A History of Disruptive Technologies in the Admin Profession

Aug 14, 2019 | Innovation, Productivity, Technology

As a speaker, I like to start my sessions on innovation by asking assistants to think back on the things that used to be a part of the office when they started in the field, but aren’t anymore. It’s usually a fun little jaunt down memory lane as we share flashbacks of outdated office technology.

The point I always stress, however, is that no matter how awesome and innovative those old office staples were at the time, most of them became obsolete as the environment around them changed. And we, as administrative professionals, run the same risk if we fail to adapt to the changing times.

The phrase “disruptive technology” sounds scary on the surface. The term was originally coined by Clayton M. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, and it’s used to describe something that replaces or improves upon an existing technology, therefore “disrupting” the industry or, in some cases, creating a brand new industry altogether.

Disruptive technology is necessary for the administrative profession, and there’s nothing to fear from it. Let’s look at some examples from the past.

Here and Gone: Office Technology of Yesteryear

The office of the past looked a lot different than it does now. The manual typewriter replaced Steno notebooks and legal pads; the electric typewriter came along with more bells and whistles and replaced the manual. Then came word processors and dot matrix printers, complete with their maddening reams of perforated paper, and finally, a primitive version of the computer that looked absolutely nothing like the laptop, tablet, or smartphone you’re reading this article on right now.

Can you imagine taking the meeting minutes with nothing but a pen and a yellow legal pad, or proofing an important document with red ink and a tiny bottle of White-Out? How time-consuming would it be to search through your Rolodex for a client’s number, or use a clunky Telex machine rather than shoot a colleague a quick text message?

One of my team members worked for a weekly newspaper when she was in high school. She describes the “paste-up process” as a nightmare. Each Saturday, the newspaper would be printed out, cut up, dipped in wax, and pasted onto the proof sheets like puzzle pieces.

Twenty years later, she moved back to her hometown and was invited to rejoin the newspaper as a freelance writer. She was absolutely amazed when she learned that the light tables and X-acto knives of her youth were a thing of the past. Now, the newspaper is composed digitally and exported to the printer in a PDF – a process that takes minutes rather than hours. Disruptive technology for the win! 

I remember how excited I was when I learned my new all-in-one Canon copier would produce overhead transparencies just by putting the film on the manual feed paper tray. Now PowerPoint has all but eliminated the need for transparencies at all!

How many of you remember the following bygone office staples?

  • Carbon paper
  • Hard and floppy disks
  • Dictation equipment
  • Mainframes
  • Manual punch cards

Disruptive technology has replaced all of the above – for the better!

The Future is Here!

Disruptive technology isn’t a negative term, and it’s definitely not going anywhere. If we want the admin role to remain a relevant, recognized, and integral part of the 21st-century office, then we need to make sure we do everything we can to stay on the cutting edge. To do this, we need to be early adopters who test new tools before they’re needed, and we need to support the rollouts of these tools when they’re implemented in our companies. We need to do everything we can to stay current on trends so we can adapt quickly. The Innovative Admin™ doesn’t sit around and wait for the future to arrive. The Innovative Admin helps usher it in by consistently exposing himself/herself to new ideas and taking action on implementing the ones that can help improve how things get done!


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Julie Perrine, CAP-OM, is the founder and CEO of All Things Admin, providing training, mentoring and resources for administrative professionals worldwide. Julie applies her administrative expertise and passion for lifelong learning to serving as an enthusiastic mentor, speaker and author who educates admins around the world on how to be more effective every day. Learn more about Julie’s books — The Innovative Admin: Unleash the Power of Innovation in Your Administrative Career and The Organized Admin: Leverage Your Unique Organizing Style to Create Systems, Reduce Overwhelm, and Increase Productivity, and Become a Procedures Pro: The Admin’s Guide to Developing Effective Office Systems and Procedures. 

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