I am a sucker for "Mad Men," the cable TV drama about how the advertising business was practiced (on and off the job) in the 1960s. The series has been praised for its attention to period detail. But it's not just the depictions of bouffant hairdos and smoking and drinking in the office that show how life and work have changed over the past 40 years. A recent episode highlighted the excitement of the ad agency's all-female secretarial pool (in and of itself a kind of historical artifact) when a strange new machine — a Xerox copier — was installed in the office. The women's discussion, however, was all about where the huge machine should be located — not about how it might change the ways they did their jobs.
The scene was almost a throw-away, played mainly for laughs, but it got me thinking about the impact of technology on the workplace — what it changes, and what it doesn't.
For example, even copy machines didn't remove much manual labor from document-based clerical work such as correspondence, billing and payments, or report generation. A decade or so after the time of "Mad Men," I worked as a clerical assistant in my college's history department and spent most of my time typing up assignment sheets on inky (and aromatic) ditto masters — ink-coated forms that I would then run through the ditto machine (officially called a "spirit duplicator") to make copies. If I made a typo on a ditto master I had to use a razor blade to scratch off the mistake. When I wasn't typing up (on a typewriter, of course) the forms, I was collating, stapling and binding documents of all kinds. It was essential work, but it didn't require a lot of skill or insight.
Since then, what we now call "document management" has undergone a revolution. Between the explosion of enterprise content management tools and the focus on "green" technologies and sustainability, today document production is handled completely electronically. But document management is not just about efficiency and saving paper. The promise also has been that it will change the way people work — especially when they are assigned to administrative or clerical tasks. Whether or not that is really the case remains to be seen.
The tools may be different, but — especially with the increased focus on governance — there seems to be more process than ever before. As they said in the '60s, "What a bummer."