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Technology and the Transformation of White-Collar Work

By Robert E. Kraut | Go to book overview

tion of clerical tasks into the mainstream of office work. This implies a restructuring of white-collar occupations. This involves a risk, however, because many clerical jobs that are now primarily held by women might be eliminated.

It will take more than new technologies to improve the character of clerical jobs. Clerical jobs in offices that adopt these new office technologies will not be significantly less insular or more valued without explicit collateral changes in work arrangements, managerial attitudes about clerical work, and increased organizational investment in clerical workers. The complex strategic interventions that accompany the deployment of computer-based technologies are critical components in determining the kinds of social outcomes that will emerge. The treatment and organization of clerical jobs embody many social choices. These are not "givens" any more than the technological choices for office work are "given."


CONCLUSIONS

The most profound conclusion for a chapter like this would be to provide an accurate portrait of clerical jobs 20 or 30 years from now. Simple projections are most feasible when one uses a simple model of social change, such as a technological or economic determinism. We have explained how computerization in organizations and offices is a strategic intervention in which there are many social and technical choices. The character of clerical jobs 20 or 30 years from now will be the product of hundreds of thousands of such interventions that are not easily predicted. They are easiest to predict if the vast majority of organizations behave identically and if they computerize with substantially similar strategies. Although there may be some common patterns of computerization--through influences that range from changing labor markets to new fads in office organization--there is a great deal of potential variety.

We have emphasized an historical perspective for several reasons. First, one appreciates the range of possible social choices in organizing clerical jobs by learning about the variety of previous arrangements. Second, one can see that clerical jobs--as an occupational stratum--have not changed substantially during the last 30 years despite the adoption of a rather elaborate set of office technologies--from photocopiers through basic computer systems. This leads us to be skeptical that new technologies alone, even exciting ones, will be a strong catalyst to improve the worklives of the vast majority of clerks.

Office of the future scenarios typically exaggerate the role of new and interesting technologies because they often package together other, unrelated improvements. For example, the physical conditions of future offices are held to improve along with the computerized equipment with the added implication that all office workers will benefit equally from these improvements ( Giuliano, 1982). Moreover, by portraying a workplace free of continual

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