Why Span of Control is Important

What is span of control?

When examining organisational structure, span of control is an important metric to understand. Simply, span of control refers to the number of employees under a manager’s direct control (i.e. a manager with five direct reports has a span of control of five). By viewing this metric clearly, in the context of the entire organisation, decisions can be made on whether individual managers have too many or too few direct reports.

How many direct reports should a manager have?

What’s the optimal number for span of control? Consider the nature of the work of subordinates and the level of attention each requires. For example in a call center, the span of control could be over 100, while executive functions with high degrees of collaboration and interaction—can rarely tolerate more than three or four. So, the complexity of the work performed and how much oversight a role requires governs the ideal assignment of personnel to a manager and can’t be generalised for any particular industry.

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An executive team structure with a ‘narrow’ span of control

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A call center organisation showing a ‘wide’ span of control.

 

Expanding on the concept of span of control

Let’s broaden our understanding of span of control in the context of the hierarchical structure of the entire organisation.

.Organisations can be described in terms of width and height. Organisational structures with large spans of control are wide and those with smaller spans of control are narrow. Companies with many levels of management, or hierarchy, can be described as tall and those with fewer levels as flat.

.While there are pros and cons to both tall and flat structures, a company’s structure must be designed to suit the business (customer and markets) and in a way that fits with the workforce’s capabilities.

Tall vs. flat organisational structures

Tall vs Flat Span of Control

Tall vs. Flat Span of Control

Typical characteristics of flat organisational structures (wide span of control)

.Strengths

Encourages delegation – Managers must better delegate to handle larger numbers of subordinates, and grant opportunities for them to take on responsibilities autonomously.
Agile – Improves companywide communication speed and quality. Takes less time for information and knowledge to disseminate through the organisation.
Reduced cost – More cost effective because of fewer levels requiring fewer managers.
Increased engagement – Helps prevent the workforce from disengaging with a focus on empowerment, autonomy and self-direction.

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Weaknesses

High managerial workload
Role confusion – With less management, guidance is less available.
Distrust of management – With less access to managers, trust may be more difficult to acquire.

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Typical characteristics of a tall organisational structure (narrow span of control)

.Strengths

Rapid communication within small teams.
More manageable groups of employees.
Greater degree of specialisation and division of labor.
More and better opportunities for employee promotion.

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Weaknesses

Communication can take too long, hampering decision-making.
Silos may develop preventing cross-functional problem solving.
Employees may feel lost and powerless.

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As we’ve demonstrated, an organisation’s structure dictates the width of span of control assigned to managers. Selecting a tall or flat structure should depend on the business and the customers being served. The best way to visualise organisational structure is with OrgChart. Whether it’s OrgChart Now (Cloud) or OrgChart Platinum (Desktop) both give the ability to automate the modelling process. Start a free trial of OrgChart today or schedule a demo with one of our experts.

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