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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

False efficiencies - the professional "stretch out"?

In an op-ed piece about "secretaries," past, present, and future, in this morning's New York Times, the following words caught my eye:  "we're living through the end of a recession in which around two million administrative and clerical workers lost their jobs after bosses discovered they could handle their calendars and travel arrangements online and rendered their assistants expendable."

Once a clerical worker myself, and having now logged twenty-plus years as a professional, I am struck by the technical inefficiencies generated by this kind of "economic" efficiency.  Maybe I'm particularly sensitive to this issue because making some rather complicated travel arrangements for a research trip this summer is  consuming inordinate amounts of my time right now.  Or maybe it's because I work in a sector of the academy where staff support for individual professionals (rather than administrative units) is virtually non-existent.  In any case, this trend afflicts not just the business world but increasingly the legal and medical professions as well as the academy:  in the name of economic efficiency, the powers that be are cutting tangible costs by reducing clerical staff and shifting clerical work from clerical workers to professionals.  But what about the less tangible costs that this generates in the time that professionals now must devote to clerical work?

Where's the efficiency in having relatively highly paid (in some professions, very highly paid) professionals doing their own clerical work?  If the implicit assumption is that professionals will do their own clerical work on top of their regular workload--a professional "stretch out," in other words--that is surely unwarranted. Most professionals already work long hours, so clerical work inevitably cuts into the time one has for professional work.  If someone put forward a proposal explicitly recommending that lawyers, doctors, or professors reduce the time they devote to professional responsibilities, in order to free up their time for clerical work, it would end up where it belongs, in the trash bin.  Much more efficient--in terms of value for money--would be to retain at least some of the clerical support staff and use computers and the web to enhance their efficiency.  Instead, we have false economies and false efficiencies.

1 comment:

Jason Weixelbaum said...

It's nice to see you updating your blog again, Dr. Dunlavy.

I look forward to more insights on the plutocratic state of the American polity in the future.