In our last blog we looked at how secretaries evolved into administrative assistants. This transition was driven by changes in technology (word processing, email, voice mail, etc.) and changes in the labor market (women with college degrees didn’t want to be secretaries). The rise of the service economy created more knowledge workers, who typically receive secretarial support. More customers, fewer secretaries and new technologies drove the transition of secretaries to admins, but almost no corporations had a plan to guide the transition. Today, major corporations do not have a high level “head of secretaries” to guide the ongoing transition of admins. While other groups (IT, HR, procurement, facilities, etc.) have consolidated, and are driven by metrics, you won’t be able to find a report that tells you what admins produce, their level of utilization, the quality of their work, and all too often… how many admins does the firm employ! Without a high level manager with responsibility for these workers, there is no training program, no one drives new applications, work quality never rises, and arbitrary changes in their functions infuriate their customers. Without the ability to understand their work or quantify their value, senior managers assume that admins add little value and are planning to outsource or automate away these positions. It’s not a great time to be an Admin, is it? Or a customer.
To turn around this bad situation, we need to know how many admins are employed and which titles they use. So, second of all you need to collect some information. Ask your HR department how many secretary/admins work for your firm. Don’t be surprised if HR’s answer is, “Can you describe an admin?” Hmmm… So, FIRST of all, you need to define a secretary/admin. This exercise will take a few iterations. Ask HR for a full dump of all titles used in the firm. Then, build a spreadsheet with five headings: Title, Number, Not Secretary; Secretary; Part Secretary.
- Title: Enter (in full) all titles that HR provides. You will probably see very similar titles… admin, senior admin, admin level 1, etc. For now, don’t worry too much about what the titles mean.
- Number: HR may or may not be able to tell you how many individuals re in each position, or they may not be able to separate out contact, and part-time workers. You don’t need to worry about this just yet.
- Not Secretary: Managers and revenue producers go here. Other support positions like clerks (in accounting), or interns, or junior sales reps also go here (these “support” positions were never secretarial).
- Secretary: Any title with secretary or admin in the title probably goes under “secretary.” In a UK office the term PA (personal assistant) is common, so look for “assistant” titles. However, a title like “head of administration” may be a real manager, and should be in the “Not Secretary” column.
- Part-Secretary: Receptionists and conference room admins are not really secretaries, but have taken over the “coffee and care” duties of a secretary. Put them under “partial.” A few management positions are exceptions, such as “office manager”, which has some responsibility for secretaries. Definitely a “partial”.
When all titles are entered into the spreadsheet, look at the titles that are tagged “Part Secretary.” Divide this column into three more columns: “Mostly,” “Sort Of” and “Not Much.” After a relatively quick discussion with HR, you should have enough information for re-tagging thee positions. You can repeat this process, until you have the level of granularity you want. If HR can provide you with the “number” data, you will be able to make informed statements such as, “Admin functions are performed by X number of individuals, with an additional Y number of workers whose duties are 75% or more secretarial, and Z number of individual who have a minor secretarial role.” This is a pretty good start!
Now that you have a high level understanding of admins, you now need to dig into individual functions. Your company-wide list of positions may have dozen of titles….. or more. But what functions does each position perform? Ask HR if there are job descriptions or position profiles; if there are, use this information to add further columns to your spreadsheet. Look for functions such as: memos, itineraries, T&E, CRM input, phone messages, paper document filing, electronic filing, transcription, scheduling meetings, etc. However, don’t be surprised to discover that the functions admins perform varies considerably from what is in their job descriptions.
Looking at the functions for each title, you will see that they are often not complimentary. For example, phone skills (verbal communication, listening skills) are different than document skills (typing, proofreading) or CRM skills (sales knowledge, research skills). Very few people are good at diametrically different functions. Even when the functions are similar, the more function someone must perform, the less likely that they will be good at all of them, especially for positions that are low paying. Long ago, in industrial work, everyone performed all the same functions. After functions became specialized, the products they produced became better and productivity rose dramatically. If you just did what you’re good at, productivity rises. If you did enough of the same work, you would improve. No big surprise there. The icon of process improvement, Edward Deming, said that industrial productivity increased 50 times (5,000%) during the 20th Century, largely due to specialization. Let’s take a lesson from industry and deconstruct some common administrative functions…. And maybe we can make everyone a bit happier!
Presentations: Every firm makes presentations. Investment Banks make so many presentations that they created dedicated presentation centers decades ago. Legal firms are 10-15 years behind the banks. Large legal firms have presentation centers. Smaller firms have “helper” centers (that handle a minority of presentations) or admins and their (junior level) customers produce the documents. Because “centerizing” presentations can deliver HUGE benefits, many firms are seeking outsourcing solutions halfway around the world… without first understanding how to do the work the right way locally. If you aren’t working with someone who really understands admin work, you need to have numerous pre-projects… ex. designing and agreeing to standard document formats… before you can start designing a new center. From the first “this is a great idea” to a fully operating offshore center can take 3 to 5 years.
Transcription: The other end of the spectrum is transcription, a common function in legal firms and other corporations. Transcription is just the typing of a voice recording and some simple formatting (memo, meeting minutes, etc.). Good transcriptionists are fast typists (70 to 90 words per minute), with good listening and proofing skills. Today, admins are rarely fast typists, making them inefficient and often unhappy in this position. If you identified existing admins with the best transcription skills, a dedicated transcription center will be far more efficient…
- Transcription is usually performed out on the floor with constant noise and interruptions, making it difficult to hear recordings. Ringing phones and other distractions further slow the work.
- Using quality headphones, dictation software that speeds up and slows down recordings, and a foot pedal to start and stop work (leaving both hands free to type) further raises efficiency.
- An admin typically takes 9 minutes to transcribe a 1 minute voice recording, compared to about 5 minutes in a dedicated center.
- If you incorporated speech to text software, you can further improve productivity.
- For cutting-edge customer satisfaction, you can also incorporate smart phone transcription applications. This allows customers to use smartphones to record, submit and monitor their work. Completed work is emailed back to your phone or desktop.
Approvals: Approving paperwork, such as T&Es, always generates customer frustration. T&E programs focus on completing paperwork, rather than getting a check to the customer. Some executive secretaries are very good at this, because they know the tricks and traps to get their boss paid. Most admin lacks the experience to overcome obstacles, and too many reimbursements wait in limbo over obscure issues. One department (often sales or the equivalent) are responsible for the lion’s share of… travel bookings, T&E’s, or the like. One of these concentrations of customers would make a great pilot project! A small group of well-trained processors, working with the PMO, could set up a continuous improvement project to identify and drive out firm-wide problems. Customers would be very happy about that!
Email: Customers may read their own messages, but admins organize the emails and file the attachments. The quality of the work is limited by the training admins receive and the degree of quality control. Unfortunately, training is poor and quality control is generally non-existent. That’s bad enough for customer satisfaction, but there’s worse news. The largest firms spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on legal services. And much of this money is spent searching the firm for documentation needed for lawsuits. And this information is usually… emails. If email management was “centerized”, customers could more easily retrieve emails and the firm could cut the cost of litigation by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
Document Management: How many documents does your firm store in Iron Mountain? Documents… physical or electronic… need to be filed, archived, and in many cases destroyed. If this function was handled centrally and under a standard process, it could be vastly more effective. More management at the front end (following correct taxonomy, quality control, file destruction policy, etc.) means far less cost less on the backend. Once again, savings in the tens or hundreds of million is possible. That would fuel some pretty big projects!
This could go on and on, but I think you all get the idea. These five functions could drive a number of projects to develop dedicated service centers. If the job(s?) of the admin are carefully deconstructed, not only would these functions work better, but workers would have jobs where they could be good at what they do and finally PROVE that they are adding value. Is this a big task? Yes it is! But it doesn’t have to be done in a day. Specific, actionable programs like the one shown here can do the job. Over the coming weeks I’m going to develop more projects that will further decompose the admin function. Remember, even though this is a big job, we can do it because… we’re Project Managers dammit! And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!