Executive Summary

The term ''distributed work" describes the practice of working without regard to location by using a combination of modern communications and computing technologies. It includes:

  • Working while truly mobile—in activities ranging from sales and on-site customer support or equipment repair to composing and submitting a product design while traveling;

  • Working as part of a geographically dispersed project team—in activities such as research and report writing done largely without traveling to a common site; and

  • Traditional telecommuting—carrying out activities such as responding to customers' telephone calls by utilizing a personal computer linked to a remote database while working at home or at a satellite work center.

Distributed workers can engage in these activities on a full-time basis, as might be the case for a distributed customer service operation. Perhaps more commonly, however, they may engage in the practice of distributed work on a part-time basis, such as spending a day per week contributing to a company-wide product evaluation.

To the extent that a job involves or is enhanced by the creation, manipulation, storage, or communication of information, it is increasingly possible to do that job anywhere that the appropriate information



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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work Executive Summary The term ''distributed work" describes the practice of working without regard to location by using a combination of modern communications and computing technologies. It includes: Working while truly mobile—in activities ranging from sales and on-site customer support or equipment repair to composing and submitting a product design while traveling; Working as part of a geographically dispersed project team—in activities such as research and report writing done largely without traveling to a common site; and Traditional telecommuting—carrying out activities such as responding to customers' telephone calls by utilizing a personal computer linked to a remote database while working at home or at a satellite work center. Distributed workers can engage in these activities on a full-time basis, as might be the case for a distributed customer service operation. Perhaps more commonly, however, they may engage in the practice of distributed work on a part-time basis, such as spending a day per week contributing to a company-wide product evaluation. To the extent that a job involves or is enhanced by the creation, manipulation, storage, or communication of information, it is increasingly possible to do that job anywhere that the appropriate information

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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work processing equipment and communications links are found. There are numerous economic and social benefits to be gained by enhancing and extending distributed work practices. These include increased locational independence for employees, greater flexibility in convening project teams for employers, and better use of transportation resources for society. There are also some potential disadvantages, such as loss of contact and identification with an organization, as well as a possible increase in demands on employees' time and energy. Although many individuals already engage in distributed work, current technologies have several important limitations, especially for groups whose members are geographically dispersed and for individuals who need to work while truly mobile. However, technology itself is only an enabler of or constraint on change rather than a direct motivator of change. Thus, along with better technologies, distributed work practices will also be enhanced by a better understanding of the human factors and sociology of the changing workplace and labor force. Recent improvements in the capabilities and availability of communications and computing tools have meant that distributed work, including telecommuting, can be done more easily now than in the past. Likewise, future improvements in these interrelated fields will benefit those engaged in distributed work. However, to optimize the opportunities for and effectiveness of distributed work, the study committee recommends that research also be conducted with distributed work as a specific focus. RESEARCH RECOMMENDATIONS Computing power, in terms of processing speed and mass storage capacity, and communication capabilities, in terms of available bandwidth and quality of services, can be viewed as a spectrum of varying capacities. Currently, with respect to distributed work, the "high end" of the spectrum may be thought of as being represented by a fully configured desktop workstation attached to a high-bandwidth network. The "low end" of the spectrum may be considered to be characterized by a small hand-held device such as a personal digital assistant with only low-bandwidth wireless communications capabilities. Through the middle part of the capability spectrum, the nation's computing and communications infrastructure is reasonably well established and utilized. High-speed modems and communications services are decreasing in price and becoming more widely used. Both individuals and organizations have abundant computing power

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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work readily available, and the most pressing need is for applications research. Conversely, the communications and computing communities should conduct research aimed at stretching the capabilities of the network and computing infrastructure at both the low and high end of the spectrum. The committee's recommendations for technical research are detailed in Chapter 5 of the report and summarized below. Infrastructure Research Working while mobile presents many challenges, because communications bandwidth and computing power are limited compared to what is typically available in a stationary environment with a wire or optical fiber network connection. The committee's research recommendations center on increasing the bandwidth available to mobile workers and better using whatever bandwidth is available at any point in time, as well as facilitating periods of disconnected work when there is no bandwidth at all. The fact that communications bandwidth and computing power can often be substituted for each other both complicates and adds promise to research at the low end of the capability spectrum. Research at the high end of the infrastructure capability spectrum should center on exploring distributed work practices that can be facilitated by multipoint, multimedia communication at generally abundant bandwidths. Currently, little is known about transmitting large volumes of interactive, multimedia traffic among multiple parties. The committee recommends research centered on understanding and specifying quality-of-service factors, controlling the various types of traffic, enabling new billing methods, and minimizing the human efforts currently involved in establishing and maintaining multipoint, multimedia conference sessions. Applications Research Various types of distributed work are reasonably common in the U.S. workplace. However, the implementation and effectiveness of distributed work are often constrained by the computing and communications applications available to support it. The committee recommends research-oriented distributed work field trials in areas of national or commercial interest to help solve the difficult problems of information retrieval, sharing, and browsing; group socialization; remote supervision; and related problems in the context of real-world employer-employee distributed work relationships. While these field

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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work trials would be conducted within specific domains, the lessons learned and tools developed could be applied in many other fields as well. An interdisciplinary approach is needed to gain the full benefit of such trials. The committee also recommends more general research related to applications to benefit telecommuting. If distributed work is to expand beyond those individuals with considerable technical skill, researchers must pay attention to simplifying complex user interfaces and commonly required operations. Research should concentrate on developing tools, interfaces, and systems that encourage information sharing; bridging synchronous and asynchronous communications to facilitate input to and follow-up from group work sessions; improving and extending the user interface to the telephone network and services; improving capabilities to use audio as a data type; and reducing the costs of input/output devices and network support. CONCLUSION During a period when the nation's economy seems to be in transition to a postindustrial model, the nation and its work force would be well served by having efficient and effective tools for engaging in distributed work. The research topics addressed by the committee in Chapter 5 will provide important new technological capabilities to enhance and extend the practice of distributed work to provide greater locational flexibility, expanded employment opportunities, and better use of our transportation resources.