Special Report on Office Automation: Change of emphasis challenges managers: Purchasing decisions should focus on buying the right technology and involving staff where the decision affects them, writes Paul Gosling

STATE of the art office technology changes so fast it could be said to be frightening. Literally so, as a survey published last year by the Institute of Management showed that the majority of managers continue to be scared of computers.

Fear is understandable, but hardly helpful. The challenge for management is not merely to choose the most effective equipment and software but also to manage the process of change that can follow. One element of this is the potential for greater organisational dispersal.

The increasingly automated office may in practice be several offices, and some spare bedrooms as well. For businesses such as banks there is a growing separation of front of office and back of office functions, allowing companies to reduce their presence in high-rent locations, moving staff to cheaper out-of-town sites, or to work from home.

This will lead eventually and inevitably to greater focus on management of quality and quantity of output, and less on the hours of work, at least for such jobs as data processing.

'Some managers are hung up on the technical aspects of automation, not the impacts of organisational change,' says Jonathan Broadhurst, of Capita Management Consultancy. One result is that organisations under-use their existing equipment, because too few people understand its potential. One solution, Mr Broadhurst believes, is for buyers to have post-implementation reviews, leading to more effective training and support for staff.

Purchasing decisions should centre on buying appropriate technology, and involving staff in decisions that affect them. 'It is about providing technology which supports people, not doing things to people,' James Hall, of Andersen Consulting, explained.

'In the early days we were into specific functions, and we designed for that function, and we involved management in the decisions, and trained users who had to use it. Nowadays, it is about providing people with a series of tools enabling them to do a variety of jobs on a non-specific and non-exclusive basis. It is more about empowering the employee, and focuses on technology to provide the infrastructure for people to define their own ways of working. That way there is more mileage for the money,' he added.

Office automation was essentially about taking individual tasks and putting them on computer in an isolated manner. The emphasis now is to bring together a range of different processes.

Mr Hall explained: 'Five years ago we talked of office systems which were computers with one function. Now we talk about the infrastructure which enables people to do a whole range of functions, with a range of capabilities. Secretaries differ from professionals, but they can share a common infrastructure.'

This process can have significant implications for an organisation as a whole. 'Management information systems that are well constructed allow very senior management the summary information that the level below may have manipulated for them in the past. They probably now need fewer levels of management as a result,' says Mr Hall.

Mr Hall's point is mirrored by the findings of a new Institute of Management survey, which is to be published next month and which shows that 83 per cent of company chairmen and 79 per cent of directors thought their access to information had improved as a result of information technology. But only half of middle managers felt that their access to information improved.

The advantages of office automation are even more striking for small businesses, according to Mr Broadhurst, as they can avoid expensive tailored solutions. 'Smaller organisations, which tend to be fleeter of foot, can end up with better systems from standard packages, providing the initial set-up is done properly,' he said.

Many experts believe that we are still a long way from making the best use of the office technology available. David Best, a partner in Touche Ross, the management consultants, says: 'The potential is enormous, and so are the obstacles. The incentives are stronger now than before. There is the recession, and the pressure to reduce costs and reduce labour. There is intense competition in most markets. We must respond to customers and clients more quickly. And the technology is easier to use, for example, through workgroups and workflow.

'The obstacles start with the traditional use of paper. The mechanics of information retrieval and reading are still not so good with computers.

'Organisationally, we are still stuck with structures that are hierarchical and date from the Roman Empire. Managers don't think of organisations as systems of people and machines which process inputs to produce outputs. But we have the potential for information which flows through an organisation in a more coherent and organic way.

'It provides the opportunity to combine processes, to de-layer organisations, chop out the middle management. But the middle management has a role, which can be described as a filter or amplifier, and the technology can do that role as well, providing it is designed to do that. But it must be designed properly, or if you are not careful the chief executive gets e-mail copies of everything, including the acquisition request for toilet rolls.'

Whether organisations do get the right systems working depends partially on how decisions are taken, and whether the repercussions are recognised. 'A lot of people have automated existing organisations and functions, and then frozen the status quo,' warned Mr Broadhurst.

Michael Kay of ICL said: 'People come from different cultures. Do they accept the views from top down directives or do users expect to make decisions themselves? Where does the control lie, with the users or with the technologists trying to impose the same standards across the whole organisation? It is a matter of what is best for each organisation.'

In the long run, what is vital for each organisation is for important decisions on office automation to have the support and commitment of the organisation as a whole.

Thirteen years ago I was employed to bring order to a chaotic computer department after the sales team, including directors, refused to co-operate with the computer programmers and consultants, who had therefore recommended the wrong equipment and written ineffective programmes.

Talking to staff in organisations today, it is clear that identical mistakes are still occurring. That is something that should really frighten managers.

(Photograph omitted)

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