Electronic Breakthrough Allows Home Based Workforce
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(1), 11-12. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Developments in computer technology could result in vast social changes, not least of which would be their impact on the communications workforce. The "conversion of all manner of words, images and sounds into computer data, streams of ones and zeros" that can be fragmented, reformatted, manipulated and sent anywhere, has liberated us from paper, celluloid and vinyl. But it is also forcing a tremendous cultural and industrial tumult. "We are in the middle of a true revolution in media--the change from chemical processes to electronic ones," said Michael Schulhof, vice chairman of Sony Corp.'s U.S. unit.

The long-term results of this "revolution" are far from clear, but what is clear, is that it is forcing media companies to confront a radical change: customers now can organize and present information in ways once limited to publishers. The Times Mirror Co., for example, is exploring ways that make it possible for professors to create their own customized textbooks by dipping into electronic databases. At Dow Jones & Co. executives speak of futuristic news services that might enable investors to call up live videos of corporate events onto their screens and immediately buy or sell stocks over the same computers. Developments like these will no doubt make it possible for increasing numbers of people to do their work at home.

But there are drawbacks. The enormous "electronic networks," that are growing into a "computational membrane covering vast areas of the earth" may yield great amounts of information that are just passing users by. "We may actually be pushing the physical limits on the ability of people to process information," said Robert Jacobson, an information-policy consultant to the California state assembly. Once the information that is "out there" is made easily accessible, the impact on an information-age workforce is certain, though nearly unpredictable. For example, copyright laws limit the access and usability of certain information, but current computer systems demonstrate that this information can be copied and utilized in such a way as to avoid the usual compensation for copyrighted material. Of course, copyright laws may be altered so that compensation is conceived in different terms, but this still leaves consumers, the possible home-based workforce, at a disadvantage in terms of utilizing the almost unlimited amount of information that is available through the growing electronic networks. The late MIT communications scholar Ithiel de Sola Pool suggested a possible way that both copyright compensation and information overload could be dealt with in a single service: "Organized service functions for which users pay are the key to a compensation system for the era in which copying is easy but [in which] consumers need help in using the complex and overwhelming volumes of information." [Miller, M. W. (1989, June 7). Vast changes loom as computers digest words, sound images. The Wall Street Journal, pp. A1, A20.]

City and state-sanctioned telecommuting programs are grabbing attention on the West coast, but some workers across the country have been doing it for years. Jack Nilles, who coined the term "telecommuting" years ago suggests the plusses of telecommuting--increased productivity, reduced employee turnover, lower office space needs, reduced real estate costs, better management, organizational flexibility, quicker response times, and better employee morale. Dennis Chamot, associate director with the AFL-CIO, is more cautious and sees little need for telecommuting. He sees most of its success with small, self-selected programs. It is early to draw conclusions about how the average worker will benefit. [Telecommuting can unclog urban offices, freeways (1989, August). Communication News, From the Congressional Institute for the Future.]


For higher education, telecommunicating means the potential for more students and expanded programs. While it can be argued that telecommunicating should not and will not replace the campus living experience, telecommunicating may provide significant professional education opportunities to a poorly served portion of the population (i.e., those individuals currently employed seeking to improve their professional opportunities without leaving their jobs). Far too often an individual reaches a "dead end" in their career and seeks new employment opportunities. Unfortunately, new opportunities often require the acquisition of new skills. Many times these new skills cannot be obtained because the individual can not afford to leave his/her job or move to the location where these new skills are taught. Professional training programs offered through telecommunications are one mechanism to train skills and yet maintain economic status. These programs are likely to be well received because they can simply be viewed as an investment into a new career.

Parker Rossman in The Emerging Worldwide Electronic University: Information Age Global Higher Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992) describes signs of an emerging global classroom, whereby students in one country take courses in another via computer conferences and/or TV, a practice facilitated by electronically available catalogs of courses, electronic access to research libraries, and on-line electronic bookstores. Faculty members meet with students from around the world in "hyperspace," and use virtual reality classrooms, electronic and multimedia textbooks. We are indeed approaching the end of an era in which colleges can be bounded by a wall with a narrow gate, when all students are kept in one place at one time (sharing finite resources and faculty), and when student leaving the campus stop their education. Mel Elfin (1992, 28 September. U.S. new 1993 college guide, U.S. News and World Report, 100-112) describing the college of tomorrow maintains that America's colleges and universities are standing on the edge of a "breathtaking transformation." Those institutions anticipating this transformation will be the most successful in the new era.

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