Dr. DeLisle Worrell
Governor, Central Bank of Barbados
Barbados Association of Office Professionals Conference
February 24, 2011
Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre
Waves of Change, Oceans of Opportunity
In every aspect of life and work, the modern world is forcing us to adapt to the reality of change and uncertainty. Unfortunately, in many ways our culture has not caught up with that reality. Our socialisation, our education, our conceptual frameworks all presume that there is a settled body of knowledge and a known best way of doing things, to which we all need to aspire. We spend our lives in pursuit of that body of knowledge. In truth, this has never been the reality. Until fairly recently, in terms of human history, technology moved so slowly that most people never noticed, so it might have appeared that the inherited precepts were good enough guidance for most of human activity. That has changed dramatically in our lifetime, and the rapid march of technology challenges us to radically change our view of the world and the way we address its challenges.
The world of the business professional has been thrown into great uncertainty by the changes we have witnessed in the past 30 years or so. Just a few months ago I had a visit in my office from Ms Margaret Walke, retired Secretary, as she was then designated, to the first General Manager of the Central Bank, when it was established less than 40 years ago. It was the occasion of her 90th birthday. The visit set me thinking of the office technology as it was when the Central Bank was established in 1972. The electric typewriter was the state of the art, whiteout was a staple of every office, and cutting and pasting was meant literally. In order to incorporate major changes in the early drafts of the Bank’s Annual Report, my secretary would cut sentences and paragraphs out of the typed text with a sharp razor blade, and paste them together in a new sequence in accordance with my edits. How much has changed!
The reality is that office technology has sped so far ahead of our experience that we are all having to relearn the roles of office professionals, the functioning of offices and roles of their colleagues to whom office professionals provide services. Not only must we redefine the tasks of the office professional, and the way they serve our institutions; we have also to acknowledge that our new definitions need to be flexible, in order to cope with technologies which refuse to stay still.
Perception and reality
We all soon discover, as a result of experiences in our workplaces, that office professionals are more vital to office efficiency today than they have ever been. They perform essential roles in the scheduling of events of all kinds, in the movement of people to attend such events, in organizing the set up of meetings, ensuring the availability of audio visual and multimedia arrangements, arranging for catering and other services; they arrange for telecommunication services, conference calls, and video conferencing; they filter and direct incoming communications to appropriate sections of the organisation. They also continue to perform tasks they have traditionally done, such as filing, stuffing envelopes, etc., but such tasks have potentially been transformed because of the development of administrative software and applications, not to mention the introduction of computerised office equipment.
However, perceptions of office professionals are still burdened by history. Because the profession is perceived to have originated with copy typists, the stigma of low status remains. We forget that, not so long ago, the ability to write shorthand and to type were highly prized technical skills which carried great prestige. As a result of this misperception, many talented, ambitious office professionals have left for related disciplines, where they could see better prospects of advancement and greater respect being given to their expertise. Those who remain in the profession often fight against artificial ceilings on promotion, restricted opportunities to employ their professional skills, unwitting failure to assign them responsibility in areas of their competence, and organisational structures that have not changed with the times. Moreover, there are still some who profess to believe that office professionals are now redundant since everybody types.
The changing world of work offers challenges to managers, to office professionals and to all of us who use the services of office professionals. As managers we must change our perception of the role of office professionals. In the areas of office administration and office management, the office professional has expertise which the manager does not have. Managers should defer to office professionals in the areas where the latter is the expert. We should allow them to decide on the tools they use, including choice of software for such tasks as records management and filing; we should allow them to manage their own time, they should oversee the production of the services they provide, and they should be given full responsibility for maintaining the quality and efficiency of delivery of those services.
For their part, office professionals must equip themselves with the enhanced skills needed to manage today’s office and the office of the future, and to be proficient in using telecommunications to this end. They must develop an increasing variety of related skills, possibly including event management, scheduling, and multitasking. There is a wide scope of skills that might be useful in managing the modern office, and that may offer scope for specialisation within the discipline. If you’re working for a bank, for example, it might be useful to build expertise in systems that deal with data and financial presentations and statements. Alternatively, if you are working in the hospitality industry, event management might be a more useful ancillary skill.
It is not only the office professionals and their managers whose perceptions of their roles and functions must change. The perceptions of everyone else in the office environment must also change, to empower the office professional to do what they know best to do. Everyone should defer to the people with the skills, experience and competences to manage the running of our offices. Too often we fall into the old habit of instructing Administrative Assistants on matters for which they are more expert than we are. We can all make ourselves so much more productive by handing over to the office professional those tasks that they are trained in, and we are not. I can do my own electronic filing, and I do, but my filing is only efficient if it is done by my Administrative Assistant, because those files will be accessible to whomever needs to know what is in them. To get access to what I have filed myself, you have to find me, and at a moment when I have time to look up and send you the material.
I have always valued my Administrative Assistants as organisers of my work agenda. An important aspect of that is the management of incoming mail, now almost all electronic. Much of it is queries and requests which an Administrative Assistant can deal with on their own account, to the full satisfaction of the customer. Other email is really for the attention of some other manager at the Central Bank; if it were to come to me, I would immediately forward it to the correct person; if an Administrative Assistant does it, that can speed things up. At the end of this process I am left with a manageable list of emails, to each of which I can give thoughtful consideration.
I have also been able to use Administrative Assistants as research assistants, as they have deepened their areas of skill and knowledge base. It used to be much more difficult than it is now to get data into a form that allowed for the application of a range of economic tests, and my Administrative Assistants at that time helped to raise my own productivity by transferring data into a convenient form. That particular requirement no longer exists, thanks to the rapid march of technology, but many more interesting and challenging possibilities have opened up for the office professional. For example, the Internet provides the Administrative Assistant with tools to research a wide range of information on issues may be pertinent to some aspect of the requirements of the institutions for which they work. Performing efficient searches in the vastness of the Internet is an acquired skill, and there is an opportunity for the office professional to perfect that skill and enhance their value to the organisation. I am sure we have all had the experience of doing a search of the Internet which produces thousands of results, leaving us in the quandary of finding a way to filter the results more finely. That is when we realize that we could do with some skilled assistance.
Suggestions for the way forward
We need to set up opportunities for constructive dialogue among managers, office professionals and other staff, on ways in which the office professional can best help our organizations to improve efficiency in the delivery of products and services. These encounters should focus on how our varying skills can best be harnessed to complement each other, to increase productivity. Among the topics we need to be discussing among ourselves, I suggest the following:
What should office professionals do, in the modern office environment? What services should they be asked or expected to perform?
Should office professionals manage themselves? To whom should they report?
What are the appropriate skills and certifications for today’s office professionals?
What is the career stream in the discipline of office professional?
The answers to these questions depend on the institutional context. What is appropriate for the Central bank will not necessarily be best for a major hotel or the head office of a diversified conglomerate. Each institution must work out what processes and arrangements are the best fit for their operations.
There is a need for better sharing of information on the skills of office professionals, among the profession itself, and with your colleagues in the office. My suspicion is that most of the rest of us have only limited knowledge of your competencies, and we are genuinely unaware of the range of tasks that may be safely left in your care. We may all make a major contribution to better use of your skills simply by creating opportunities to make everyone aware of what you know, and the skills you have acquired.
Arising out of such discussions we may catch a much richer vista of the oceans of opportunity which our companies can open to office professionals, making companies more productive and enriching the work lives of our staff. Jointly, we should review the work of office professionals, the services they offer to the organisation, and the way their work is managed. We should seek to open up career paths for office professionals, to provide extra motivation for the continuous enhancement of skills. I have no doubt that the results will be tangible, and will be manifest in greater overall efficiency in producing goods and delivering services, no matter the nature of the organisation.
This conference offers an opportunity to further the dialogue on these and other issues. For that reason I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you, as a user of your services, and as a manager whose decisions may affect your productivity. I trust these reflections will help us all in the collective search for greater efficiency through more effective use of the services of the office professional. I offer them as ideas for us all to think about, because, like all of us, I am learning and adapting as I go along.
Finally, we must recognise that we live in a changing world, and we need to be flexible in our approaches. Whatever we come up with as the new definition of the office professional should not be set in stone, because it needs to change with changing needs and technology. In today’s world we have to come to terms with the reality that, almost as soon as you settle down to a new way of doing things, something comes along which impels you toward yet another change. We need to have targets for improved use of the services of office professionals, because change is unlikely to be fully beneficial if it simply happens to us. However, we need to be mentally prepared to make corrections in course, if we see that the original tack is not taking us where we set out to go.
I wish you all a successful and enriching conference, and please continue to encourage us all on the path that leads to new and fulfilling opportunities for office professionals, thereby making all our institutions more productive.