How often do you find a typewriter in an executive's office?
Not very. Typewriters are seen as tools of the secretarial pool, not the executive class: it's the "My girl does the typing" syndrome.
But sexism aside, the rise of the personal computer in the office puts a potentially interesting twist on "My girl does that . . . "
Personal computers offer a genuine opportunity to dramatically ugrade the job of secretary (or executive assistant, as they're called nowadays) in very important ways. Not only would the executive get better quality help, the secretary/executive assistant would be learning a valuable set of skills.
Admittedly, there are some secretaries who are straight 9-to-5ers whose interest is doing a day's work for a day's pay and nothing else. But there are others who really want to learn and do more. The personal computer may well be the key to doing it.
Personal computers are terrific for typing, filing, preparing reports and graphics and keeping track of projects. These are just a few of the things that most good secretaries do anyway. The really good secretaries are the people who really run a company day to day.
For all the hype about putting computers on executive's desks, when it comes to doing the "real work" executives will delegate every time.
So give the personal computer to the secretary.
Why not? Word processors -- which have been around for a few years -- are nothing more than computeresque electronic typewriters. Surveys indicate that virtually every Fortune 1000 company has word-processing capabilities. The PC can be so much more than a word processor -- and it should be. But PC penetration in companies still lags far behind those of word processors.
For example, a secretary could use a DBase III program to track files and records; a project management program for tracking key assignments for her boss; a Lotus 1-2-3 for helping to prepare charts, etc.
Similarly, if the boss is using an electronic spreadsheet model for business projections, the assistant is in a position to test how the data variables project out.
Instead of just typing a report, a secretary skilled at using a computer (a Macintosh, for example) could prepare a document complete with graphics, spreadsheets and charts. The personal computer can make a secretary more of an assistant -- more of the key data handler -- than ever before.
Moreover, though typing itself is a valuable skill, it certainly wouldn't hurt one's market value to have a working knowledge of Lotus, DBase III and a couple of graphics programs.
More importantly, don't ignore the fact that actually working with those programs offers a new way to understand the nature of the information that runs the firm. Think of personal computer applications programs as lenses through which to see the business.
Conversely, a personal computer can be preprogrammed to be a secretary's living digital hell.
Just as it is with many steno and typing pools, the PC technology can relegate a secretary to a human data entry device. Imagine spending the working hours of a day doing nothing but keypunching letters and numbers into a computer: first for memos, then for reports and then for charts. That would be a dreary experience.
Yet, depending on a company's priorities, that's precisely the way personal computers could be used in the office -- the secretary just tapping away until the disc or program is filled . . . and then getting up to get a new disc to do it all again.
The point is that the new technology isn't just going to redefine how business does business for the executives -- it's going to provide the tools to redefine the secretary's job. Some firms will no doubt be enlightened and turn the personal computer into both an ally and a training tool that enriches both the job and the individual's skills.
Others will choose the pure assemblyline mentality and plunge their secretaries into the digital equivalent of coolie labor: all data, no thought required.
Of course, there are secretaries who already recognize the power of the PC and are using it accordingly to get their jobs done better and faster. There are others who view it as a threat -- who see computers as things that are difficult to learn and devices that will force them to work harder for no concommitant rise in pay.
Ultimately, corporations as a whole and bosses in particular are going to have to deal with the double-edged offer personal computers present to their executive assistants and secretaries. It may well be that the personal computer revolution will be won or lost not inside the executive suites but just outside them.