Technology and the Transformation of White-Collar Work

By Robert E. Kraut | Go to book overview
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minor conflicts over pay, status, workloads, deadlines, these scenarios distort the social relations of office life of the present and likely future.

Despite the dramatic improvements in office technologies over the past 100 years, career opportunities and working conditions for clerks have not similarly improved. Although clerical tasks today require more skills in using a more complex array of technologies, these skills are not reflected in increased status or pay ( Baran & Teegarden, 1984; Bikson & Gutek, 1983). A new generation of integrated computer-based office systems will not automatically alter the pay, status, and careers of clerks without explicit special attention.

Computer-based technologies neither automatically degrade and deskill clerical jobs nor improve them. The squads of clerks who work at terminals 8 hours a day in specialized data entry jobs may have some of the worst jobs; private secretaries who have discretionary use of multi-functional workstations in the course of varied work tasks may have more interesting jobs. These differences are due more to the ways in which work is organized than the technologies in use.

But women, who dominate the clerical workforce, have a large stake in new office automation because they have little discretion in the pace, scale, or manner by which these technologies are deployed. Most of the social outcomes that can be attributed to the complex strategic interventions which accompany office automation are alterations in clerical job content. Some jobs are enriched; they are more challenging or interesting. Other jobs are worse due to increased monitoring or de-skilling. Other jobs have mixed outcomes. But regardless of these changes in job content, clerical jobs within the larger occupational structure have not been transformed. Clerical jobs remain at the bottom of the office social order. This sphere of work is effectively feminized and segregated from work that leads to advancement in the organizational hierarchy.

Decision-makers, motivated by the promise of new technologies, may care more about office productivity and cost-savings than the impacts of technological change on clerical staff. The elimination of some clerical job categories may be one result. Other impacts may include the necessity for increased skills in the manipulation of complex technologies and increased demands on clerical staff to support their efficient and productive use. If significant improvements are to be made in clerical jobs, clerks must influence decisions about how their work will be reorganized with new technologies ( Kling, 1983, 1984; Mumford, 1982).


We would like to acknowledge Janet F. Asteroff, Kathleen Gregory, Robert G. Rittenhouse, and Alladi Venkatesh, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and Robert Kraut, who provided some especially helpful editorial guidance. This research was supported under NSF Grant 81-17719.


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