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Op-ed - Written by on Tuesday, September 8, 2009 10:58 - 3 Comments

Naumi Haque
Mad Men and the executive assistant 2.0

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:

(Embed disabled – click to play video at YouTube.com)Joan and Peggy


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Sep 9, 2009 17:46

I wrote a column a century ago about technology “doing the work of” as in “technology does the work of an EA.” Technology NEVER does the work of any human (except maybe human “calculators” — yes it used to a job not a thing). Tek can mitigate work but when you eliminate a person there will always be some “work of” left to do. It just gets added to somebody elses plate.

Sep 10, 2009 11:42

Being a teacher, we have the luxury of having an Office Administrator (although shared between many staff members)who helps with organizing information. And because I teach Grade 8 I also recruit the young teens to help me with marking and other simple tasks. Although you make a great case Naumi, and I don’t know what I would do without my extra help, as your wife, I still have to say no to hot assistants.

Naumi Haque
Sep 11, 2009 12:21

Thanks for the comments. John, I think you’re right – so, with that logic, in cases where technology replaces people, it doesn’t mitigate work for individuals at all, rather it reallocates work and creates new work for others. Laura don’t worry; on Mad Men, all the really attractive EAs get assigned to the senior executives ;)

As I’m reviewing this post, I think “Collaborative Assistant” (CA) would have been a better term to use. Helping with admin work would definitely be helpful, but at the company level, I think it would be far more valuable to have specific people whose role it is to assume some of the collaborative overhead – you could think of these people as the grease that keeps the collaborative engine lubricated. So, if I had a CA (or a few of us shared one), their job would be to undertake a lot of the collaborative tasks that I don’t do because I simply don’t have time. For example, this person might post my content on internal collaborative sites and work with other CAs to help me find information that I need. They would be familiar with my work at a high level and therefore be able to engage external communities, both promoting my content and finding related content that I might be interested in. CAs would coordinate calendars and coordinate amongst themselves to make sure that projects were making optimal use of all the information and resources available. They would also play a key role in determining when our resources were not needed (i.e. when something was out of scope or when the required skills/background was already being represented by someone else). Seems to me like one of those new tasks that companies have to think about when they consider new roles and responsibilities for a collaborative enterprise.

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