I stumbled across a piece written by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner on the topic of defensive diary scheduling yesterday – see http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130403215758-22330283-the-importance-of-scheduling-nothing. It’s a telling indictment of how technology that was supposed to make us more productive has led to shadow working practices for us to survive. It’s not an unfamiliar story – the dirty secret of the ERP world is that, despite billions of pounds invested into SAP, Oracle et al over the years, most businesses would grind to a halt if Excel was removed from the work place because that’s where most of the real number crunching goes on.
From my perspective, networked calendars within big organisations are irredeemably broken. This isn’t a vendor issue – whether Office, Google or Lotus is your weapon of choice, it’s a weapon of mass stupidity and it’s only going to get worse. Technology becomes a problem when it allows people to do stupid things at scale for little or no cost, and that’s where the average corporate diary is today; meetings in diverse locations with too many attendees booked back to back. Add in the ease of tele- or web-conferencing and the costs of commuting even disappear. And yet the tools that let us arrange so many pointless meetings do nothing to make those meetings more productive or beneficial, which in turn leads to deeply dysfunctional behaviour as attendees check their Facebook timeline or Instant Message jibes to others in the room rather than focus on matters at hand.
If arranging every meeting had some sort of cost associated with it, we wouldn’t have these issues. The evidence? Look at people who have PAs to protect their time turf and you’ll see a difference. For the good PA, their boss’s time is an asset to protect (unlike the rest of us where time is increasingly expected to be an elastic resource). For the good boss, the PA is someone to whom absolute delegation of diary management is a priority.
Which leads to two potential conclusions: firstly that maybe the future holds a renaissance for the personal assistant. Technology enables new ways of working, and companies like http://coutissonva.com/ show how they can bring the PA into the networked generation. But the second is slightly bleaker – that after many years of “self-service”, we have a generation of leaders emerging into organisations who have not developed the necessary delegation skills required to make assistance work well.
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