Secretary key to efficiency in work

Where has the secretary gone?

Progress in the workplace seems to have included disappearance of the secretary in many offices.  I can type pretty well.  And I can use MS Office pretty well – at least when I am using Word I know about rulers, styles, headers, track changes, page and section breaks.  So, within reason, I can produce a reasonably well presented document – be that Word, Excel or PowerPoint (without being a guru).  But I am more productive when I have a personal assistant or secretary.

The more I look about in workplaces the more I wonder have we taken away too much secretarial support.  Are execs spending too much time scheduling (and rescheduling) meetings, generating meeting notes/ actions, updating action plans, opening, reading, filing and replying to correspondence, making travel arrangements, etc.

Yes – much more of it is electronic correspondence.  But there are still filing requirements.  And – yes, the document management systems and wordprocessing software is supposed to do the tracking, storage and retrieval.  And the shared diary systems are supposed to support arrangement of meetings.  But I still wonder.

Many of the interactions with colleagues work better when not just a piece of software grabbing time in your diary – sometimes the secretary or personal assistant just makes it work better.

Managers

And then there are those layers of management we have taken out – in order to be more efficient.  As a result we have flatter structures – with some immediate benefits.  But what about the loss of time for coaching, supporting, encouraging?  Or the lack of time for senior executives as they are pulled into tasks previously managed by those layers of management?

Work is a complex social environment.  People use the technology differently – even the same people use it differently at different times of the same day.  It’s not only sales people who resist loading everything into CRM – all sorts of people have provisional appointments they do not enter in the diary, times they are hoping to manage – perhaps to get away early, to pick up the kids, to catch up with a friend at lunch time.  Sometimes the secretary can manage all of this and make it happen better for everyone.

I would be lost without email, shared information, MS Office – but there are lots of things I need to get done which happen better and faster by having an assistant.  And I think there are lots of other people – across lots of the companies with whom I have worked – who are spending time on the wrong things for the lack of effective secretarial support.

Collaboration

We are back to looking at how to make collaboration work more effectively – and part of the secret is having the right resources in place.  I have spent thirty years looking to streamline and improve work processes through use of technology – be that email, network shares, social media, cloud, personal productivity tools.  But we need to keep focused on the goal – and if more administrative support is what it takes – in spite of the technology – then we should t least be open to this.  The technology should empower people – the execs and the support team.  It probably enables a smaller group to provide more administrative support.  But for now at least, ti seems to me to have led to some questionable practices – pulling execs away from focusing on their greatest added value.  I think more organisations may need to revisit their practices ans structures.

 

Memory and intelligence

I have always ‘struggled’ with memory.  I would like to think I would pass myself off as reasonably intelligent – but would never score highly on any ‘test of memory’.  Examples – I remember very little poetry or Shakespeare from school, I remember very few telephone numbers, I struggle with birthdays and anniversaries.  When reading a book I enjoy the book – but will have limited recollection of the detail of the book.

Naturally, given importance of remembering some things, I used some aids.  For instance all the birthdays/ anniversaries are included in my online diary, appointments are noted in the diary, phone numbers available to me on my phone and I tend to create mind maps when reading business related books.

I do not think this memory issue (if it is an issue)  is recent.  Seem to remember(!) struggling with dates in history back in Fr. Lynch’s history classes in Belvedere in the mid 70s.  Later on there was never a happier student for the Chartered Accountancy Final exams when they switched to an ‘open book’ exam.  Always seemed to me to make sense that you should be able to tackle a question, using your skills, but cross reference/ check to the detailed backup materials – which is how many of us work.

Interested to read today’s piece in the Sunday Times by Hiram Morgan (‘The rise of the internet is rotting our brains’).  Of course the headline is designed to catch attention (given the location next to ‘Scarlett Johansson – The sexpot superhero’s great power is her brain’, Dr Morgan needed a strong headline).

The question for me is whether I can use this technology (internet, limitless amounts of data) to empower/ enhance my intelligence?  And I think the jury is out.  I would not be qualified to comment on his assertion that ‘as little as five days of internet surfing , with this erratic pattern of short attention spans and switching from link to link, has been shown to alter the neural pathways in the brain.  The result of this damage to short-term memory is that we do not properly build up long memory.  This prevents the brain from forming “schema”, without which the data we constantly consume is irrelevant.‘ But it would seem plausible to me.

Over the last few years I have become much more interested in history (One fellow 52 year old suggested history seems to be an obsession of 50 year old males) and as a result have read a great deal more about 20th Century US history and 18, 19 and 20th Century Irish history.  As a management consultant I also read widely in areas of business interest.  I am interested to see how much of this stuff I actually remember.

What has struck me recently is that History makes more sense (and I remember more of it) when I have some ‘intelligent’ dialogue with other interested people.  This did not take place in school for me – as I took not interest in the subject and limited my enthusiasm to maths, science and the classics.  I suppose also I now have some hunger to learn and to understand – and therefore the mind seems somewhat more active/ open/ stimulated.  In the case of consulting related reading I often have the opportunity to try out the ideas – and this seems to increase memory retention greatly.

A few years ago I attended some exam preparation seminars with one of my kids – and a great deal of the session was geared towards maximising ‘memorisation’ for exam purposes.  Again I am not qualified to comment – but I suspect, given the commercial success of the outfit, many of the students must be benefiting in terms of exam performance.  I would, however, have some doubts about ‘long term’ memory referenced by Dr. Morgan.  I also suspect they are very much geared at preparing students for exams which now lend themselves to students providing the exact piece of information answering a specific question for a specific number of marks in the paper (more specific than 35 years ago).

Returning to Dr Morgan’s assertion – for me the issue is that learning still takes effort.  That it how it has always been and how it should continue to be.  Something on the internet may catch my attention, something in the newspaper may catch my attention.  But understanding the issue, contextualising it, forming my own view – all of this requires effort – more reading, perhaps internet research, dialogue with experts.  What I fear is that many people are now struggling to give themselves the time to do this – in most cases they need to get offline, read, reflect, analyse, converse.  And perhaps, at some stage, bring it back online.

 

 

 

 

 

What makes teams pull through?

Three recent football matches again had me thinking about what we are often looking for in work.

Munster won a Heineken Cup quarterfinal  match against the odds away to Harlequins.  Leinster won against Munser in Thomond Park.  And last night I watched an underage GAA football team turn at half time to play into a strong wind, go behind and fight back to win by a couple of points.

And sport is full of these types of circumstances.  But what attracts me is that sense of togetherness, common purpose, that enables a team to overcome the odds.  Yes it requires some of the top players to prove their worth but operating in a team sense – providing leadership, shouldering responsibility, encouraging others.  And lesser players (and least lesser in the public eye) are equally important. Tactics are important and luck will also play its part.  And support from spectators should not be underestimated – although all three games were won playing away from home i.e. with relatively small, but loyal, support teams.

The recent Masters golf tournament was a similar event – even if the teams are down to the player and the trusted caddy.  But there were lessons – in terms of how both players attacked the 18th and attacked the play off holes.  Technique, commitment, trust between caddy and player and finally, I think, one being a little luckier than the other.  But all congratulations to both Angel Cabrera, the runner up, and to Adam Scott, the winner.

The purpose of this post is not to replace the tomes written previously about application of sports principles in business, etc.  But I see so many business failures which can be tracked to the absence of that team spirit – or a gradual fading of the spirit .  All of the teams mentioned have their bad days – but they do understand that feeling of pulling together, leaders encouraging, supporters working in the background, trust and respect and going the extra yard for common gain.  And the successful teams have it in more depth and more often.  And when the luck goes against them they come out fighting again.

Happiness and emotional intelligence

Attended excellent talk by Adrian Furnham last night at the TCD Science Gallery.

Interesting discussion about the tendency in the workplace to promote engineers, scientists, accountants out of the role which they enjoy and at which they excel into management roles – demanding a completely different skills set.

In some respects reminded me of Charles Handy‘s The Elephant and the Flea.  Explains why many people may be happy to work outside large organisations – focusing on what they like to do (and being more happy).

Enjoyed, as a laymen, the explanation of the different positions on emotional intelligence and how/ whether it can be measured.  Furnham is in the personality traits camp.

Also was interested in the quick review of Seligman’s myths about happiness.

His final answer to adivce on being happy was sound:

  1. Invest HEAVILY in friends/ friendships
  2. Work at something you enjoy
  3. Stay fit and healthy.

 

 

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Small IT team but very dependent on IT

Working as a consultant in Ireland I have had the privilege of working in lots of different innovative businesses.  Many of these businesses make great use of a wide range of information technologies – both on premises and cloud based, packaged and custom built.  More often than not management has an understanding of the importance of IT to the business (and to the future of the business) but faces challenges in how to support and exploit these opportunities.

There is a growing awareness of the opportunities offered through managed services, data centres, cloud computing.  In general these and related solutions offer the opportunity for management to focus on strategic objectives and value-add, while outsourcing some of the plumbing.  There are also real possibilities in terms of replacing or upgrading systems with minimal capital outlay.

However I see many examples of applications support and development headaches – with respect to legacy systems. (People seem to confuse ‘legacy’ with something from the dark ages – it often references software implemented in the last few years). In many cases the legacy applications have been heavily customised (by an inhouse team or the third party vendor).  As a result the company is left with a major exposure to/ dependence on a relatively small group of people e.g. one or two apps support people in-house or a small apps development team within a small third party vendor.

This seems to be a recurring pattern – a key apps support person leaves and operations are significantly impacted (time spent finding a replacement, getting the replacement up to speed, rescheduling planned development work, etc).  The size of operation does not merit retention of additional support personnel – so it is difficult to avoid the hiatus arising on departure of a key staff member.  If the apps support is supplied by a third party – then they most likely also struggle to maintain any depth in the support team.

So what is the impact of all of this?  Well, the very information systems which are meant to be adding value become a liability, a risk to the business, a delay on business initiatives, an impediment to change and innovation.

I am often asked to provide a fix – how does the company sort out this issue?

Traditionally we would have checked to see whether development has been executed in a controlled manner – user specifications, testing, training, documentation, etc.  In a smaller environment inevitably short cuts will have been taken.  Also, depending ion the development environment, they may have migrated to an iterative methodology, based on prototyping.

The longer term answer will often include a migration away from current systems, accompanied by gaining an understanding of the true cost of customisatiom.  The analyst and programming build is often only the small part of the cost of customisation – the real cost (which has to be balanced against the benefits) often arises from the dependence created on key inhouse personnel and/or third party vendor personnel.  And from  my experience most of this customisation could and should have been avoided.

So what can the company do in the interim – when they have lost the key people (either inhouse of at the third party vendor)?  Obviously look to add a replacement person(s) to the team – with appropriate skills/experience in the relevant tools, platforms and/or business environment.  But as soon as possible the company needs to start putting in place a strategy to migrate from the current serious business exposure to an operationally and, potentially, strategically advantageous situation.  Any such situation in which the day to day ops of the company are contingent on the continued availability of one or two people needs to be addressed.  And generally this will require elimination of much of the heavy customisation to migration to alternative business processes and supporting applications.

For those who have not yet hit the problem – think carefully before you customise, before you engage with vendors who do not have a roadmap and a broad platform.  Build sustainable business processes and sustainable applications.

 

 

Manage or be managed

Important to think through how you want to use these solutions and resources – distraction is not in itself a bad thing. You need to manage the distractions.

instant messaging sites
Image by Will Lion via Flickr

Read Alex Pang’s piece on contemplative computing – courtesy of this article from ReadWriteWeb.  Fits in with much of the discussion taking place across lots of enterprises – is IM, social networking, blogging contributing very much to the business?  Surely IM (now often including video) is just another distraction to people who should be getting on with ‘the task at hand’.

As an individual consultant and researcher I am constantly required to manage the distractions – notwithstanding that were there no distractions there would be no interaction and no work.  The debate reminds me of something about 10 years ago – we should not let the team have internet access because they will waster their time surfing.  We seem to have moved on from this because, thankfully, in many cases the web has become a way fo doing work, communicating, researching, whatever.

I don’t think the answer has changed.  You have to work out what you are trying to do and figure out how to use the available resources.  If you expect to gain from online interaction then you need to recognise that it is a two way street – you will need to be active (or at least be responsive) in order to gain.  When you need to work in a quiet, non distracted mode, you need to make yourself unavailable.

Business has changed.  It’s not just the desk based personnel who are being bombarded by distractions.  Smartphones mean that anyone can be online at any time.  Education in the workplace has not caught up – people need training, awareness and guidance on tools which they can use to assist them in managing the online world rather than being managed by the online world.

 

 

 

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social working/ social networking within the enterprise – part 1

Introducing social networking within the enterprise

A segment of a social network
Image via Wikipedia

Have been thinking for some time about the best ways to establish effective social networking within the enterprise.  I like the phrase I see used some places – social working.

My starting point is that  most companies that are in any way successful are already reasonably proficient at social working ie working in teams, brainstorming, sharing ideas, collaborating.  So this is not about introducing a new concept – it’s about looking to see whether we can use some of the technologies to assist in more effective collaboration, team work, etc.

Seems to me one of the challenges in commencing an initiative through a pilot is that to some extent the value of the solution is dependent on widespread penetration and adoption.  However it is also important to see which suite of products work most effectively, determine potential benefits of any preconfiguration or integration, determine any training requirements.

I am curious to see the potential benefits of a facebook or twitter type application within the enterprise.  And to understand the limitations of an enterprise walled-in solution as against a web wide solution such as twitter.  But the idea of some form of continuous stream such as a twitter type app seems attractive as a way to provide somewhere for sharing all sorts of information – notwithstanding the inevitable ‘noise’ arising from general posts.

Another challenge to many organisations is the varying level of comfort across people in using such applications.  As the social network becomes the primary communication channel there are risks associated with potentially losing some of the non participants.  Alternatively some of the potential gains are lost if we are obliged to duplicate things outside the social networking platform.

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How do you do succession planning when you are Apple?

We all need Steve Jobs back in harness. Love him or hate him – he has contributed gugely to what we are all enjoying now in terms of useful, personal, mobile, flexible, technology.

Image representing Steve Jobs as depicted in C...
Image via CrunchBase

We all talk about succession planning – at CEO level, at functional head level, in key skills areas.  And then I look at Apple.

Don’t get me wrong – there are things about Steve Jobs that drive me mad.  In some respects while he is a pioneer he also holds back the industry through insisting on living in his world – your music in iTunes, etc.

But…he is a genius.  And he is unforgiving in his drive for excellence and his commitment to design.

And I guess that’s the question that Steve Jobs poses – how does succession planning work when you need to plan to have someone succeed a genius?

Here’s hoping that he cheats his illness again and makes another comeback. The world is a hell of a lot more interesting because of this guy.

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Learning from the young – to make social networking work

Put new intake at the centre of your social networking and collaboration rollout plans – they have lived this way and get it.

Exterior signage in front of J. Crew's Factory...
Image via Wikipedia

Great piece from Tom Peters highlighting the strengths of Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew.  Peters  picks out so many things that appeal to him in Drexler’s approach – clearly a man who walks the walk and talks the talk.  But what I am drawn to in particular is his respect for younger or more junior people in the organisation:

  • Listens attentively regardless of age/seniority
  • Obvious in his transparent respect for young employees

As we begin to embrace social networking and the associated collaborative approach a key step for enterprise management  is to embrace the new generation – sometimes referred to as the F generation (in reference to facebook).  These are the people who know and understand these solutions.  Bring them on board  – put them at the centre of the required change.  Have them mentor senior, more experienced managers – mentoring is a tow way process.

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Paperless billing

A Post postbox taken by User:Ludraman with a S...
Image via Wikipedia

This seems to have become a hot topic in Ireland – prompted by the move to electronic billing by mobile phone companies.  We have a number of objectors: the regulator because people had a right to a paper bill, some consumers who want a paper bill and, it seems, An Post who stand to lose out on lots of revenue.  Finally there is the debate about the sharing of the benefits – will all the benefits be retained by the corporations or will they be shared (in part or in whole) with the customers?

Useful catch up on the subject in yesterday’s Irish Times.

Surely this is a ‘non-brainer’ at a basic level?  We must use technology to make things more efficient.  But as in all such projects we must manage the change.   There are benefits in this for the corporations (in terms of cost savings) and there are benefits for customers who are open to receiving electronic bills (or accessing their account information on a portal).  Without doubt there are a group of people who will struggle to deal with an electronic document e.g. those with no internet access or familiarity.  This is a group which is diminishing in relative size – but nonetheless must be accommodated – and it would seem to me should not be disadvantaged over their current position.  This should be the core focus of the change agenda.

Online travel booking seems to have gained widespread acceptance – and it has resulted in major changes for those who previously facilitated the booking process.  Mr O’Leary of Ryanair pushed through the agenda but the Aer Lingus experience is the same.  And we have seen losts of benefits in online travel e.g. the various sites offering best deals across a range of providers – be it flights, cars, hotels, insurance, etc.

Over the last number of months I have availed of the new service from Irish start-up  GetItKeepIt which enables me to receive and a range of electronic bills from various suppliers.  For me this application addresses the specific point made by CAI Chairman James Doorley ‘people were “more likely to check their bills if they get them in the post”’.  I am now more inclined to review bills when gathered in one portal.

Ultimately we will complete a period of transformation – and the electronic bill will be the only option.  And this will be the de facto situation across the board.  And this will be a good thing.  We do not want to continue to have people doing things which have no value add – cutting down trees to create unnecessary paper, printing bills and putting them in envelopes, criss-crossing the country to deliver paper bills which can be sent electronically (or, more correctly, accessed electronically).  As for the benefits – they will be absorbed into the operating budgets of the service providers.

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