Updated: Oct 19
Based on a design by Petr Vaclavek/shutterstock.com
The premise of this article: The evolution in corporate administrative roles since the 1960s can be viewed as a straight line that has not wavered through the introduction of the PC, the internet and social media. That these shifts in how corporations are administered has enhanced, rather than hindered, this evolution provides assurance that if we project this line into the future, we can have confidence in the changes to which it points.
The overwhelming theme of discussion about what work might look like in 2050 is “confusion”.
Disrupting technologies! Wholesale displacement of workers! Automation of everything! We can’t possibly know what skills will be required! We can do nothing to assure our future success!
Oh baloney. The future of corporate administration is crystal clear. We just need to wash off the muck of tech boom blather that an industry of questionable “experts” and media talking heads have applied with a fire hose.
Industries will be disrupted. Workers will be displaced. More automation will replace human labor. IoT (the internet of things) will repeatedly double in size for years. Yes – it’s all happening.
But those running around with their hair on fire claiming we therefore can’t know anything about 2050 are ignorant of business and human fundamentals, and even ignorant of recent tech history, because we’ve heard this kind of story before.
Call me a fossil, but I’m old enough to remember the 90s tech boom. It was loudly proclaimed then that all the “old rules” of business economics were dead and buried by the internet. Profit? Who needs profit? Some guy said internet traffic’s going to double every six months forever! (A misstatement and obvious fallacy, but the NASDAQ’s 25% average annual increase from October 1990 to October 2000 made any contrary attitude passé.) We’re all going to roll in dough, no matter that our business plan can’t find profit anywhere in the foreseeable future.[i]
Of course it turned out to be idiocy. The rules had not changed (that much). Profit was still essential. A product or service that people were willing to, you know, BUY, was still essential. Yes – a lot changed in the 90s. But more stayed the same than changed.
The same is true now. We live in an era of amazing transformation, but we tend to forget that it exists on a foundation of human behavior, which changes at a glacial pace. So a lot will change by 2050, but more will stay the same than will change – because we are human, and that’s the way we are. Changes we can confidently identify will therefore evolve within a relatively stable, known framework – our current work environment.
To Whom Does This Matter?
Everyone. Corporate leaders, line managers and staff.
Corporate leaders because old management/staff paradigms are shifting out of necessity and will continue to do so. The old leader/follower command and control paradigm is a sinking ship. A new paradigm is increasingly necessary for viability, let alone success.
Line managers, whose work lives will be rendered unlivable if they insist on retaining traditional command-and-control thinking.
Staff, who have two options. Sit and wait for this to happen (or even resist when it does) and let the opportunity pass us by. Or, get there first. Start now. Be leaders. And benefit as a consequence.
Balance of Power
The ideas that follow could be incorrectly viewed as a transfer of power from management to staff and therefore a threat to line managers. They are not, because it’s not just staff getting new objectives. This is management shedding a nuts-and-bolts part of their job to focus on more strategic, planning-oriented work. This is staff assuming more responsibility so managers in turn can assume more responsibility. This is everyone upping their game. The manager/staff relationship doesn’t actually change; we’re advancing the relationship together.
The Change Trajectory – Distinct, And Arrow-Straight
I express confidence in where we’re taking administration because I can see from where we’ve come.
There is a clear trajectory to the transformation of administration that traces back to the 1960s. Sure that’s ancient history. But it’s relevant “ancient history” because the advent of the internet changed this trajectory not one bit. It held its course. After surviving the PC, the internet and social media we can have considerable confidence that it will continue to hold its course over the next 30 years. And it is a very positive trajectory indeed.
Draw a line with me through these developments in administration.
In the 1960s millions occupied the typing pool.
In the 1970s the typing pool waned and those workers transitioned into an abundance of secretarial roles.
In the 1980s a new term arose: administrative assistant. Renaming secretaries wasn’t just marketing; it reflected a new focus and mindset. No longer the person who typed the letters, filed the documents, made the appointments and got the coffee, this new role was expected to actively assist in the administration of a function. Administrative assistants had the beginning of actual power and authority.
The changes and rebranding continued. In the 2010s administrative assistants are largely gone, replaced by analysts and departmental specialists. Merely “assisting” someone else is over; we are our own responsibility centers, specialists in our own rite.
Typist to secretary to administrative assistant to analyst to……….what? We’ve drawn a line; when we extend it 30 years to 2050, where does it lead? I don’t know what the function will be called, but the critical new element will be role ownership, so let’s go with that.
Before talking about what a role owner is going to be, let’s be convinced that this next transition is going to happen – and I mean guaranteed, 100%, inevitable that analysts will go the way of typists by 2050 and administrative functions will be performed in a new paradigm: the role owner paradigm.
Clear, Consistent Evolution
The line I’ve drawn from typist to analyst isn’t describing a collection of accidents or random changes. This is clear evolution in a consistent direction, motivated by a stable set of drivers that show no sign of changing.
The drivers are
Rate of change
Technology is eliminating manual labor, including in administration. It’s also intensifying competition. As our ability to sell and deliver has expanded from local to regional to national to global, new competitive challenges that once arose in our own backyard now appear from almost anywhere on the planet. Technology and competition in turn drive rate of change.
I’m not going to make an argument here for the existence and effect of technological and competitive rate of change. It’s not my present subject and if you don’t already believe in them I doubt my ability to convince you. I therefore take it as a given that we agree the workplace of 2050 will be more technologically complex, subject to more competitive pressure, and will be changing at a faster rate than it is today.
That is why further, substantial change in how we administer the corporation is non-optional. Today’s methods cannot survive tomorrow’s pressures.
Why Role Ownership?
Staff have historically been responsible for executing a job description and following the direction of their immediate manager. It’s important to understand that this will not change. The future I describe is not anarchy. Executing a defined role under the direction of a manager will still be a primary duty.
What changes is the addition of a second primary duty: to evolve the role to align with the organization’s requirements 1 year, 5 years, 10 years out. This evolution of the role will be lead by the administrators who operate the role. It has to be.
An organization I’m familiar with flowcharted their procurement processes. The process to create a Request for Quote and transmit it to suppliers had 60 steps. One process! Not even a significant fraction of the entire procure-to-pay cycle, only the first phase. Extrapolate that to all the processes within the organization. I have no doubt that procurement, accounts payable, HR and others all have 1,000 process steps with their departments. In some departments it could be several thousand.
What manager has the time to stay on top of 1,000 process steps, ensure they’re still relevant, working, producing the results they’re intended to produce? No manager. It’s impossible by definition because the “manager” attempting the feat is no longer managing. Ironically they’ve become an administrative analyst!
Managers don’t have the time to know all the process steps being executed in their organization and unless they moved up to manager from a staff position they also don’t have and cannot acquire knowledge of the minute-to-minute information flow that goes on around them. They shouldn’t try, because it provides little to forward managerial goals and would have the effect of self-demotion to analyst.
Staff administrators are therefore the people with the right knowledge of process, in the right position, with the right set of responsibilities, to monitor the process, identify steps that are redundant or obsolete, determine corrective action, propose the change up the chain of command if required, and implement the change. This is role ownership.
When administrators are improving processes through role ownership, the enterprise has doubled the value it traditionally obtains from these employees. We continue to produce value through execution of a process, and we produce new value through driving change to improve efficiency, productivity and profit. This is a powerful competitive advantage.
Administrators benefit from having more control over our destinies. We achieve the satisfaction of contributing direction to the enterprise, rather than just adding the paperwork “fuel” that in previous decades powered it in a direction utterly outside our influence. And we reap the financial rewards that come from creating more value.
There is a caveat: we must change how we think. In the old manager/employee paradigm of leaders/followers we lead nothing and therefore had the luxury of being concerned only with our own well-being. If we are to assume a new level of responsibility for setting direction, it must be direction in the interests of the enterprise, not in our personal interests.
I had a colleague who was quite astute about systems efficiency and provided a constant flow of ideas about how efficiency could be improved. Sounds good – but the ideas were always expressed in terms of “reducing my work” which demonstrated a mindset. That her ideas could reduce cost for the enterprise was incidental to (actually, contrary to) her objective of reducing her workload. That’s not how we can approach this. We can benefit, but as an incidental effect of improving corporate performance, not because we aimed first at our own self-interest.
Our Job Won’t Last Forever
As the competence of our technology increases it eliminates progressively more complex tasks. This trend is nowhere near complete and technology will continue to lop jobs off the low end of the administrative hierarchy, just as it eliminated typists, then secretaries, then administrative assistants.
A frightening prognosis? Not at all. The same processes that are chopping rungs off the bottom of the administrative ladder are continuously adding new rungs at the top and we all move up to better jobs with more responsibility and authority as a result. Until 10 years ago the only “analysts” I ever heard of worked for the CIA. Now they’re everywhere. That’s a new rung on the top of the corporate administrative ladder that didn’t exist in the 80s.
But just like the typists and secretaries that preceded them, the analyst roles of today won’t last forever. Prepare for your new role. Prepare for role ownership. Better yet, just start – today, right now. Own it.
[i] This is how I remember it. Seeking to add credibility to my recollection, it didn’t take long to find an excellent example, a New York Times story on the November 1999 IPO for webvan.com:
According to the story, Webvan’s IPO was priced at $15 and closed the first day of public trading at $24.88, creating a market valuation of $7.9 billion. This for a company “expected to post a loss of $65 million this year -- high even by the standards of Internet start-ups -- and has forecast operating losses for the ‘foreseeable future.’” I wrote my paragraph using that exact term before finding the Times story.