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The Right Span of Control Isn’t a Number

In my June, 2007 newsletter article I talked about how to organize IT, but I didn’t address one of the questions that keeps coming up during a bad economic climate: how do we deal with executives who want to cut the number of IT managers by increasing the span of control for each manager? Span of control, for those unfamiliar with the phrase, refers to the number of people reporting directly to a manager. So, for example, a manager with 10 people reporting to him has a span of control of 10, and a manager with 100 people reporting to her has a span of control of 100.

Cost-cutting consultants like to look at the average span of control for the managers in each organization, and any organization with a low average is immediately a target for elimination of manager jobs. IT manager jobs are particularly good targets because no one outside of IT understands the IT manager role. And what you don’t understand, you tend to eliminate; at least that’s the way a lot of cost-cutting consultants think.

But the reality is that the “right” number for span of control depends on a number of factors that aren’t usually taken into account when these cost-cutting consultants go looking. This article will provide you with some ammunition to fight back if you’re confronted with accusations that your own organization has a low average span of control.

The Basics
The idea behind span of control is fairly simple. You as a manager have a requirement to spend a certain amount of time each week doing non-management tasks, and you spend the remainder of your time managing your employees. Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say that you spend a total of 50 hours per week working (anything over 50 will be reserved for unplanned use). Now let’s say that 20 hours of your week will be eaten up by work not related to people management. The actual number will vary greatly depending on how much “individual contributor” work you have to do as part of your job, how much time you spend with your boss, how much travel you do, and how much time you spend with your peers.

Subtracting 20 from 50 leaves 30 hours per week to manage people. If on average you need to spend 2 hours per employee per week, then you can handle 15 employees (30 / 2 = 15). If you need to spend 4 hours per employee per week, then you can only handle 8 employees. And if, in the other extreme, you only need to spend 1/2 hour per employee per week, then you can handle 60 employees. In these examples, your span of control would be 15, 8 or 60.

The Factors that Influence the Required Manager Time Per Employee
Why would one manager need to spend 4 hours per week per employee (or even more) while another manager might only require 1/2 hour or less? Here are the factors that affect the number:

1. Is the work well-defined and well-understood?
Employees who are doing simple repetitive work typically require very little time from management. The employees know what they’re doing, they do it the same way each time so there’s very little reason for asking questions, and they know how they’re measured. A manager only gets involved in the rare cases when a new employee is needed, when an employee has an occasional problem that requires management intervention, and for periodic goal and performance discussions.

On the other hand, consider the case where employees are doing a new type of work for the first time, the work requires a high degree of skill, there are many decisions to be made that require a manager, and training must be provided to the employees before they can perform useful work. Clearly this situation requires a lot more manager time per employee to ensure productive employees.

2. Have your employees been in their jobs a long time?
Experienced employees with long tenure have very little need for management (and you’ll often hear them griping about this very subject). As long as the work and environment stay the same, a large number of these employees can be managed by just one person. But make sure that no change is imminent, because when change is required to this sort of organization, it’s going to take even more management time than would normally be needed, since people who are set in their ways are usually reluctant to change.

3. Are job or working conditions changing?
One of the primary duties of a manager is to implement change. When things are changing, more time is required between the manager and his/her employees. Even if the work is constant, change can include an alteration in physical location or environment, a change in the number of people available to do the work (a decrease due to downsizing or an increase due to business growth), or a change in the pace of the work. If there is no change, then less manager time is required, and a higher span of control will work effectively. But during times of change this high span of control will interfere with successful change implementation; more manager-to-employee time is needed.

4. Do the employees help each other?
In many working environments it’s reasonable and appropriate for experienced employees to help newer employees learn the job and its subtleties. Sometimes we call these experienced people “project leaders” or “team leaders;” other times it’s just an informal mentoring relationship. When help from other employees is possible, it relieves the manager of some of these responsibilities, and it allows a higher span of control. But when the workers are physically separated (for example, support people based in different remote facilities), or when pay-for-performance motivation or union regulations reduce the likelihood of this sort of help, then the manager has to spend more time bringing each new employee up to speed.

5. Is there a high variation in the type of job working for the manager?
If all of your employees are doing the same thing (for example, a help desk organization), then it’s possible to use group instruction to communicate the same message to many employees at once. If, on the other hand, each of your employees is doing a different type of job, then more individualized communication is required, and this requires a lower span of control.

6. Do you have a separate training and/or coaching organization?
Some companies split the traditional management responsibilities, keeping employee accountability with the employee’s manager but moving responsibility for training and coaching elsewhere. This type of organization appears to allow a higher span of control, but in fact it usually just spreads the span of control across the different parts of the organization (see my June, 2007 newsletter article for more about matrix organizations). If you use this approach in your organization, you should be especially careful when your company looks to reduce costs. Separate training and coaching organizations are easy targets for cost-cutting (even more popular than managers with a low span of control), and when those organizations are eliminated, the managers will have to pick up the slack. Sure, having a separate training or coaching organization may allow a higher span of control now, but make sure the span of control goes down if that training or coaching organization is eliminated.

7. Is your organization on the trailing edge of new technology or on the leading edge?
If your organization is using leading edge technology, then the number of problems associated with the new technology will require more attention, more decisions, and more management time. On the other hand, if your organization lets other companies do the pioneering, and you use technology that’s already been proven, then a higher span of control might be possible.

8. What is the ratio of technology investment per employee in this organization?
In a highly leveraged organization with many millions of dollars of technology investment being installed or supported by each IT employee, it makes sense to provide more management oversight to reduce the possibility of problems. In this type of organization, the span of control should be kept lower to provide that required oversight, and to make sure that your high technology investment is protected.

Span of control is one of those things that’s easy to attack when a company is desperately searching for ways to reduce cost. There may be certain situations in IT organizations when management jobs should be eliminated, but it’s dangerous to make a generalized attack on an IT management job just because it has a low span of control.

First, consider that many IT manager jobs require a large amount of time for individual contributor tasks that have nothing to do with managing people. Many IT managers are doers; in addition to their management role they also have to roll up their sleeves and work beside their employees on the front lines.  This gives them less time to spend actually managing employees, and so their span of control number is deceptively low.

Second, look at what happens when you increase the span of control above a reasonable number for a given situation:

  • Employees don’t get the support and encouragement they need, morale drops, and employee turnover increases.
  • Employee resources are wasted due to miscommunication and rework.
  • Employees don’t get adequate supervision, and they sometimes end up making decisions that aren’t in the best interest of the company.

When evaluating the need for a change in the span of control, consider the answers to the eight questions in this article. You’ll find some cases where a greater span of control is possible, but it’s important to weigh the trade-offs. Will that increase in span of control result in ineffective use of new technology? Will it make your IT organization inflexible and unresponsive to change? Will you end up costing your company more money than you’ll save? It’s important to know the answers. And it’s important to push back at consultants who want to increase your span of control if the evidence shows that it will hurt your company.

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