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Architecture and Hardware Issues and challenges in ubiquitous computing

Anytime/anyplace Computing and the Future of Knowledge Work

Considering the implications and consequences of the always-connected lifestyle.
  1. Introduction
  2. Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers
  3. Possible Beneficial Effects of Anytime/Anyplace Computing on Knowledge Work
  4. Possible Undesirable Effects of Unlimited Access Computing
  5. Maximizing the Benefits and Minimizing the Dangers and Losses of Unlimited Access Computing
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Author

The possible effects of anytime/anyplace computing on the productivity of an important part of the work force known as knowledge workers are a significant area of speculation and a subject worthy of further exploration. Since there is little experience with omnipresent computing in knowledge work, the good and bad effects on productivity are anticipated based on the existing activities and behaviors of knowledge workers. Knowledge work is a significant portion of the work done in organizations, so productivity by knowledge workers is a matter of great concern to both organizations and individuals [3].

A dramatic increase in access to data and computing by knowledge workers can be achieved technically by mobile computing devices and/or by embedding computing devices in products and production technologies. When compared to current desktop access to data and computing, these technologies give greater availability to transactions as they occur. Availability is achieved by embedded systems in products, processes, and buildings, and by allowing mobile computing input from personnel. The technologies release knowledge work from the constraints of a fixed office location and fixed office hours. Knowledge workers can work with full access to communication, data, and computing from any location at any time. Unlimited access and data availability as production and service events occur may change important aspects of knowledge work. For example, embedded computing devices may change the interface between physical workers and knowledge workers. In traditional information systems, there are usually information-handling delays between physical work or movement of physical goods in order to enter and process data about the work. With pervasive computing, tracking of physical work and movement of goods is continuous and available on demand. Unlimited access to computing and communications networks also changes the processes and dynamics of the knowledge work activities of communication, coordination, document sharing, knowledge exchange, and collaboration.

Organizations and individuals may make unanticipated responses as they adapt to new technology.

A fundamental assumption in adopting new technologies is that organizations and individuals are willing to invest in new technology and new applications if it results in improved performance and productivity. However, it is difficult to foresee the results of new technologies—there may be unintended consequences. Organizations and individuals may make unanticipated responses as they adapt to new technology. They may create new structures to promote or restrict its use. It is therefore useful to anticipate both desirable and undesirable responses and consequences. An organization can incorporate these expectations in its plans, procedures, systems, and training for using the technology.

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Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers

Knowledge work is inherently cognitive rather than physical [1]. Examples of outputs from knowledge work are analyses, evaluations, instructions, programs, plans, assurances, reasoning or arguments, decisions, and action plans. In other words, knowledge work is human mental work performed to generate useful information and knowledge. In doing the work, knowledge workers access data, use knowledge, employ mental models, and apply significant concentration and attention. A knowledge worker’s dominant activities in terms of time, energy, or intensity are knowledge work. Examples are systems analysts, programmers, accountants, managers, analysts, and lawyers. Work may be done individually, in groups, or in teams. How do knowledge workers differ from clerical workers? Just as knowledge workers may engage in some clerical activities in performing knowledge work, clerical workers may perform some knowledge work activities. The difference is the mix of work activities; for the knowledge worker, the dominant, most important activities are knowledge work activities.

Knowledge workers have value because of their knowledge and their abilities to apply it in work activities. They are expected to possess formal knowledge consisting of general principles, concepts, and procedures related to classes of problems and domains of work. They also have some procedural knowledge about typical procedures, forms, and rules governing a domain of work. In general, a knowledge worker has significant responsibility for structuring and managing his or her work.

Knowledge Work Tasks and Activities. There are three types of knowledge work tasks: job-specific, knowledge-building and maintenance, and work management [2]. The effect of unlimited access computing will depend on specific tasks and activities.

Job-specific tasks. Every knowledge worker has job-specific tasks that produce outputs of value to the organization. Examples are preparing a budget, analyzing results in terms of estimated and actual costs, planning and scheduling a project, eliciting and documenting system requirements, and writing applications software.

Knowledge-building and maintenance tasks. Knowledge workers are valued for their knowledge and expertise, but this will decay over time. Therefore, knowledge workers need to engage in frequent knowledge building and knowledge maintenance. Examples of this second type of knowledge work tasks are scanning and reading professional literature, attending professional meetings, learning new systems and technologies, and building a network of colleagues.

Work management tasks. These support self-management of knowledge work. Examples of work management tasks are planning and scheduling work, allocating time and attention, and acquiring access to resources that enable effective work.

Productivity in Knowledge Work. There are very large differences in productivity among knowledge workers. For example, using typical measures of performance, productivity of the best performing systems analysts and programmers can range up to three or more times that of the lowest performers (who are productive enough to be retained in their positions). This high ratio is not usually found in production work and clerical work because the organization provides work routines that reduce wasted time and effort and establish an expected pace for the work. In knowledge work, there may be some organization standards and procedures, such as deadlines for reports, requirements for evidence of progress, and expectations about outputs. These factors provide some incentives for work completion, but quality of work and timely completion depend largely on self-management and self-pacing.

The most productive knowledge workers tend to employ the most efficient work flow and work methods. More important, they tend to be better at managing the use of their time, attention, and motivation. Knowledge work productivity depends on good self-management. For example, a very productive knowledge worker will schedule for productivity (schedule important, high-productivity work activities to occur during times of high energy and attention), schedule for motivation (create motivation by frequent, short-term deadlines), and manage demands for attention (because a knowledge worker has limited attention resources and an oversupply of inputs to process).

The value of unlimited computing access may depend on the knowledge work tasks. Knowledge workers whose tasks involve obtaining data from a variety of locations, activities, and people (such as a scheduler of production activities) are likely to benefit from anytime/anyplace computing and communications facilities. Less-certain benefits may be achieved if the knowledge work being performed is dependent on concentrated effort without interruptions.

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Possible Beneficial Effects of Anytime/Anyplace Computing on Knowledge Work

In unlimited access computing, a person has access at all times and all places to all information and communication resources. The access mechanisms are so portable they move with the person or are found in the places in which the person moves. Four beneficial effects of unlimited access that change the performance of knowledge work are: removal of time and space constraints to communications, removal of time and space constraints for doing knowledge work, improved access to decision makers, and increased ability to receive and process a rich stream of signals about the organization and its environment.

Enhanced Capabilities for Communications, Coordination, Collaboration, and Knowledge Exchange. A significant characteristic of knowledge work is communication, coordination, and collaboration. These important activities may be within a work group, within a project team, with suppliers or customers, with production or clerical workers, or with managers. These activities usually involve sending and receiving messages, holding physical and virtual meetings, or exchanging documents. With anytime/anyplace computing, a knowledge worker is no longer constrained by employment location and employment times in performance of important communications, coordination, and collaboration activities. Communication, coordination, and collaboration access are available 24/7 from anywhere. This is especially important for those whose jobs require communication, coordination, or collaboration with persons in other locations and other time zones.

Exchanging messages, holding meetings, and exchanging documents may involve data (such as data describing various attributes of events or transactions), information (data organized and analyzed in meaningful ways), and knowledge (information synthesized into rules or guides for action). Pervasive computing enables prompt exchange of data because embedded computers record event data as events occur and make the data available immediately or on random demand. It eliminates delays in recording physical work and physical movement of goods and making the data available.

Unlimited access computing enables exchange of information because the analyses and documents that contain information can be accessed at any time and from any place. Insights reflecting knowledge are accessed by finding documents that explain the meaning and implications of past projects or by finding individuals who have developed knowledge by working with conditions and situations similar to ones being experienced. Unlimited access computing supports search engines that find and retrieve relevant documents, analyses, and reports. It also supports finding and connecting with individuals who have desired knowledge.

Removal of Time and Space Constraints for Doing Knowledge Work. The use of an office for work and the associated custom of set hours for the office to be open and in use have imposed both time and space constraints on performing knowledge work. These constraints may be convenient for office support services, but they may not be optimal for productivity. Anytime/anyplace computing allows the office functions to move with the knowledge worker rather than being tied to a physical office.

With unlimited access and mobile computing, knowledge work can be removed from the constraints of office hours. Knowledge workers can take advantage of productive times outside of normal work hours. Access to computer and communications resources means knowledge workers who have productive periods at times other than normal work hours can take advantage of those times. An analyst who has an idea at midnight or wakes up early in the morning with an idea can perform knowledge work with access to all the data and computer support normally available at the office. This also facilitates doing knowledge work with persons in other time zones.

Access to Critical Decision Makers at Any Time. Many times, knowledge work is delayed in order to receive input or decisions from key stakeholders for the work being performed. Anytime/anyplace computing increases the opportunity to get access to critical decision makers at any time. A cell phone may provide voice access, but mobile computing makes the entire range of computing and communications capabilities available at any time and any place. Spreadsheets, reports, analyses, and requests for comments and decisions can be sent from any location at any time to relevant stakeholders and decision makers.

Increased Ability to Receive and Process Rich Streams of Signals about the Organization and Its Environment. Periodic structured reports are common to knowledge workers in organizations. However, aggregated, structured reports may hide important information. Recipients of reports may miss important factors because the factors are not summarized and reported. Readers need contact with the richness of detail that is only contained in data describing individual transactions. Customer dissatisfaction, employee resistance, product failures, new competition, and other situations are usually signaled very early by messages that are part of streams of transaction data. It may take months or years for the early signals to become strong enough to emerge in the standard summarized reports.

Gaining access to transactions and picking up early signals is one basis for the managerial practice of "walking around" to sample operations and opinions and for meeting periodically with a sample of customers and suppliers. In addition, managers tend to be more confident in their decisions if they can scan detailed transaction data (if they desire).

Mobile computing increases knowledge work access to transaction data. Managers, analysts, and other knowledge workers can sample transaction data to enrich their understanding of the events in the operations of the organization and its environment. The mobile computing system expands the reach of managing by walking around. The availability of real-time streams of transaction data allows knowledge workers to monitor transactions as they occur. They can select and evaluate critical transactions or environmental signals.

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Possible Undesirable Effects of Unlimited Access Computing

Although computing with unlimited access may result in beneficial effects on knowledge work productivity, it may have unintended consequences and undesirable effects. The undesirable consequences result from organization and individual behaviors in response to the systems that implement anytime/anyplace computing. The possible undesirable effects are not certain; they are possible. Just as beneficial effects may not be achieved, undesirable effects may not occur because new organization structures and processes may overcome unfavorable effects. The discussion of undesirable consequences alerts organizations to the need for dealing with these possibilities. The undesirable effects of anytime/anyplace computing may be found in individual management of knowledge work, weakening of desirable boundaries between work and personal life for knowledge workers, bias in decision making, and dysfunctional organization behaviors,

Effects on Individual Management of Knowledge Work. Managing demands for attention requires discipline in scheduling work and in responding to interruptions. Computing with access available any time and any place may enable unnecessary and unproductive interruptions to knowledge work. If interruptions are easy, more may happen (similar to the effect of email increasing the sending of multiple copies of messages). In fact, pervasive access may change organization expectations, making interruptions and immediate responses to them appear to be the norm. Individuals may be motivated to accept and process interruptions. Productivity may drop as knowledge workers attend to interruptions and are distracted from concentrating on important activities.

Interruptions may enable avoidance of some activities. Some knowledge work activities require uninterrupted periods of concentrated work. For example, long-range planning usually requires concentration over an extended period. Doing work that needs uninterrupted concentration requires cutting off communications that interrupt. Mechanisms, such as "hiding out" or relocating to remote work sites, may be less successful with unlimited access computing.

Effects on Desirable Boundaries between Work and Personal Life. Humans need rest and renewal by changing from work to personal life activities. Also, some personal activities, such as those associated with family and friends, are important to a well-rounded individual. Anytime/anyplace computing by its very nature has the potential for intruding into personal time and space because the boundaries between work and personal time and space are removed. For most projects, it is probably destructive to long-run productivity to allow routine 24/7 communications that intrude into personal time and space.

Effects on Decision Making. Some decisions benefit from real-time scanning of individual transactions. However, there are possible adverse effects. One is too much data, which may consume scarce attention. Typically, managers do not lack for data; they lack insight into what is important and needs attention. Also, managers, executives, and analysts, by being able to monitor individual transactions, may make decisions based on a few recent events and take actions based on inadequate evidence. In other words, they may be encouraged by unlimited access to transaction data to fall into well-known data analysis traps. Examples are recency bias (undue weight given to recent events), small sample judgment errors (imagining patterns from random data), and concreteness bias (the availability of data encourages its use and discourages seeking more useful data).

Since knowledge work is characterized by self-management, providing knowledge workers with new capabilities will cause them to innovate and change the way they work.

There are traditional organization mechanisms to deal with the tendency to give too much weight to recent events and make judgments on a very small sample of transactions. These mechanisms include filtering transactions remove irrelevant data and summarizing transactions in reports that aggregate adequately.

Effects on Organization Behaviors. The behavior of individuals and teams in an organization may be adversely affected by the increased communication capabilities of anytime/anyplace computing. These effects may be increased communications and coordination costs, tendency toward centralization, and reduced organization development.

Organizations are designed to provide communications and coordination capacity, so individuals and teams receive information relevant to their duties. Large projects are organized into groups or teams that handle well-defined activities required by the project. The boundaries of the groups are defined by specification of inputs and outputs. This organization of work reduces the need for communication and coordination among groups. Since coordination and communication are costly in time and attention, team organization is efficient. Unlimited access computing is relevant to organization communication, as it enables increased communications, often changing the boundaries of "need to know" to "you may find this interesting." The result may be an increase in communications without achieving increased productivity.

Limits to managerial attention, communication, and coordination require organization hierarchies. Workers at the lowest level deal with individual transactions. Middle managers supervise the lowest levels. Top managers receive summarized reports and focus on performance measures and changes in strategy. Systems that enable managers at all levels to observe transactions in real time may lead to more centralization of control. Managers can track activities more easily and require many decisions to be decided at higher levels rather than being delegated to personnel performing the transactions. In some cases, getting too much information causes higher-level management to get involved, when it should be left to the people close to the problem. The availability of information may provide the illusion of control: higher-level managers may misinterpret what is going on and make serious mistakes because of lack of local knowledge.

Another undesirable organization behavior from centralization and illusion of control is the tendency to move decision making higher in the organization and thus reduce the amount of training for lower-level managers (top executives in training). If the "chief" can and does make more decisions, then the second in command (chief in training) will not be able to make as many decisions. The propensity to want the highest authority to make the decision will be supported. This will be destructive to the development of personnel who can be future higher-level managers.

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Maximizing the Benefits and Minimizing the Dangers and Losses of Unlimited Access Computing

Anytime/anyplace computing is a powerful concept, and may change the way some knowledge work is done and require knowledge workers to adjust the management of their work. It might also affect the design of organizations. These considerations suggest new challenges for the designers and implementers of unlimited access computing in organizations.

Unlimited Access Computing and the Way Knowledge Work is Done and Managed. Knowledge work typically involves using personal knowledge or accessing knowledge from repositories and other knowledge workers. The work can be either solitary or collaborative. Anytime/anyplace computing significantly reduces the time and effort to locate and access knowledge from repositories and locate and interact with other knowledge workers. The systems enable improved collaboration and allow knowledge workers to monitor and capture transactions important to knowledge work tasks. Knowledge work can therefore be performed with better information, better access to the knowledge of others, and more effective collaboration. The result can be higher quality and greater productivity.

The current approach to knowledge work is for knowledge workers to obtain formal knowledge through education and training. They are expected, largely, to manage their own work. Self-management works well for tasks defined in formal education or tasks that have become routinized in an organization. Self-management is often more difficult in scheduling work and managing the use of personal time and attention. Unlimited access computing introduces new demands for attention and new capabilities for interruptions. It provides increased capabilities for obtaining data and monitoring transactions with the danger of being overloaded. Another potential danger is a decrease in productivity, as knowledge workers allow unmanaged access and interruption that consumes their attention and time.

Two approaches may assist knowledge workers to self-manage in this environment. One is to have systems that assist personnel with self-management, as in avoiding data overload and managing access and interruptions. The second is training and mentoring that transfers knowledge about self-management from those who have learned to work productively in a high-access, high-interruption environment.

Unlimited Access Computing and the Design of Organizations. Traditional organization structure establishes boundaries between organization units. They are reflected in responsibilities, hierarchies of authority, decision making, and access to data. Office layouts reinforce the structure. Mobile computing weakens these boundaries. The design of organization systems for the new technology environment enables knowledge workers to cross organization boundaries, ignore office layouts, and access data without regard to hierarchies. Instead of rigid structures, organizations may respond to unlimited access computing with guidelines, norms, and systems that support self-management. This may reduce organizational friction and increase innovation and productivity.

An organization without some boundaries is probably not possible or desirable: boundaries improve performance and productivity. Organization design should consider boundaries between organization units, between project teams, and between individuals who now have increased access and interrupt capabilities. An important boundary is between work time and personal time. Establishing reasonable boundaries, including norms and expectations, tends to have a long-run effect on productivity, quality of work life, and retention.

Challenges for the Designers and Implementers of Anytime/Anyplace Computing for Knowledge Work. There are several challenges for designers and implementers of unlimited access computing. One is to identify the knowledge work tasks and activities that will benefit and estimate the benefits. A related challenge is to work with user groups to design the systems and related organization changes. Users should be provided both technical and knowledge work management training for the new systems. Change procedures to respond to unanticipated effects and unexpected adaptations in system uses should be implemented.

Identifying the knowledge work that will benefit from dramatically increased access computing is complicated by the anticipation of changes in the ways work will be performed. Looking at existing work processes may not indicate the most fruitful applications. The process of requirements discovery is therefore a combination of identifying tasks that are likely to benefit without major changes in the work and characterizing those that will benefit only if the work process is altered. The requirements process must involve potential users and elicit both technical and social requirements, social requirements being those related to satisfying work and quality of work life.

Even given a set of social and technical requirements, the design and implementation of a system to support knowledge work still needs significant user participation. Knowledge work processes are not routinized; they may vary somewhat based on the person doing the work. Much of the work process is probably not documented. The design of a successful system will probably involve changes in the way many tasks and activities are performed and may involve organization changes. In this environment, it is especially important to have a collaborative process in which potential users participate.

It is vital to train knowledge workers to manage the capabilities provided by anytime/anyplace computing. The technical training is fairly simple. The main problem is to provide training for knowledge workers in how to employ the system to support productivity and timeliness in their knowledge work. This training should emphasize both the advantages and benefits that can be achieved and the dangers the system will enable and even encourage dysfunctional knowledge worker behaviors. Since many of the important principles and examples of productive and unproductive use will emerge through use, a training strategy that includes follow-up sessions may be the most effective.

Unanticipated effects occur with all systems, but they are likely to be very important among knowledge workers. Unlike clerical or production systems where intended use can be reasonably enforced and desirable system changes documented and implemented carefully, the knowledge worker environment typically involves more independence in system use and undocumented adaptation. Given a process of adaptation by knowledge workers and creation of new structures for productivity with the systems, a follow-up process to identify these changes may be very useful. Some of the adaptations may suggest future system changes.

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Unlimited access computing with anytime/anyplace capabilities introduces powerful new technology into organizations. For some workers, the mobility and high level of access to data and personnel will improve productivity. For the large segment of the work force identified as knowledge workers, the productivity and quality of work life effects are somewhat uncertain (but certainly interesting). This overview of some of the issues in unlimited access computing for knowledge workers suggests opportunities and dangers. Since knowledge work is characterized by self-management, providing knowledge workers with new capabilities will cause them to innovate and change the way they work. At the same time, knowledge workers will need to learn to manage their attention, one of their scarce human resources, in an environment in which barriers to interruption are reduced and expectations of availability are increased. Traditional boundaries and roles in organizations will be challenged by increased access to data and personnel. Faced with powerful capabilities, individuals and organizations will create new structures and adapt to them. The system designer challenge is to understand the new requirements and build new systems that will increase productivity and, at the same time, maintain or improve the quality of working life.

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    1. Davis, G.B. A research perspective for information systems and example of emerging area of research. Information Systems Frontiers 1, 3 (1999), 195–203.

    2. Davis, G.B. and Naumann, J.D. Personal Productivity with Information Technology. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997.

    3. Drucker, P.F. The Age of Discontinuity. Harper & Row, New York, 1969.

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