The age of electronics and more specifically, computers, has caused a tremendous paradigm shift in the way we do business today. Just 15 years ago, innovations such as the Facsimile(FAX) machine, and the Personal Computer(PC) were state-of-the-art and considered cutting edge. Today, many business people wouldn't be able to function efficiently without these tools. Furthermore, communications as we know it, would almost cease to exist without E-mail, fax-on-demand and teleconferencing. We have gotten so accustomed to the presence of computers and the services they provide that many of us don't remember what it was like before. This paper will attempt to discuss the evolution of some of today's technologies and their impact on how we do business.
The Changing Workplace
Business spent US$1 trillion in the last decade, but showed little gain or efficiency.1 Only now are we seeing the payoff. Some of this latency is due to some people's natural resistance to the types of change introduced by evolving technologies.
Many employees are anxious and/or resentful of being forced to change the way they perform their job function. Every organization has individuals that would much prefer to be operating "the old way". Slowly, these individuals are either embracing the change or face elimination. This elimination can take the form of either attrition or in extreme cases - termination or layoff. It is not uncommon for an organization to go through a cleansing process that eliminates "dead-wood" and individuals who refuse to obtain the required skill sets.
Because computers can perform repetitive tasks so well, their evolution has taken a somewhat predictable path and has eliminated many jobs that were once performed by people. Although many of these tedious jobs have been reduced or eliminated, computers created a whole new set of jobs focused on computer manufacture, programming and support. A major challenge for the government and business sectors, is that these new jobs demand highly skilled, adaptable, innovative workers who are constantly upgrading and learning new skills.
In the past, workers were required to be physically present in the business office during "normal" business hours. That is where they performed their job function and interacted with other employees. Today, many organizations are permitting, if not encouraging, flexible work environments.
Telecommuting is the technology that made this flexibility possible. Some employees connect from their home computer to the office network and perform their job function from home. More than two million corporate employees are now telecommuting full-time, and three times that number are involved in this type of communication one or two days a week.3 If an individual's duties don't require them to be physically in the office, this flexibility is an excellent way of performing their job while controlling their own schedule. For example, if an employee is working on a project and prefers to do this type of work in the evening, he/she could simply logon to the corporate network at their convenience and access the required data, use E-mail etc..
The drawback to this type of working arrangement is the inherent lack of interaction between the employees who are working at home and the employees in the office. In the example stated above, the employees in the office would not get a response to their E-mail until they logged in the next morning, conversely, the employee at home would not get any further communications until they logged in to the corporate computer in the evening. Obviously this type of arrangement requires common sense and coordination to make it work. When all else fails, and instant communication is necessary, the employees could use the telephone (an old technology based on analog audio signals converted to digital signals and subsequently transmitted over copper/fiber-optic lines providing instant bi-directional communication).
The first widespread use of computers consisted of a centralized mainframe computer acting as a server and "dumb" video display terminals(VDT) which were on the user's desk and provided a window to applications which resided on the server. These applications included character-based versions of software such as WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and E-mail. Since the VDT could not store any data, this too was stored on the server.
Eventually, VDTs disappeared and were replaced by Personal Computers. This represented a major paradigm shift in the way we thought about serving applications and data storage. In essence, every user had their own server on their desk and the mainframe was only for legacy applications that did not lend themselves to porting.
Today, we have come almost full-circle and are using high-power UNIX or Windows NT servers with a majority of the applications "served" from these machines. Conversely, the client PCs have minimal local applications and typically store their data on the server. This client-server configuration provides for centralized backups and easy software upgrades or modifications. In addition, the trend is leading towards a diskless Internet machine. This machine will have copious amount of memory, but little or no hard drive. All of the applications will either be served via the internal Intranet or the external Internet.
The Internet began as a government effort to provide fast communications for scientists working on national security issues around the globe. Today, the number of Internet users is doubling every 6 months Studies show that one out of every eleven people are connected to the Internet.2 The Internet is a replete source of information, software and communications. Many would agree that the future of communications and business commerce liens in the Internet.
The Word Wide Web (WWW) is another name for the Internet, but "The Web" is best known for its graphical hyperlink based "pages". Depending on their purpose and how they are configured, clicking on these hyperlinks can play audio, display graphic images or text documents or simply route the user through additional Web pages, all linked by a common logical thread. The Web is extremely popular for recreational use as there are enormous amount of FAN Clubs, hobby centered and general interest sites as well as some extremely bazaar sites. For example - you could visit one out of the hundreds of Elvis Fan clubs, discover carpentry techniques and learn about UFOs, Devil worship, and how to build a bomb out of fertilizer, all in the same sitting. While the number of users is doubling every six months, the number of these Web pages is doubling every 53 days.2
Although the Web is great for recreation, its primary focus is business. Most medium to large companies have their own "Home Page" and use these pages to provide information and services to their customers. For example, a computer hardware distributor could provide a means for customers to search through online catalogs and manuals, download sales presentations, software and hardware drivers. In addition, a customer could fill out a shopping list and make a purchase right from their computer.
In addition to the World Wide Web, the Internet offers other services including Newsgroups where people can post and reply to messages that are grouped by subject matter and Electronic Mail(E-mail). E-mail over the Internet provides extremely quick correspondence and helps to further the growth of the global market.
Changes in Communications
The growth and innovations of the computer brought along with it many aspects of the business world. Communication is an example of one of these business processes that have grown in parallel with the computer and like the computer, this growth has been exponential. The global market has created the need for fast communications over a great distance. Teleconferencing and E-mail are two excellent examples of technologies that have met these needs and have literally transformed the way the business world operates.
Teleconferencing - In some companies, Teleconferencing has all but replaced "physical" meetings, thereby drastically reducing travel costs and the loss of productivity as a result of the travel time required to attend the meetings. Teleconferencing is particularly useful when remote teams are working at different locations, but on a common project. It also provides a means for adhoc meetings where spontaneity is desirable or necessary.
Electronic Mail (E-mail) - E-mail has transformed business communication like no other technology. In addition to simple inter-office communications, E-mail has helped to advance the global market and provides immediate information transfer. In the modern business world, E-mail has all but replaced conventional postal mail for simple communications and has put a significant dent into the overnight delivery services. In addition, although the telephone is an immediate means of communication, some people would still prefer to communicate via E-mail. Their logic is E-mail gives them an opportunity to better articulate themselves and expound on their thoughts. This is particularly effective for technical communications where specific details are important and would be prohibitively tedious to transcribe over the phone. E-mail also tends to reduce encoding when forwarding communications through a workflow. Unlike verbal data, E-mail does not decay while traversing from one employee to the next. Lastly, E-mail is self-documenting and is an excellent means of providing an audit trail when working on important projects.
Computer Aided Design
The methods for producing technical drawings has evolved from using drafting tables, ink and mylar to using high-tech Computer Aided Design (CAD) applications. CAD provides an environment in which the user can produce technical documents three to four times faster than was done previously with manual methods. In addition, the CAD drawings are far more accurate, flexible and manageable. Since CAD drawings are in electronic format, they can be attached to E-mails and passed though a workflow to initiate an approval process. With the proper software, engineers required to review drawings, add their remarks and attach these "redlines" to the drawing so these comments can be included in the next revision.
Historically, CAD drawings were produced as 2D orthographic representations of real-life 3D elements. Some organizations have extended this 2D approach to what is sometimes called 21/2 D. This is simply a 2D drawing with database attributes attached to the graphical elements. This permits us to create such extracts as bill-of-materials and process balance sheets. Within the last eight to ten years, some organizations are performing their design by creating true 3D models of the facility to be built.
This 3D model provide many advantages over its 2D counterpart.
1) The primary advantage of the 3D model is the fact that all of the designers are working in the same spatial plane, on the same model. This means that an architect "sees" the steel created by the structural engineer and the piping designer sees the vessel placed by the mechanical designer and therefore places his pipes, valves etc. accordingly. This provides a means of clash detection, where we can be sure that we did not design a facility that has a pipe designed to run through a twelve inch steel beam. Of course this would be caught in the field during construction, but the design changes are extremely costly and can be avoided by the use of the 3D model. In addition, the 3D model lends itself to the Review walk-through as was previously stated.
2) You can not physically build a manufacturing facility from a 3D model. Although it is a great representation of how the facility will look when it is completed, construction teams need detailed, 2D, fully dimensioned drawings. The software we use to create the 3D model automatically creates these 2D orthographic drawings. Dimensions are placed by simply selecting the individual components and "pushing a button". Furthermore, if a piece of equipment is moved in the 3D model, the dimensions in the 2D drawing will change accordingly. Figures 1 and 2 show a 3D model and its orthographic counterpart.
Technology is growing at a rate that is faster than many of us can fathom. An ancient chinese curse states "May you live in interesting times!". We are extremely fortunate to be living in such interesting times. It is our duty as members of the business community and as common shareholders in this point in history to embrace these technologies and assimilate and integrate them into the way we do business.
- Party of Canada, The Changing Nature of Work (Online, Internet 1996) :Pg 1
- Richard Steinnon, Business Plan for Dial-up Internet Service Provider (Online, Internet 1995) :Pg 3
- Pamela S. Lewis, Stephen H. Goodman and Patricia M. Fandt, Management - Challenges in the 21st Century