The Global Office
Once driven by the production and exportation of durable goods such as automobiles and textiles, the global economy of the 1990s is now barreling through the information age. As time, place, and distance are no longer barriers to doing business, more and more offices are "going global"--cultivating relationships with overseas partners and customers--at an unprecedented pace. In order to survive in the new global economy, these offices must move information faster and in greater quantities than ever before. This trend toward information gathering and sharing has necessitated the development of more complex and far-reaching office technology.
New technologies are constantly changing the way the world works--in terms of communication, time management, and even the language of business. Since keeping up with the world's insatiable need for information is likely to continue well into the future, companies that wish to stay competitive have learned to adapt to and even embrace technological developments as fast as they can be brought to market.
Over the past decade or so, the trend in personal computers (PCs) has been toward increased speed and reduced size. Although the desktop PC is still the most widely used, new technologies began giving rise in the early 1980s to more streamlined, portable PCs such as laptops and palmtops. Portable PCs have enabled people worldwide to access, process, and share vast amounts of information even while "on the road."
Portable computers have many of the same features as desktop PCs and can handle the same word processing, spreadsheet, and graphics functions. Most portables also have modems and dataports for Internet dial-up, file transfer, and electronic mail capability. They can be networked just as desktop models can--either "from the field" using remote access communications software, or linked up directly with the office's local area network (LAN) at onsite "docking" stations.
A scaled-down version of the portable PC is the personal digital assistant, or PDA. Although PDAs lack the memory and programming sophistication of palmtop computers, they are adequate for less data-intensive tasks and typically include calendar, notepad, address book, and calculator functions. Emerging "wireless" PDA technology will enable users to send and receive e-mail on nationwide radio networks.
Electronic mail, or e-mail, has supplanted the U.S. Postal Service and even the facsimile (fax) machine as the fastest and most cost-effective way to share information. In most cases the transmittal of information is instantaneous, and the same message can be delivered to millions with just a few keystrokes. E-mail eliminates geographical barriers by enabling people on opposite sides of the world to work together on projects and share information as if they were in the same room.
"Working at home" was once the purview of the "cottage industrialist," be it the local cabinetmaker working out of a garage workshop, the piece worker sewing aprons in the living room, or the housewife canning fruits in the kitchen. In the 1990s, not only have the products and services "manufactured" at home become more sophisticated, but the technology supporting this new generation of offsite workers has too.
Either through formal or informal arrangements, a growing number of companies and employees are embracing the concept of telecommuting. Telecommuters typically either work from their homes on a regular basis for an outside company or work as independent contractors for more than one company.
Telecommuting allows employees to work either independently or in teams with colleagues in diverse locations. This arrangement is made possible by portable office equipment such as PCs and fax machines, which enable workers to maintain contact with "the office" from remote locations. They can send and receive e-mail and electronic files and can meet through three-way conference calls.
Telecommuting has a number of benefits for the employer and the worker. For the employer, allowing employees to work offsite reduces real estate costs and staff turnover, increases productivity, and attracts quality workers who are looking for flexibility. For the worker, telecommuting is often a "quality of life" issue. Less time commuting means more time for family and other obligations, as well as reduced anxiety and expense.
Being tethered to the workplace by telephone cords no longer suits employees in today's increasingly mobile business environment. Beginning with the 1979 establishment of the first commercial network of cellular phones in Tokyo, Japan, wireless communications have freed workers from the traditional confines of the office and enabled voice contact from just about anywhere. Portable devices that use wireless technology--such cellular phones and pagers--rely on a network of antennas that serve "cells" of users. Some of these devices transmit wireless e-mail and provide Internet access.
The future points to portable telecommunications via satellite, which will likely eliminate the geographical barriers inherent in the current cellular telephone system and expand it into a global network.
A Global Marketplace on the World Wide Web
The fastest growing trend in the global economy is conducting business on the World Wide Web (WWW). A presence on the WWW is like having a global billboard, providing inexpensive and far-reaching visibility. The WWW is accessed via the Internet, which connects almost all of the electronic mailboxes in the world.
Companies maintain Website for many purposes. Many have online catalogs from which consumers can order products and services (most commercial Websites use encryption technology to secure credit card transactions). Others conduct market research or provide promotional materials, recruitment advertisements, and other types information for the general public. The scientific community, too, has embraced the WWW as an information dissemination tool, cutting down on the time researchers must spend poring through library stacks. The enormous array of information available on the WWW has made it an invaluable resource for businesses and individuals worldwide.
Noncommercial organizations also sponsor Websites. Government
entities--such as the Smithsonian and the White House--and many nonprofit
organizations find the WWW a useful way to serve the public. The scientific
community, too, has embraced the WWW as an information dissemination and
retrieval tool, cutting down on the time researchers must spend poring through
Doing Business on the Road
Traveling on business used to put workers out of touch with the office and its equipment for at least the duration of a plane flight. In 1988, telephones became available on Japanese airlines--calls were relayed by satellite. Nowadays, most airlines provide in-seat telephones complete with dataports for e-mail and file transfer. Hotel chains, too, have acknowledged the trend toward offsite business. Many have installed laptop power ports, fax machines, and extra phone lines in guestrooms, and some have even designed "business centers" equipped with the latest office technology. In addition, copy centers in cities around the world have become surrogate offices complete with staff, videoconferencing facilities, and computer workstations.
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