIDERATIONS: PEOPLE, TOOLS, AND THE WORKPLACE
Businesses engaged in launching or upgrading office automation systems must consider a wide variety of factors that can influence the effectiveness of those systems. These factors include budgetary and physical space considerations, changes in communication infrastructure, and other considerations. But two other factors that must be considered are employee training and proliferating office automation choices:
* Training—People involved with office automation basically include all users of the automation and all providers of the automation systems and tools. A wide range of people—including software and hardware engineers, management information scientists, executives, mid-level workers, and secretaries—are just a few of the people that use office automation on a daily basis. As a result, training of personnel on these office automation systems has become an essential part of many companies' planning. After all, the office automation system is only as good as the people who make it and use it, and smart business owners and managers recognize that workplace resistance to these systems can dramatically lessen their benefits. "It's true that as technology matures the need for special training will decline—because tomorrow's software and hardware will be much more intuitive and loaded with built-in teaching drills—that time is not here yet," wrote Zarowin. "Training is still essential."
* Choice—A dizzying array of office automation alternatives are available to businesses of all shapes, sizes, and subject areas. Such systems typically involve a sizable investment of funds, so it is wise for managers and business owners to undertake a careful course of study before making a purchase. Primary factors that should be considered include: cost of the system, length of time involved in introducing the system, physical condition of the facility into which the system will be introduced, level of technical support, compatibility with other systems, complexity of system (a key factor in determining allocations of time and money for training), and compatibility of the system with the business area in which the company is involved.
As the high-tech New Economy continues to evolve over the next several years, business experts warn small businesses not to fall too far behind. Some small businesses remain resistant to change and thus fall ever further behind in utilizing office automation technology, despite the plethora of evidence that it constitutes the wave of the future. The entrepreneurs and managers who lead these enterprises typically defend their inaction by noting that they remain able to accomplish their basic business requirements without such investments, or by claiming that new innovations in technology and automation are too expensive or challenging to master. But according to Zarowin, "those rationalizations don't acknowledge what many recent converts to technology are discovering: the longer one delays, the larger the gap and the harder it is to catch up. And though many businesses still can function adequately with paper and pencil, their customers—and their competition—are not sitting on their hands."