Technological Advances in the Canadian Workplace: An Industrial-Organizational Perspective

Article excerpt

Abstract

Canadian organizations are facing mounting challenges to productivity and survival due to innumerable changes in the new global economy. Of all of the forces directing modern organizational change, technological innovations are among the fastest growing concerns for a psychology of work. In this article, we review the types of technologies being adopted in Canadian firms and assess their influence on the skills and experiences of workers. We conclude that the direction of change for employee performance, use of job skills, and quality of worklife experiences is mediated by the type of innovation adopted and the manner in which it is implemented in the organization. Industrial and organizational psychologists can lead the way in helping organizations and employees benefit from new technology by providing empirically based guidelines for strategic implementation of workplace innovations.

Although Canada has been slower to automate than have Japan and many western industrialized nations (Grayson, 1993; Newton, 1987), the jobs of thousands of Canadian employees have been touched by advanced technologies. Recent data suggest that 90% of Canadian companies have re-engineered and the survivors are now committing more resources to advanced technologies (Shoesmith, 1995). Large organizations and those with foreign parent firms are most likely to have experienced technological innovations in recent years, although small and mid-sized companies are increasingly likely to do so (Baldwin & Diverty, 1995). It appears that no matter what the demographics of the organization, employees are facing dramatic changes in the way that work gets done. In this article we address the types of technological innovations being adopted in Canadian firms and assess their influence on the skills and experiences of workers. For each area of influence we propose a research agenda through which industrial and organizational (I-O) psychologists can continue to provide empirically based answers to many important questions concerning the world of work.

Demographics of Innovation

The 1980s were pivotal years for advances in workplace technology, marked primarily by large-scale office innovations. According to Statistics Canada (1996) less than one quarter of employed people used computers at work during the early 1980s; this figure increased to 48% (more than 6 million Canadians) in 1994. Not only has the proportion of Canadian businesses using advanced technologies grown, the innovations have increased in sophistication from single applications to integrated mutli-use networks (Betcherman, McMullen, Leckie, & Caron, 1994). In addition to personal computers and information technologies, Canadian companies are adopting more process automations. Manufacturing firms employ advanced technologies in various facets of the production process (Baldwin, Gray & Johnson, 1995) and robotics are used to perform basic manual and support tasks (Bylinsky, 1994). Production workers in innovative factories may be networked into computer systems that enable them to keep track of parts to be installed and to keep production moving, and computer screens provide job aids for workers who assemble complex computer-based products. Bylinsky (1994) views these technologies, and the agility they bring to the factory, as the beginning of a revolution that will set the tone of manufacturing for decades to come.

New applications are also found in such varied areas as retailing, transport, and even medicine, as evidenced by the products (e.g., bar code scanners, satellite communication devices for truckers, and portable medical computers) produced in the new digital factories (Bylinsky, 1994). Secretaries and office personnel use word processors, electronic mail and computer networks to perform their jobs. Managers, bank tellers and other service professionals use computers to complete routine tasks, and computer-based technologies are common in chemical and nuclear power industries (Czaja, 1994). …