Sunday, January 13, 2008

In memory of good secretaries

During the week I needed to find out how to do something with frames and text boxes in Word. I used to be able to do this, but the Word version I was working from was a later one and the process had changed.

I started with on-line help, but could not find what I wanted to know. I then went to check if the office had a manual. No luck. Had I been working from my home office, I could have opened a document with the right formatting and used that as a template, but I wasn't going to spend hours travelling just to download a document.

I then spent time looking for a suitable template on the office system. No luck. I asked around the office. Again, no luck. Finally I downloaded a partially suitable document from the Ndarala intranet and used that.

This is an example of what I think of as the inefficiencies of modern offices.

I began my working career in a world that still had real secretaries. You know, people with fast typing or word processing speeds who knew what they were doing. For much of the time, I was fortunate to have secretaries who still knew shorthand. This was also a world in which administrative support more broadly was still available.

How things have changed.

Now, with rare exceptions, we all do our own word processing, saving on secretarial salaries. On-line self service intranets have replaced specialist administrative support resources, another saving. It all seems so cost effective, yet there are real hidden costs.

I really first became aware of these at a personal level some years ago when, working at that point as an independent consultant, I decided to do away with a secretary to save costs.

At the time my charge rate was $220 per hour, towards the upper end. Secretarial costs were counted as an overhead, not charged to the client, unless the secretary was making a direct input into the job. So I did not charge for secretarial word processing, but would charge out support time at a lower rate if the staffer was doing something like organising a series of meetings.

Boy did I face a shock.

I used to keep time sheets, I still do, allocating time units to different work categories. Now that I had abolished secretarial support, all the tasks that my secretary had done appeared on my time sheets. But how could I in all conscience charge a client $220 per hour for work previously done by my secretary that I was now doing, and far less efficiently?

I ended up doing two things. First, I used the lower charge admininistrative support code for that type of work previously done by the secretary. Then I wrote off time for my own inefficiencies in things like formatting.

My blended charge rate, the revenue actually achieved per billable hour, dropped from around $220 per hour to a bit under $140 per hour. The $80 per hour represented the revenue cost of the decision to forego the secretary.

Something similar happens in many modern offices. Comparing per head output in 2007 with that holding in, say, 1987 , output has dropped. It just takes much longer to do things.

These costs are hidden. Head count can be measured directly, whereas the inefficiencies are hard to see and measure. Staff can feel them and complain about them, but they remain out of sight.

There is no doubt that computerisation has aided efficiency. However, my feeling is that the hidden costs are now increasing drag upon organisations. A new approach to organisational design is required to overcome this.

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