A friend of mine recently asked me to help him run a small "un-conference" on information overload. I didn’t have much interest in the topic, but the conference attendees (vendors, consultants, and researchers interested in information overload in the modern workplace) were nice and I gained useful insight from one of the speakers that I think is worth sharing.
Most of the talks were about how to avoid information overload through tools like email filters or techniques like not polling email as frequently to decrease interruptions. The idea is that information overload leads to increased multitasking, which makes your resources less efficient.
One of the speakers (I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember which one, but he was my favorite) took a step back and spoke about the roots of information overload with a righteous rant that was delivered with grace and eloquence. He traced information overload to two primary causes:
- The introduction of the personal computer
- The management consulting trend that started in the 1980s to make organizations "more efficient"
He concluded that because of drastic reductions in administrative headcount, modern organizations were working in very inefficient ways, and that overload was a symptom of this resource shortage, not a cause.
I was only paying slight attention when he began speaking (recall, I was trying to help facilitate and run the conference, I really wasn't supposed to be attending), but the wisdom of his words caught my attention.
In "olden times" (before 1985) there were a handful of people in most offices called administrative assistants or secretaries. These people did important work, such as the following:
- Scheduling meetings (people, rooms, and catering)
- Taking minutes in meetings and distributing them after
- Arranging travel
- Ordering office supplies
- Assembling reports and proposals (editing, printing, and collating)
- Filling out expense reports for staff
- Maintaining document libraries
The broad deployment of the personal computer in the early 80s gave bean counters an idea: greatly reduce the number of administrative people and provide professional staff with computer-based tools so they can provide their own administrative support.
At first glance, this looks clever—seemingly denying some laws of physics. If you reduce head count by eliminating the admin staff, you save money and the same amount of work gets done—a testimonial to the efficiencies of the computer age. In reality though, this was a terrible idea, but few people noticed.
Let's start with a reminder that admin people were essentially cheap labor. The class of admin that was eliminated generally consisted of entry-level folks (or interns) who had a high school diploma, light clerical skills, and good organizational skills, i.e., people making a couple times the minimum wage. I grew up in the IT and consulting fields. Junior workers in those professions (programming and consulting) generally had college degrees and were getting paid maybe ten times the minimum wage. This isn’t a judgment about what they were worth; it's rough history of what they were paid.
I remember working at Price Waterhouse and handing one of the secretarial staff an unruly stack of receipts after a business trip, which she magically transformed into an expense report that afternoon and returned for me to sign. She later handed me a check to reimburse my expenses. Investment of my time: five minutes. Investment of her time: twenty minutes.
Consider the modern alternative:
- Assemble a stack of receipts (the only step required in 1985)
- Procrastinate, because I truly hate doing this
- Sort receipts
- Get expense report form and begin to fill it out
- Swear about how much I hate doing this
- Get interrupted by a phone call
- Try to figure out where I was
- Complete expense form
- Print form
- Do something else
- Wonder where the printed form went
- Print form again and sign it
- Begin to photocopy form and receipts
- Notice that the copier is out of paper
- Swear because there is no paper in sight
- Steal paper from a nearby printer
- Clear paper jam resulting from improper copier paper load
- Swear in colorful terms that copy machine operation was NOT why I spent seven years pursuing my computer science degree
- Send package to appropriate person via inter-office mail
- Go get coffee to celebrate ticking an unpleasant task off of my to-do list
How much effort does that transaction take? It depends. If you travel a lot, you know where the forms are and how to do this and it might only take ten to fifteen minutes. If you are an "occasional traveler," you might find that there is a learning curve each time that makes it more like twenty to thirty minutes plus the time it takes to do part of it over because you didn’t realize that this client doesn't reimburse for a beer over dinner and that needs to be backed out of the Tuesday dinner bill. Net effect: Doing this today requires ten to twenty minutes more of a professional’s time (not to mention the small bits of his or her soul consumed by the transaction) than it did thirty years ago.
Big deal, right? What's ten to twenty minutes? But how many of these kinds of transactions are we putting onto the plates of professional staff? If we assume that there are a limited number of productive hours in a week, how many are consumed by this kind of trivia? Recall that professional staff cost roughly three to five times more per hour than administrative staff. Beyond costs, consider the value of professional staff. When I worked for a large systems integrator in 1987, my billing rate was $120 per hour, i.e., I earned the company $2 per minute when I was billing clients. If four to five hours per week were consumed with trivia (ordering books, scheduling meetings, filling out expense reports, scheduling travel, clearing paper jams from the copy machine, etc.), the company lost $480-$600 in potential billings. That was roughly a week's wages for an admin—but nobody did that math. Bean counters with spreadsheets didn't account for productivity when they eliminated administrative support. The work was simply redistributed among professionals who were more expensive (and, frankly, less capable of doing the task efficiently) than the administrative staff they replaced.
Is the distribution of administrative work to professional staff the reality of your workplace? Is your organization one that is always looking for ways to work more efficiently? How much work do you find yourself doing during a typical week that could be done by a capable administrative assistant or junior tech?
As the economy begins to improve, we all need to find ways to "work smarter, not harder." One of the things many organizations need to consider as they try to increase productivity includes adding administrative support in order to leverage existing staff by freeing them up to do more of the high-value work they do best. Think of the implications to a typical team of five mid-level to senior technical people. Assume everyone on the team has an average of thirty hours per week of project time (excluding holidays, vacations, training, sick time, etc.) and that five hours of that time is spent each week doing necessary, but low-skilled, low-value work, including administrative tasks and entry level technical tasks, like installing workstation software or typing test data. In this example, across the team of five there are 150 hours of available resources in a week, and twenty-five hours (almost 20 percent) of the time is spent doing low value work. If we assume hiring an administrative person would allow the transfer of four of the five hours of non-essential work, then hiring an admin would result in a net savings of twenty hours of professional staff time each week, which is about two-thirds of the productivity gain that we might expect from adding another senior person to the team.
What makes more sense to you? Hiring a mid-level staff person who costs $75,000 to $150,000 per year, increases the size and complexity of the team, and has a one to three month learning curve before we see significant productivity gains; or hiring a hungry young admin or tech for $20,000 to $30,000 per year to offload low value work from your team with a minimal learning curve?
Unless you see flaws in the assumptions above, the cost effective solution seems obvious. Your organization could even experiment with this solution in a low risk way by bringing in a temp worker for a few months to assess the impact on team morale and throughput. Think of this the next time someone asks you, "What can we do to cost effectively improve productivity?" For years our answer has been to hire more technical staff, oblivious to Brooks' Law ("Adding programmers to a late software project makes it later," from The Mythical Man-Month). Bringing in administrative support might be a solution worth exploring.