PMO Genius: Increase Happiness AND Productivity… Look At Secretaries (PART 1)


Secretaries… do you still use that term?

Years ago, when “secretary” became synonymous with, “We’re paying you less because you’re  a woman”, the title became an insult. Corporations changed the title to “administrative assistant,” but not much else changed. This began as a face-saving strategy, but over time changes in the workforce and new technologies made a euphemism into a job description. As corporations rapidly evolved in the 80s and 90s, new processes and applications popped up, and many responsibilities were thrown to the admins, with little planning or training. Thousands of admins work in every big firm, there was no transition plan guiding the move from secretary to admin. Other corporate functions with many workers consolidated their operations (IT, procurement, facilities, HR, sales, etc.) but admins were forgotten. They don’t report to a single “head,” there is no plan that maps their future, job profiles are similar but vary by department and location, pay is inconsistent, production metrics don’t exist, there isn’t a management report showing what they do, there are no quality controls for their work, and as senior managers have begun to look at these workers they see no value other than an opportunity to automate or outsource. As admins stagger from one set of functions to another, their “customers” are increasingly unhappy about the services they do (and don’t) receive.

If you were an admin, would you be happy? Admins have become the “department of ‘Other’!” They take care of the odds and ends, and take care of all the things that no one else does (or can). Some used to be secretaries, and others started out in the post-secretary world. It really is just a mess, and no one is really in charge. We don’t live in the “Mad Men” world of the 60s. Executives can answer their own phones and do their own typing. In fact executives perform impressive feats of telephone management on their cell phones, and some are faster typists than their admins. Yet, as extremely highly paid executives take on what used to be secretarial tasks, few firms have asked, “Is that a good thing? Is it really productive to have a top lawyer, or banker, or CEO answer his own email?” It’s an interesting question. The answer could have a massive impact on your bottom line! Today, we’re going to start a two part Blog that looks into some of these issues. We’re going to look at how secretaries evolved into admins, what went wrong along the way, and how you can add some powerful projects to your PMO portfolio that can restore efficiency to your firm while making admins and customer much happier!

The “modern” secretary arrived in the corporation in the early 1900s, replacing the older all male position (such as secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, etc.). When secretaries were executives, they were responsible for disseminating information for the corporation.  When the number of corporations exploded after the Civil War, one individual couldn’t do it all, and the position transitioned to a new labor market (women) and was assisted by new technologies (phones, typewriters, carbon paper). And so it went, until the 70s and 80s when large numbers of women graduated from college and wanted to be more than secretaries. The traditional source of secretaries was drying up, and technology (word processing, voice mail, email, etc.) forced new changes. By the late 80s, the total number of secretary/admins reached it height, and has been on the decline ever since, while the knowledge workers who were eligible for support have been rising every year.  Secretarial functions were now  “hollowed out,” out”, and the euphemism of “administrative assistant” came true: admins couldn’t take dictation or shorthand and were no longer expert typists. Their new duties were not carefully thought out, and customer satisfaction has been dropping fast. Consider these four points:

  • Ratios: Many secretaries used to have one-to-one or one-to-few relationships with their customers, admins have one-to-many relationships, typically serving 5, 10 or 20 customers. Admins do not have an opportunity to know their customers or any given work function, as well as a secretary. Customers have different priorities, requiring frequent renegotiations by admins, leading to one or more disappointed customers. Managing multiple functions for multiple customer’s results in very small slices of uninterrupted time. With as little as 2 or 3 minutes between interruptions, few tasks can be performed well. Yet, the obvious impact of customer ratios goes virtually unseen as firms move to outsource these functions.
  • Functions: Admin roles change from department to department, and change over time as new applications roll out. Admins must be proficient in 10 or more functions: email, document management, T&E systems, CRM, proprietary reports, word processing, Excel templates, PowerPoint, voice mail systems… to name the most common. The more function a position must perform, the less likely that an individual can perform all tasks well.
  • Training: If admins have too many tasks to know them all well, training could help. But corporations devote only a tiny fraction of training resources to these workers. Corporations may provides a course in “How to use MS Word,” but doen’t offer “Improving customer satisfaction by developing MS Word templates.” Sales people are taught how to use a sales reporting tool, but they are also taught… how to sell! Admins are not taught how to perform their jobs because no high level manger has sat with the Training department to discuss their needs.
  • Management Reports: Finally, there are no management reports for admins.  Ask for a report on secretaries… there isn’t a firm wide report, is there? Without a manager with responsibility for admins,  no one knows what their units of production are, and the critical metrics to report. Instead admins are seen as “universal widgets”, that support other functions (which?) and are some sort of general overhead. But firms don’t accept the “overhead” argument anymore; senior managers want to know where these costs come from and the value it produces. When no one can answer this question, senior management concludes that is must be waste.

This is where we are today. We have a large workforce that uses the same (or similar) title, but performs different functions in different departments. This group has few, if any, metrics on the work they do and senior management sees them as just an unneeded cost. It’s not surprising that these individuals are unhappy, and that their customers are dissatisfied with their work. Just properly quantifying this issue could be of significant value to your organization. That’s good PMO management, but it falls a bit short of PMO genius. Genius would be finding a way to convert this problem into a series of actionable projects for your PMO portfolio. And that is what we will do, in Part II. Our next Blog look at options for improving performance in the workplace bringing back a little happiness. But for today,  that’s my Niccolls worth!

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One Response to PMO Genius: Increase Happiness AND Productivity… Look At Secretaries (PART 1)

  1. Thanks a lot for the article.Much thanks again. Cool.

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