Administrative assistants have been around since antiquity. Surely you don’t think Ramesses the great, who ruled a large chunk of the known world, processed his own email?
In the twentieth century they were variously called personal secretaries, Administrative assistants, admins, and so on; and they played a critical role in “keeping the boss together”, as the saying went. The result was that said boss could devote full time and attention to managing whatever they managed – whether it was people, operations, or even a one-person job. Admins were paid less, so it made sense to have them do the time consuming work at the lower end of the complexity scale.
Introduction of the PC
And then came the personal computer era, and by the turn of the century admins were an endangered species. The advent of productivity software suites like Microsoft Office and the growth of Web search engines like Alta Vista and Google had this message: who needs the admins when every manager can do his or her own calendaring, send and accept meeting requests, type their own letters and send them out electronically, and generally manage their own work? Computers earned even less, so under fierce pressure to cut costs, companies embraced this concept eagerly. After the initial learning curve they let people administer themselves, and the majority of personal secretaries – those serving the lower echelons of managers – went the way of the Dodo.
It didn’t take long for people to discover that this was not such a great idea.
The thing is, the role of the admin wasn’t just to offload time consuming low level tasks from their manager. A good admin was indispensable to doing things no boss could manage in person and added to increased productivity! For example, an admin could schedule a meeting for ten busy people from different departments, finding a time slot they could all attend simultaneously. In an enterprise where people’s calendars are double-booked most of the time, this is Mission Impossible. The reason admins could do it is because they had a network – they could talk to each other and move their managers’ scheduled meetings around, creating time in the process. Similarly, a good admin could pull together an optimal flight and meeting plan for international business trips. They had the experience, the connections, and of course the skills. Managers might earn more but would be totally helpless in front of such tasks.
So, the removal of the admins left managers – and other knowledge workers who depended on them – with a major productivity hit. I’ve seen companies where meeting culture has completely disintegrated because everyone can invite anyone to meetings, without the cool head of an admin to control the process. Email overload is rampant, with people typically devoting two days a week to process it – work that a skilled secretary would buffer very effectively. The end result is not that people waste time; it is that they become entirely dysfunctional due to these productivity issues.
So how to stay productive?
It would be really cool if we could re-institute the age-old role of the personal admin, but don’t hold your breath: it’s not going to happen. Instead, we must apply the attitude of “if you can’t beat them, join them” – computers landed us in this mess, and we can use computers to resolve it in great part. If they won’t give you a live admin, you can turn to sophisticated software to give you a “digital admin” that can fill the same role.
One area where this is already happening is meeting scheduling: tools like Doodle and Timebridge allow you to pick a few time slots and the attendees you need, and check availability and preferences with them, then set up the meeting for you at the best time.
In the email domain problems are more complex, and here we need admins more than ever; thankfully, there is good progress in this space. There are tools out there that do for your email what a flesh and blood admin used to do for your inter-office memos and letters back then: read it, sort it, and decide what to do about it – all the way to telling you what you need to devote your scarce time to. Such a level of artificial intelligence was unthinkable when they let the admins go 15 years ago; but now we see this capability maturing.
Take Knowmail, which is an intelligent agent that reads your email for you and provides context-related prioritization, smart summary creation, and recommendations as to what you should do about the message – your “Next Best Action”.
So next time you come back from a weekend vacation to meet a thousand messages in your inbox (that is, if you’re of the brave souls who don’t do email when on vacation!) – take a look at Knowmail and other virtual admin tools!