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.