Today's Engineer Spring 1998 page 20

The Virtual Office

How it works (or doesn't)

by Mark Haselkorn

National Science Foundation Coordinator for Y2K External Activities and Professor of Technical Communication University of Washington --

Last month's article, "Our changing work environment," ended with a brief introduction to the virtual office, defined as any work environment based on information technology systems that enable geographically distant individuals to work together. What are its implications, we asked. Here's one expert's answer.

Let's start with a common assumption -- new information telecommunication technology, particularly the Internet, have increased the productivity not only of engineers, but of business and industry in general. Certainly this must be true. Today's engineers can access vast volumes of information and collaborate with colleagues anywhere in the world, so long as they have a computer and phone jack -- not to mention the greatly increased efficiency of production lines, business transactions, parts inventory, and shipping.

Then why has productivity, as measured by the government (gross domestic product) actually decelerated in all areas, except manufacturing, since the beginning of the "information revolution"?

Following is a discussion of some of those areas where our lack of understanding, failure to develop appropriate tools and strategies, or failure to adequately manage and coordinate may be holding back the productivity of virutal office workers.

Managing the coevolution of technology and organizations

For some reason, we think that the real work, the high-level work, is done in the design of information systems. Maintenance of these systems is seen as a low-level, repetitive activity, certainly easily handled by almost anyone with a bit of technical training. We assume that Ph.D.s design; high school graduates maintain. We assume that research gives us new technology, not new and better ways to maintain and evolve existing systems.

These myths persist, despite the fact that 80 percent of our budget is spent on maintenance. They persist despite the fact that systems rarely, if ever, remain as they were purchased off the shelf. They persist despite the fact that many billions of dollars will be spent on the year 2000 date-change problem -- a problem that has little to do with how information systems are designed, and almost everything to do with how they are used, maintained, and evolved in the real world.

How can information repositories be designed to support the real world needs that drive the worker in the virtual office?

The virtual office will not be fully productive until we learn more about the complex ways in which people and technology coevolve in the real world. This subject is high-level and multidisciplinary, worthy of much ongoing serious research. New knowledge in this area is crucial to our ability to design and integrate tools that truly increase the productivity of virtual-office workers.

Managing information overload

We all know about this one -- two much information from too many sources on too many interrelated topics. Where do you find what you need? How do you know if you can trust the information.

How do you know you haven't missed something essential? In short, how can information repositories be designed to support the real world needs that drive the worker in a virtual office?

The virtual office will not be fully productive until we learn more about how to create an environment that sup- ports our navigation in and use of a multidimensional information space. This infobase must include not only content, but numerous other dimensions of information - like search aids, reliability, associated information, and completeness - as well as the tools for navigating along all these dimensions. This, too, is a highly interdisciplinary subject, requiring significant research and ongoing development of tools.

Reduction in learning time

How much of our time in the virtual office is spent learning new techniques and tools, rather than on productive work? What percent of the functionality of the tools at our disposal do we ever use? In the past, most learning occurred when one worker helped another worker who was struggling nearby. This form of on-the-job training was efficient and focused. Unfortunately, this type of learning appears to be unavailable to the worker in the virtual office.

The virtual office will not be fully productive until we learn more about how workers in cyberspace can best become proficient in the tools and strategies that they require to conduct their work. Again, this is a complex, interdisciplinary area that can mean anything from new strategies for introducing technology, to new understanding of what it means to design something to be more tintuitive,'to new intelligent support systems that replace the helpful coworker of yesterday.

Decreased obsolescence

In addition to the issue of how best to learn in the virtual environment, there is the related issue of why there is so much to learn. Do we really need a yearly new release of a product we already rely on? Sometimes it seems that just when a worker is getting comfortable with a tool, it's time to acquire and learn the next version. Of course this makes money for the software company, but what does it do to the worker and the worker's productivity? Is the functionality of a new version worth the need to relearn the product?

The virtual office will not be fully productive until we can reduce the drive to increase profits through ongoing obsolescence. This advance will require technology providers to put off short-term gains in return for more permanent, longer-term benefits.

Increased standardization

The release of new versions of a product (or the shift to a new one) would be far less bothersome if there were higher levels of standardization, both within and across product lines. This standardization would make it easier for new workers to enter the virtual office, reduce the amount of new learning that would have to occur with each change in office equipment, and increase the ability of virtual-office workers to employ new tools or new functionality of an existing tool.

The virtual office will not be fully productive until we adopt common standards for basic office equipment. How much productivity is lost because changes in jobs or equipment mean that the worker in cyberspace has to relearn basic tasks equivalent to opening the door, sitting at the desk, and using the telephone?

Increased quality

How much time is wasted or rebooting, fixing, waiting, and other" wise dealing with systems that have gone down or seemingly gone into sus pended animation?

The virtual office will not be full: productive until the quality of all the systems that intertwine to make the office functional are far more reliable and efficient.

Reduction in the risks of interdependency

This last point is perhaps both the least obvious and, ultimately, the mos important. Interconnectivity is wha makes the virtual office possible. It is what allows virtual-office workers to send and receive communications, search distent infobases, and work collaboratively on a project. But interconnectivity comes with a price-interdependency and the need for more sophisticated security. When you allow others to enter your system, you allow them the opportunity to cause you problems (intentionally or unintentionally).

Not only are users interconnected, so is the infrastructure that the virtual office depends on. Workers in cyberspace rely on complex services provided by numerous interdependent organizations such as satellite consortia, telephone companies, software companies, and computer companies. Problems within any single entity can quickly become complex problems for everyone. In addition, changes within these organizations, whether they are new developments or responses to a common issue (for exam- ple, the year 2000 date change), can cause difficulties elsewhere in the system, even if the changes make sense and are handled well from the perspective of a single organization.

The virtual office will be productive when we establish new ways to manage the complexity of interconnected entities and systems.

In summary, there are areas where productivity in the virtual office is being eroded, both through complexity of the issues and lack of attention. Most of these areas revolve around the complex relationships among organizations, people, and machines. For this reason, not only new knowledge, but also new fields of study need to evolve before the full benefits of the virtual office can be achieved.