Written by David Tebbutt, Director 03/93 - scanned

NEW TECHNOLOGY: OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

In business, those who have speedy access to information usually have the edge over their less well informed brethren. This is probably most evident in the fortunes which can be made by astute playing of the stockmarkets. Less obvious, but arguably more important, is your own company's ability to respond to your customers. The ability to flash a caller's information to the screen as a call comes in gives the impression of a slick, well-run and efficient organisation.

But these are just party tricks compared with what's coming. A client could ask you a question while you are lunching together and, without leaving the table and with hardly a break in the conversation, you will be able to draw the answer to your hand-held computer screen in an instant. Mobile computers will continue to shrink and their ability to communicate with other computers will become even more impressive.

Electronic mail, shared documents, file transfer and even video-conferencing will be possible from one of these small devices. Most of the time, electronic mail will satisfy your need to keep in touch with colleagues and customers. Simply write notes, drop them in the computer "out tray" and they'll be sent to their destination. If the destination computer is on, it will warn the user that mail has arrived. If not, the mail will lie in wait until the machine is switched on. This method of communication overcomes the barriers of time zones and geographic distance. Correspondence takes place swiftly, but at each user's convenience.

Video-conferencing is in its infancy, but it won't be many years before it's commonplace. The main barrier is the huge amount of data that has to be transported in order to give moving images of reasonable fidelity. A computer screen could easily display images of six or eight people, giving the illusion of a face-to-face meeting, even though the participants are scattered across the globe. Documents and objects can be held up for everyone to see. Such technology could have a profound effect, to the detriment of the travel business and the benefit of the environment and the bottom line.

Once face-to-face contact can be simulated and data can be transferred easily, we have to ask ourselves "what is the purpose of an office?" How many people serve the company best by being at an office? Many would be better placed nearer to customers. Others would give much more by working from home.

While appearing to collapse into chaos, companies that choose to give more freedom to the individual, to be more flexible in their working practices, will find that they reap the rewards of a highly motivated and effective workforce. Effort will be applied where it is needed and contact will be maintained among those who are needed for any particular task.

The old days of a rigid management structure with weekly meetings and formal reporting are giving way to a mixed style of management, depending on the task at hand. The accounts department, for example, is likely to continue along traditional lines. But other departments, such as sales and service, will provide better value by adopting the new ways.

Lotus Notes provides a very good way of keeping people in touch with each other and informed about activities in which they're involved. Ad hoc project teams form and dissolve by matching needs with expertise. Electronic conferences are used to put out cries for help or fresh ideas and anyone, from the office junior to the managing director, may be able to provide the necessary information.

Although work-group computing appears anarchic, it proves to be quite the reverse if built on a system such as Notes. It is a simple matter for a suitably authorised person to browse the activity levels of individual staff, whether they're based on the premises or outside.

Some out-of-office staff will work from home, some from serviced offices and others on the move, depending on the demands of their work. They will usually be connected to the office computer networks through the telephone system or a data network of some kind. Connecting to a computer from a fixed location is generally no problem but, as you know from using your mobile phone, doing it on the move is much more difficult. A new breed of radio-based computer networking will become very popular for mobile workers.

RAM Mobile Data is one of the companies licensed by the DTI to provide a country-wide data service. Its transmission method overcomes the unreliability problems of systems designed for continuous voice contact. Because it deals only with data, it can break a transmission up into lumps called "packets" which can then be transferred very reliably across the airwaves. Even if they arrive in the wrong sequence, the receiving device can sort them out before storing them in the computer.

The technologies are all coming together to wreak fundamental change in the way we do business and the way we organise our lives. The change will ultimately be for the best, creating tighter, more flexible, more responsive organisations. As with any transition, the process could prove quite painful. Recognising this, the National Association of Teleworkers (NAT) was set up earlier this year to help companies and individuals plan for these new ways of working.

The NAT sees teleworking as a way of benefiting companies, individuals and the environment. Companies gain through improved motivation and decreased timewasting in office politics and other interruptions. Individuals gain by living where they want to and by cutting out the daily commute to the office. Their working times can be fitted around other commitments. People who were skilled but out of reach, such as some handicapped people or those who live in rural areas, suddenly find themselves back in the job market too.

Lotus Notes (Tel: 0784-455445);

RAM Mobile Data (Tel: 081-990 9090;

National Association of Teleworkers (Tel: 0761-413869).