Special Report on Business Computing: Adaptability is the key: David Guest examines how a variety of technologies can be combined to promote productivity and efficiency

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'SOLUTIONS' has become the computer industry's preferred general term to describe its products.

Modern office computers can indeed take on many of the jobs previously handled by separate pieces of equipment. Fax and telex facilities, for example, can be built into computer systems to provide a kind of electronic post- room service; external information feeds can be piped into personal computers.

But most offices still contain a variety of technologies: telephony, covering telephones and computer communications; imaging, including photocopiers and printers; and computers. Each technology is intended to contribute to the efficient functioning of an office; each should make some contribution to the productivity and job satisfaction of its tenants. The variety, however, is part of the problem to which office solutions are sought.

The difficulty lies not only in the variety of technologies but also in the company structures that have grown up around them. In many offices, responsibility for different pieces of equipment will lie with separate company departments - copiers with Office Services, for example, telecommunications with the Information Systems department, and personal computer systems perhaps under local departmental control.

If the ideal of office automation is an office that runs like clockwork, there are enough moving parts involved to make attainment of the ideal difficult. On one side there are several technologies, some of which are not obviously related one to another; on the other, dispersed responsibility.

Over the years, office equipment and computer program suppliers have devised a variety of reponses to office problems. In some cases, as for example in the development of consistent technology standards, they could claim at least partial success; in others, unrealistic goals like the Paperless Office are quietly forgotten.

An early response, which embodied the conventional wisdom of the mid-Eighties, now has a rather glib and ill-considered look. Office automation used to be regarded as a separate branch of computing. It had capital letters, to show that it was a distinct area of activity, like Artificial Intelligence and Management Information Systems. The result was that a complex topic became greatly oversimplified. Companies bought and installed Office Automation and expected an end to all their office problems. Not infrequently, they found instead that the problems had multiplied.

In the days of capital letters, Office Automation generally included word processing, electronic mail, perhaps some electronic diary functions and usually some kind of financial planning program. Better versions of each of these elements were available separately from other suppliers. Where Office Automation was supposed to score was in the way it brought them together, with greater internal consistency and economy. The world of hi-fi offers an analogy: it is easier and cheaper to buy a complete stereo system from one supplier than to assemble the best components from several.

This approach had three drawbacks where office technology was concerned. First, it assumed that the elements mentioned above would meet all the needs of office workers. Second, it ignored the possibility that people had already familiarised themselves with some of the better alternatives on existing equipment. Third, and most damaging, it supposed that the same collection of computerised functions would suit all offices.

All three objections to formulaic Office Automation have the same source, which is an objection on principle that no program or collection of programs will ever meet all requirements in all circumstances. The alternative, to suit the technology to the circumstances, is a more expensive and long-winded process. It demands as an essential preliminary the careful definition of the requirements. These, unfortunately, are apt to change, sometimes very quickly.

Change coming through legislative channels may be foreseen, but the consequences for office technology will not always be immediately apparent. The Financial Services Act, for example, greatly increased the burden on companies operating in areas where advice on financial planning was part of the service. David Clarke, marketing director of the portable computer pioneer, Compaq, believes that the provisions of the legislation make the use of portable computers essential in certain professions.

Altered circumstances can also be imposed by trading partners. There is a trend, firmly established in retail operations in particular, for standard forms like purchase orders and invoices to be exchanged electronically through the computer systems of supplier and purchaser. If a supplier wants to expand its business, it may have to install the means of exchanging documents electronically in several different ways, or risk losing the business.

Just as business circumstances are liable to change rapidly, so too are the technologies represented in the office. Only 15 years ago, it was relatively unusual for a company to have its own computer; more often, it would buy time on a system at a bureau which provided the service for a number of clients.

Ten years ago, the same might have been said of the equipment used to generate presentation materials, such as slides and overhead-projector transparencies. Six or seven years ago, laser printers were so expensive as to be regarded as suitable for a bureau operation. Now, all these items are seen as common pieces of office furniture. If, as a result, office life has not become more complicated, it has certainly become more varied.

The first requirement, then, of the systematic approach to office problems, known by the long- winded and therefore expensive name of Methodological, is that it should be capable of producing adaptable results. Indeed the best methodologies suggest not only where and how companies should proceed with automation, but also how they might evaluate the results. In some instances, methodologies are designed to be re-applied at intervals to allow a company to update its procedures and equipment.

There are, broadly speaking, two converging paths in the systematic route to office solutions. In one, the practices and processes of the office are monitored and expressed so that they can be used almost as a unit of measurement. In the other, the movement through the office of that office's raw material, often information, is taken as the basic building block.

A further option is to engage equipment suppliers, systems specialists and consultants who enter loose partnerships to help clients use their combined technologies.

Some companies form project teams that bring various sources of expertise together under their own management; others hand responsibility over to a main contractor to organise the various contributions. Computer companies have become particularly versatile in this latter role. The mainframe supplier, Comparex, has, when the occasion demanded, taken responsibility for the completion of building work as well as for the delivery of computer systems.

Suppliers work together on ad hoc projects and in long-term joint developments. The trend for companies in different areas to co-operate is illustrated by the list of Kodak's development partners. Kodak is applying its imaging technology with IBM and Apple in computer hardware, Novell in networking, Digital Equipment in open systems, Philips in electronic engineering and Adobe in page description languages.

There is, then, no single blueprint for office automation. There are instead a number of options.

(Photograph omitted)

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