09 July 2006

Missing Specialization

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Once upon a time, business executives and managers who could afford it had what were called secretaries. Secretaries typically performed a variety of tasks for their bosses, such as typing letters or other items, answering the phone and directing callers or taking messages, managing the executive’s schedule, coordinating meetings, copying (or, in the old days, mimeographing) or filing documents, etc. There was a long list of clerical and administrative duties that were intended to free the boss to focus on the decision-making and management activities for which they were presumably hired. Good secretaries were (hopefully) valued, and secretarial skills (e.g., being a fast and capable typist) were considered a set of talents unto themselves. Moreover, while the stereotype of a secretarial relationship was 1:1 – one executive to one secretary – there were such things as “secretarial pools,” wherein a number of secretaries served a broader range of (often more junior) executives, thus still eliminating clerical work while reducing administrative costs. (And yes, the other stereotype of the secretarial relationship was male executive to female secretary, but for the purposes of this discussion the gender issues are irrelevant.)

Fast forward to 2006, to a United States transformed by the personal computer and other tools – technologies designed to make things “easier” for us, regardless of our role in life. By and large, they might do just that: Americans can now shop, bank, watch movies, listen to music, make appointments, plan a vacation, and more, using the internet from the comfort of their home; they can reach a spouse, child, parent, or emergency assistance by cell phone, from (and to) virtually anywhere; exchange information or keep in touch with friends via e-mail; and take, print, and share photographs of their events or experiences, using digital cameras, home photo-printers, computers, and the internet. We believe these little things generally contribute to our well-being, to our recreation, relaxation, and daily life management.

At the same time, however, they have also transformed the way we work – and not necessarily for the better. The arrival and mass-adoption of these technologies has virtually eliminated secretaries. Instead, executives now have “executive assistants” or office managers, a class of employees who do not, as a general rule, perform all the same tasks that secretaries once did. Much typing is now done by executives themselves, whether communicating by e-mail, writing a memo, or drafting a strategy document, while every working Tom, Dick, and Harry with a BlackBerry and a cell phone can be reached as directly as anyone else, with little interference. Some of this is seen as necessitated by the speed of business and communication today – when a client e-mails, who has time to dictate a reply, to be typed up and sent by a secretary executive assistant? It seems impractical, implausible; the executive can type her own damn e-mails. There is also an economic motive: when management can type, edit, spell-check, print, and distribute a memo or document themselves, there isn’t much of a rationale behind paying for an intermediary to assist. Sure, the executive might not type 120 words a minute or use the classic finger arrangement on their keyboard, but it doesn’t matter; if they can combine composing, editing, and typing into one process, they can eliminate another salary, saving the company money. The changes go on from there: shared electronic calendars allow meetings to be planned and tracked across a whole company without an administrative intermediary; voice mail systems make the need for a human message-taker irrelevant; and laptop computers, BlackBerrys, and cell phones mean that even when traveling – the last bastion of escape from the rigors of the office – executives can be just as “efficient” and “in touch” as if they were sitting in their own Aeron chair in their very own office.

If all of this sounds benign, or suggests a simplistic nostalgia for the lost art of taking dictation, consider how much deeper this strain of business self-sufficiency runs, how much more each of us is asked to do, usually with the aid of technology, as if we should all know how to do it. The list is long: formatting documents, creating presentations in PowerPoint-type software, managing information in a database, creating, modifying, printing, or saving digital images... All of these things require skill sets that may be more complex than those we earlier desired from well-trained secretaries, and yet they are skills we now consider basic on the part of even the most entry-level, non-administrative staffer. It isn’t just that we have to know more, we have to know more skills that are, in many ways, irrelevant to the jobs we are supposed to do.

Nor have we accounted well for the costs of these “user-friendly” technologies. What might take a specialist 10 minutes (at a cost of, say, $100) can consume 45 minutes for the assistant account executive (whose time might bill at $100/hour). On the surface, it looks cheaper: those 45 minutes cost less than the specialist’s 10. But that account executive should have his or her own specialty; if you consider the other work that the assistant account executive could have done while the digital image is being handled by someone else, it may be a Pyrrhic savings. Or consider how many minutes per day are lost just to the process of dialing in to retrieve and listen to voice mail messages; the concise, secretarial message has been replace by a person-to-person communique that might just be less efficient in the long run.

There are areas where specialization is, of course, still critical, from lawyers to doctors to engineers; even the business executives who function without secretaries usually have specialized skills in the areas in which they work. Nonetheless, the bounty that technology has brought us has also burdened us, creating a sense of false independence, a “freedom” to do tasks that (as a result) we now devalue, such as typing – business activities that were once considered skills, and the province of those with proper training. The irony is that in our digital age, these tasks may require more training, more specialization, than used to be demanded of secretaries. Anyone who has ever “lost” a document because they did something wrong, or fought for an hour with their word processor to change some formatting detail, knows that these simple, easy-to-use programs can be anything but. More to the point, when we expect everyone to do everything, someone has to lose, and often, it’s us.


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