Span of control or span of management is a dimension of organizational design measured by the number of subordinates that report directly to a given manager. This concept affects organization design in a variety of ways, including speed of communication flow, employee motivation, reporting relationships, and administrative overhead. Span of management has been part of the historical discussion regarding the most appropriate design and structure of organizations.
HISTORICAL DISCUSSION OF SPAN OF CONTROL
A small, or narrow, span of control results in each manager supervising a small number of employees, while a wide span of management occurs when more subordinates report directly to a given manager. A small span of management would make it necessary to have more managers and more layers of management to oversee the same number of operative employees than would be necessary for an organization using a wider span of management. The narrower span of management would result in more layers of management and slower communications between lower level employees and top level managers of the firm. Recent moves to downsize organizations and to eliminate unnecessary positions has resulted in many organizations moving to wider spans of management and the elimination of layers of middle-level managers.
An argument for a narrow span of control was presented by V.A.
Gaicunas, who developed a formula showing that an arithmetic
increase in the number of a manager's subordinates resulted in a
geometric increase in the number of subordinate relationships that
a manager had to manage. According to Gaicunas, managers must
manage not only one-to-one direct reporting relationships, but also
relationships with various groups of subordinates and the
relationships that exist between and among individual subordinates.
The formula is shown below:
where I is the total number of interactions
and N is the number of subordinates.
Therefore, if a manager has two subordinates, there are 6 potential relationships to manage. However, if the manager's subordinates are increased to three, then the number of relationships is increased to 18. As the number of relationships increased, Gaicunas argued, the sheer number of interactions would exceed the abilities of the manager.
Researchers generally argue that a small span of management and a "tall" organization structure will be more expensive to operate because of the large number of managers and it may have communication problems resulting from the multiple levels of management. Such organizations are often seen as well suited for a stable, certain type of environment. A "flat" organization design resulting from a wider span of management would require managers to assume more administrative duties since those activities would be shared by fewer employees. It will also result in more employees reporting to each manager, increasing the managers' supervisory responsibilities. However, some research also suggests the wider span of management may cause employees to feel greater ownership of their work and increase their motivation, morale, and productivity. This type of organization design is often seen as effective in more uncertain environments.
FACTORS THAT MAY AFFECT SPAN OF CONTROL
While early discussions of span of control often centered on pinpointing the optimal number of subordinates, a number of factors may influence the span of control most appropriate for a given management position. Assuming that all other aspects of a manager's job are the same, these factors would likely alter the span of management as follows:
- Job complexity. Subordinate jobs that are complex, ambiguous, dynamic or otherwise complicated will likely require more management involvement and a narrower span of management.
- Similarity of subordinate jobs. The more similar and routine the tasks that subordinates are performing, the easier it is for a manager to supervise employees and the wider the span of management that will likely be effective.
- Physical proximity of subordinates. The more geographically dispersed a group of subordinates the more difficult it is for a manager to be in regular contact with them and the fewer employees a manager could reasonably oversee, resulting in a narrower span of management.
- Abilities of employees. Managers who supervise employees that lack ability, motivation, or confidence will have to spend more time with each employee. The result will be that the manager cannot supervise as many employees and would be most effective with a narrower span of management.
- Abilities of the manager. Some managers are better organized, better at explaining things to subordinates, and more efficient in performing their jobs. Such managers can function effectively with a wider span of management than a less skilled manager.
- Technology. Cell phones, email, and other forms of technology that facilitate communication and the exchange of information make it possible for managers to increase their spans of management over managers who do not have access to or who are unable to use the technology.
The trend in recent years has been to move toward wider spans of control to reduce costs, speed decision making, increase flexibility and empower employees. However, to avoid potential problems of wide spans of control, organizations are having to invest in training managers and employees and in technology enabling the sharing of information and enhancing communication between and among managers and employees.
Davison, Barbara. "Management Span of Control: How Wide Is Too Wide?" Journal of Business Strategy. 24 (2003): 229.
Griffin, Ricky. Management. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Hitt, Michael, J.S. Black, and Lyman, Porter. Management. Upper Saddle River: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.
Klein, E.E. "Using Information Technology To Eliminate Layers Of Bureaucracy." National Public Accountant. 23 (2001): 468.
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