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  The Herman Trend Alert

August 8, 2000

Span of Control

143 Days until January 1, 2001

Are things getting out of control in the way we manage today? No, but there are significant changes in management philosophy.

For decades, business students at our universities have carefully studied the science of management, including such issues as span of control. The concept deals with how many people a manager or supervisor can control and still maintain productivity and discipline. (For our younger readers who may not have studied this topic, those words may be somewhat uncomfortable, but for many years the words "management" and "control" have been synonymous.

In some types of work, requiring closer supervision, a span of control of 1:5 may have been appropriate. This ratio means that management scientists believed that one could adequately oversee the work of five other people, no more. If the supervisor had to assume responsibility for six people, for instance, quality and performance would suffer. In other kinds of work, where people could work more independently, a ratio of 1:10 or even more might work.

Recently, we've noted substantial changes in the concept of span of control. While we are still concerned about controlling quality, performance, efficiency, and other aspects of how people work, we are less dictatorial about the process. We've shifted to more monitoring than control at the supervisory level, equipping workers with methods to measure and control their own performance. We've pushed accountability down in many organizations, though some employers still have some work to do. The mode now is more support, than control-some professors now describe the concept as "span of support".

Workers are becoming much more independent. Life values have changed, encouraging people to assume more responsibility and accountability. Work values have changed, as well, encouraging more focus on individual worker performance and less on supervision. Labor shortages, streamlining, and changes in corporate philosophy have reduced the number of managers and supervisors, further supporting a wider "span of support."

As workers become more collaborative and there is less need for direct supervision, especially controlling, watch for the ratios to change even more. Managers will be charged with more support and coordination and less regulation.


Comments from our readers:

Just a thought for you -- as we looked at spans of control recently here at my company the whole notion of matrix management was factoring much more heavily into the mix -- i.e., what if someone has only 5 direct reports but has a virtual team of 15-20 or more? To me, the virtual teams/matrix management issue is one of the most significant organizational design changes, making the old ways of thinking about spans of control obsolete.
jenn


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