Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 6, 2010

Why Nothing Changes

It’s Labor Day: one of our greatest holidays, not only because it recognizes the importance of work and the contributions of workers. It also requires no gifts, religious rites or dressing up! I don’t write about work all that often, so in honor of NOT working today, here’s a comment ABOUT work.

I once knew a wise man. Okay, a wise-guy, but there WAS wiseness involved. He was a consultant. He was the first consultant I ever knew. This was back in my first job working for a technology company, before I really knew what a consultant was. In the intervening years I have worked with many, many consultants, and I work now at a company that has hundreds of them. I still don’t know what consultants do, but at least I’ve gotten used to having them around.

I knew Rich, my first consultant, back in the days when e-mail and Ethernet were just starting to have a major impact on our company and most other companies. We were slow adopters, which wasn’t surprising, given that it was a very old and well-established company which had been in business, headquartered on the same grounds, since 1884, when they were in the business of manufacturing business machines: first cash registers, then adding machines, and so on. They had actually been building computers along with Sperry and Univac and those other pioneers back in the 1950s, but they didn’t view “computing” as something that tens of thousands of worker bees would do; they viewed it as a specialized business function for processing business data.

Rich explained to me in a way I have never forgotten why it is that it is so difficult to convince the company that we would benefit from having e-mail accounts for all of us who had to communicate and share information across the tens of thousands of people in the company, located not just across the U.S., but around the world. And what he said applies down through the years as other technologies have come on-line, too.

“Secretaries,” he said. “Executives have secretaries, and so they don’t need e-mail. It’s the same reason it took so long for us to get voice mail on our phones. Executives don’t need voice mail; their secretaries take all their messages.” And then Rich gave me the vivid description of the gulf between what an executive sees and how the rest of us work that I have never forgotten.

“You know, if the CEO wants to talk to you, his secretary won’t leave you a voice mail just because you’re in the restroom. She’ll send someone INTO the restroom to tell you the CEO wants you on the phone!”

There you have it. That’s why it’s been hard for all of us to get voice mail, e-mail, cell phones or any other kind of technology: executives are the last to find out how useful they can be, because someone ELSE is managing their telephones and messages and finding information FOR them; execs don’t need Google or Babelfish or whatever, because someone ELSE will get the info or the translation or any other information they require.

This information may be of no practical value, but at least you can stop fretting about why your management is so clueless about adopting productivity tools. Executives are enormously productive because they delegate information-gathering or data management to other people who collect, collate, analyze and report to the executive, who’s job it is to make decisions. From the moment they wake up in the morning, they absorbing a vast stream of pre-processed information, using it to make decisions, decisions decisions.  OK, so it’s your turn next. You’re going to walk into the big office and present your team’s charts, graphs, analyses and get the next decision. This is your chance. YOU tell the chief that you can’t really provide the material that’s needed until everyone in your group gets G4 phones or video conferencing or whatever technology you need. Go ahead. We’ll wait. Right. You won’t do it, even if you’re right. Nope. The rest of us, in this era in which the “secretaries” (I know, I know, administrative assistants) who used to process paper or answer phones or juggle calendars rarely exist, will just have to churn along with whatever tools we have, working the extra hours, working less efficiently than is optimal and wait until the next wave of change sweeps over the exec, washes him or her up onto the shore, leaving them drenched and gasping, and then we’ll see another step toward adopting the latest innovation. Meanwhile, keep swimming and stay outside the surf line.

And don’t be surprised if the administrative assistant comes running into the restroom to find you.

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