The earliest computers were developed as high-speed calculating machines. Until the 1950s and the advent of computers, all math had to be done by hand or by abacus or a mechanical calculating device. At the time, people understood that computers as very fast calculating machines were a huge step forward for scientific research, but it took a decade or so before the potential of computers as tools to improve business productivity was recognized and exploited.
Computers can do repetitive tasks faster and with fewer mistakes than humans, so the first few decades of the development of the computer for business focused mainly on automating a wide range of industrial processes. The next step brought PCs as productivity tools and entertainment devices to homes and workplaces everywhere. More recent refinements in computers and information technology such as mobile devices have led to a host of business- and consumer-focused "apps" designed to help people to be more organized, efficient and productive.
The number-crunching ability of computers had been appreciated since their conception, but a real understanding of their value as data storage devices did not occur until some time later as the technology matured. Databases maintained on modern workplace computers make it possible for managers to run payroll with the push of a few buttons, and for accountants to calculate taxes or create financial reports in a fraction of the time it took pre-IT. Databases, and the sophisticated software to search them, are also invaluable tools for analysts of all types as they sift through data trying to identify patterns for various purposes.
Replacing the single-function typewriter with a computer with word-processing software and a printer has transformed the way offices across the country do business, but computers have had an especially significant impact on the publication industry. The new technologies made possible by computers have revolutionized the way publishers and related organizations do business, and greatly increased overall productivity. Major paradigm shifts in an industry are a mixed blessing, however, at least to those who lost their jobs because computers enabled fewer people to do the same work.
The development of computers led to the Internet, and more recently to mobile communication devices like smartphones and tablets. The ability to communicate with a colleague or client anywhere at any time has led to the socioeconomic phenomenon of globalization, and dramatically changed the nature of work and work flow in practically every major industry. Near-instant communication enables 21st-century industrial society, including "smart" electrical power grids, 24-7 stock and commodity trading around the globe -- none of which would be possible without computers.
The statistics speak for themselves. Worker productivity in the United States had been increasing at an annual rate of 1 percent to 1.5 percent since the early 1970s, but the productivity rate started to increase dramatically in the mid-1990s, and averaged 2.9 percent from 1995 to 2000. Many economists, including Alan Greenspan, have noted that this rise in productivity occurred just when computers were becoming common in workplaces, and credit computer-related information technology for the increase.
- ABC News: Workplace Special -- The Productivity Debate
- U.S. Department of Labor: Futurework -- Chapter 7: Implications of Workplace Change
- Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco: The Computer Evolution
- Whole Building Design Guide: The Changing Nature of Organizations, Work, and Workplace
- Stanford University: Economic Globalization and the Information Technology Revolution
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