I was watching the AMC show Mad Men over the weekend and it occurred to me that if I had my position as a knowledge worker in an organization 40 years ago, I’d probably have an executive assistant (EA). I’d probably just barely make the cut in terms of having an aide – someone like a Pete Campbell, or preferably a Ken Cosgrove – but the fact remains that I’d have a resource to help me manage my information; this at a time when information was measured in sheets of paper, not gigabytes or terabytes.
Today people are expensive and technology is cheap so only the privileged few have EAs. Their role has changed considerably, but at the core they still help manage information. For those without EAs, we now have more technology to help us– computer file systems, pre-programmed phone directories, Outlook, instant messaging, corporate intranets, iPhones, and wikis – and yet a large portion of my week is still spent manually organizing, finding, and sharing information.
Where am I going with all this? I’m not convinced we’re better off. This isn’t just because Mad Men does a great job at selling nostalgia, but rather because I don’t think our information management technology has been able to keep up with the rate at which information is growing. The point can be made that since we now have a reasonable degree of competence with the technology it makes sense to interact with information directly, rather than have it mediated by another party. I would argue that maybe competence has become a burden.
Although it seems strange to even think what life with an EA might be like for an average 21st Century knowledge worker, I can certainly think of many modern tasks that many of my colleagues would be only too happy to divest, such as uploading and downloading content to/from shared sites, searching Google for specific tidbits of information, and generally separating signal from noise across all the various channels through which we are bombarded with information.
If mid-level knowledge workers still had EAs, would productivity improve? A lot of tasks have been automated, but a lot of new manual tasks have been created – these are the daily irritants that often prevent knowledge workers from sustained activity in core areas that create value for the enterprise. It’s real work, but it’s rarely accounted for or even acknowledged – it just becomes collaborative overhead. I’m not suggesting we go back to the Mad Men days of “a girl” at every desk, but I think a shared resource for many collaborative and administrative tasks would be useful. Is it just me or does anyone else feel like knowledge workers could use some support resources?
I leave you with a politically incorrect clip of Peggy and Joan; a view of EAs from the past, as seen through the eyes of the Mad Men writers: