Administrative assistants did not do management, but managers did do administration

Thursday, April 15th, 2021

Has the economic clock started to run backwards?, Tim Harford asks:

As Philip Coggan writes in his epic history, More: The 10,000 Year Rise of the World Economy, Smith’s 1776 book was not the first to note the productivity gains that resulted from specialisation. Xenophon was making similar remarks in 370 BCE.

But why does the division of labour improve productivity? Smith pointed to three advantages: workers perfected specific skills; they avoided the delay and distraction of switching from one task to another; and they would use or even invent specialised equipment.

The modern knowledge worker fits uneasily into this picture. Most of us don’t use specialised equipment: we use computers capable of doing anything from accountancy and instant messaging to filming and editing video. And while some office jobs have a clear production flow, many do not: they are a watercolour blur of one activity bleeding into another.


In 1992 the economist Peter Sassone published a study of workflow in large US corporate offices. He found that the more senior a person was, the more likely they were to do a bit of everything. Administrative assistants did not do management, but managers did do administration. Sassone called this “the law of diminishing specialisation”.

This law of diminishing specialisation is surely stronger today. Computers have made it easier to create and circulate written messages, to book travel, to design web pages. Instead of increasing productivity, these tools tempt highly skilled, highly paid people to noodle around making bad slides.


Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email, is searing on this point. Examining scientific management studies from the early 20th century, Newport makes the case that manufacturers analysed and fixed their aimless processes a century ago. The gains were dramatic. For example: at the Pullman factory complex near Chicago, people from various departments would wander into the brass works and pester the metalworkers until they got what they needed. After a systematic overhaul, many clerks were hired as gatekeepers and to plan and schedule work. Productivity soared.

Newport argues that knowledge work is long overdue a similar rethink. How often is office work assigned and prioritised by random pestering? Certain disciplines, including producing a daily newspaper, have developed a clear workflow that doesn’t depend on long email chains. A lot of knowledge work, however, is still in the “wander in and pester” stage.


  1. LGC says:

    A lot of “work” that gets done today, especially in offices, is work that doesn’t need to be done at all: reports that nobody reads, forms that sit forever, printing out stuff that no one will ever look at ever again. (Remember the paperless office? Hahahahaha!) Easily 50% and probably more of “work” in any office doesn’t need to be done at all except for someone’s empire building and looking busy.

  2. Senexada says:

    The Boeing 747 was designed with plywood models and 75,000 paper blueprints. It was twice as large as any prior passenger plane, and the factory itself was constructed in parallel with the plane. Nevertheless, its design cycle was several years shorter than the computerized engineering of the 787.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “Xenophon was making similar remarks in 370 BCE.”

    No, He made those remarks in what modern educated people call “370 BC”. There is no need for anyone to demean himself by going all Politically Correct and using a foolish piece of nonsense. If someone really wanted to be Politically Correct, he should use Muslim AH dates.

    The use of inanities like “BCE” (Before the Christian Era? Ha! Ha!) might seem trivial, but it appears to be strongly linked to other Politically Correct inanities. Consequently, the best use of time when one comes across “BCE” or “CE” is to assign that article to the trash pile and move on.

  4. Kirk says:

    The problem here is that the smart guy observing things is really an ignoramus who has failed to comprehend most of what he was observing.

    Go out into any organization in existence. Ask someone who is part of that organization how things are supposed to function within that organization and the performance of its mission. Then, try to make something happen using that guideline. Watch what happens–If it doesn’t result in nothing happening, I’ll be shocked. Most organizational procedure stems from a need to stop things from happening, which is why you hear the truisms that “…it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission…” and “don’t ask for something that is couched in terms of them doing something; ask for something that means they won’t have to do anything at all…”.

    Bureaucracies don’t exist to get things done; they exist to stop things from happening. Only rarely and at the earliest stages of their lifespans do they actually do things like land men on the moon. Once they’ve fulfilled that initial function, then they move on to self-perpetuation, and that’s when the sclerosis sets in. Late-stage bureaucracies exist only to enhance their own status and necessity; they do that by denying permissions and demanding resources to “perform” their core functions, which are almost never their stated missions. They are, instead, all about the bureaucracy itself. Nothing more, nothing less.

  5. Sam J. says:

    LGC says, “A lot of ‘work’ that gets done today, especially in offices, is work that doesn’t need to be done at all.”

    DAMN IT these TPS reports are vital to the USA economy and we can NOT do without them.

  6. Jim says:

    This is a coded argument that white-collar workers have too much autonomy and should be more strictly regulated by corporate processes discretized into granular tasks and assigned by the algorithm gods.

  7. Jim says:

    In other words, be careful what you wish for.

  8. Jim says:

    Cal Newport, a modern-day prophet to the knowledge workers working in the knowledge factory.

  9. Basker says:

    There are many more supporters for the shortened workday now than there were previously. Some studies show that the average worker is actually productive for less than half of the eight-hour workday (though the idea of productive is subjective, and it also depends on which industry the work is being done).

    It seems obvious that a combination of more sleep, more free leisure, and less time to accomplish deadlines would act as great motivators for workers. But the simple fact is that even if people hate working, they want the money. With upper administration being notoriously old-fashioned in many organizations, it’s difficult to say whether a shift towards higher wages with fewer hours will be a reality of the near future.

  10. David Foster says:

    Customer service, which is certainly a form of knowledge work — at various levels depending on the specifics of the situation — is very highly organized and routinized in most companies of any size.

  11. Jim says:

    “it’s difficult to say whether a shift towards higher wages with fewer hours will be a reality of the near future”

    Would that maximize shareholder value?


  12. eli says:

    Kirk makes some good points, i think.
    I also remember learning about the existence of “books” such as “Red Books” and “Blue Books” _after_ i worked hours on recreating them.
    Institutional knowledge is not passed on to successive generations due to reasons Kirk touched on, but the biggest frustration to educating the work force was a generation and a half that saw a process as totally different done on paper versus completed on a computer.
    This is the generation that brought us “wire fraud”, because somehow fraud committed over the wire is somehow not fraud until there is a law against it.
    So, to the author’s point, computers were successful in wiping out whole corporations of institutional knowledge.
    Because “computer”.

  13. Kirk says:


    It isn’t the fault of the computer so much as it is the idjit class which fetishes the damn things, which they’ve been doing since the WWII era.

    There’s nothing that a computer does that can’t be done by a human being with a box of pencils and a few tons of paper–It’s just that the computer makes it all happen a lot faster. And, cheaper–Back when you’d have to pay an office full of file clerks and typists to produce those TPS reports, you had actual discipline going, in that it would cost you a small fortune for something that today eats up one man’s time and costs whatever it does to move a bunch of electrons about the place. So, nobody tells the dipshit administrator that is asking for the TPS report to curb his desire for control…

    Biggest thing we need to develop is an actual appreciation for what all these things cost, and some control over that “drive to control” which motivates all this inane BS. When the process becomes more important than the end result, you’ve lost the bubble–And, that’s pretty much true across our entire social structure today. Process, procedure, and everything ephemeral take precedence over actual result, which winds up ignored. If the math works, why, then… That must reflect reality. The issue is that we’re doing it without real feedback getting back into the loop, so that we’re more and more reliant on the delusions of the twice-removed to tell us how things are working out, out here in the real world.

    There’s a lesson here, if only we would bother to pay attention and learn it.

  14. Kirk says:

    Interesting analysis here:

    I do believe he’s on to something…

  15. RMJ Tools says:

    I worked as an aircraft mechanic for about 15 years. I noticed after a while that job assignments almost inevitably went to the most unsuitable mechanic on the floor. One time a severely damaged Cessna 310 came it with severe damage to the nose and I had to beg and plead to my foreman to let me do the job, I actually wanted it and he was about to give it to one of the biggest complainers in the shop. Never really figured out this dynamic.

  16. Kirk says:


    Your supervisors were punishing the complainers. It’s that simple–They, and the complainer themselves, do not look at “work” as either a privilege or a pleasure; it’s a punishment, to be levied out on those who annoy them. They probably preferred you as a congenial coffee-break partner, and wanted Mr. Complainy as far from the shop offices as possible.

    The fact you don’t “get” this instinctively is what makes you a superior worker and human being to both your “superior” and the “complainers” alike. The further fact that your workplace put the guy who’d do that in charge of things, and didn’t fire the complainers…? Telling. I would wonder if that firm was still even in business, because they obviously selected for different workplace behavior than that which would make the firm successful.

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