Chain of Command and Span of control

Thirty-five years ago, the chain of command concept was a basic cornerstone in the design of organizations. As you will see, has far less importance today. But contemporary managers should still consider its implications when they decide how best to structure their organization. The chain of command is an unbroken line of authority that extends from the top of the organization to the lowest echelon and clarifies who reports to whom. It answers questions of employees such as “To whom do I go if I have a problem?” and “To whom am I responsible?”

You can’t discuss the chain of command without discussing two complementary concepts: authority and unity of command. Authority refers to the rights inherent in a managerial position to give orders and expect the orders to be obeyed. To facilitate that coordination, each managerial position is given a place in chain of command and each manager is given a degree of authority in order to meet his or her responsibilities. The unit-of-command principle helps preserve the concept of an unbroken line of authority. It states that a person should have one and only one superior to whom that person is directly responsible. If the unity of command is broken, an employee might have to cope with conflicting demands or priorities from several superiors.

Times change and so do the basic tenets of organizational design. The concepts of chain of command, authority and unity of command have substantially less relevance today because if advancements in information technology and the trend towards empowering employees. For instances a low level employee today can access information in seconds that 35 years ago was available only to top managers. Similarly networked computers increasingly allow employees anywhere in an organization to communicate with anyone else without going through formal channels. Moreover the concepts of authority and maintaining the chain of command are increasingly less relevant as operating employees are being empowered take decisions that previously were reserved for management. Add to this the popularity of self managed and cross functional teams and the creation. Add to this popularity of self managed and cross functional teams and the creation of new structural designs that include multiple bosses and the unity-of-command concept takes on less relevance. There are, of course still many organizations that find they can be most productive by enforcing the chain of command, there just seem to be fewer of them nowadays.

How many employees a manager efficiently and effectively direct? This question of span of control is important because, to a large degree, it determines the number of levels and managers and organizations has. All things being equal, the wider or larger the span, the more efficient is the organizationa. An example can illustrate the validity of this statement.

Assume that we have two organizations, both of which approximately 4,100 operative employees. If one has a uniform span of four and other a span of eight the wider span would have two fewer levels and approximately 800 fewer managers. If the average manager made $50,000 year, the wider span would save $40 million a years in management salaries. Obviously wider spans are more efficient in terms of cost. However, at some points a wider span reduces effectiveness. That is, when the span becomes too large, employee performance suffers because supervisors no longer have the time to provide the necessary leadership and support.

Narrow or small spans have their advocates. By keeping the span of control to five or six employees, a manager can maintain close control. But narrow spans have three major drawbacks. First, as already described, they are expensive because they add levels of management. Second, they make vertical communication in the organization more complex. The added levels of hierarchy slow down decision making and tend to isolate upper management. Third, narrow spans of control encourage overly tight supervision and discourage employee autonomy.

The trend in recent years has been toward wider spans of control. They’re consistent with recent efforts by companies to reduce costs, cut overhead, speed up decision making, increase flexibility get closer to customers and empower employees. However, to ensure a performance doesn’t suffer because of these wider spans, organizations have been investing heavily in employees training. Managers recognize that they can handle a wider span when employees know the jobs inside and out or can turn to their coworkers when they have questions.

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