Since the early days of industrialization, managers worried about the number of people and departments one could effectively handle. This question pertains to the span of management control (frequently shortened to span of management). The span of management control refers to the number of people and departments that report directly to a particular manager. Once work is divided, departments created, and the span of control chosen, managers can decide on a chain of command – a plan that specifies who reports to whom. These reporting liens are prominent features of any organization chart.

The result of these decisions is a pattern of multiple levels that is called a hierarchy. At the top of the organizational hierarchy is the senior ranking manager (or managers) responsible for the operations of the entire organization. These managers are commonly referred to as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), Presidents or Executive Directors, Other, lower-ranking mangers are located down the various levels of the organization.

Choosing an appropriate span of management control for an organizational hierarchy is important for two reasons. First the ‘span affect’ what happens to work relationships in one particular department. Too wide a span may mean that managers are overextended and employees are receiving too little guidance or control. When this happens, managers may be pressured to ignore or condone serious errors. And employees’ efforts can be stymied, too. In a department where a dozen or more employees are clamoring for their manager’s feedback there is potential for frustration as well as errors. Too narrow a span, in contrast, is inefficient because managers are underutilized.

Second, the span can affect the speed of decision making in situations where multiple levels in the organizational hierarchy are necessarily involved. Narrow spans of management create tall hierarchies with many levels between the highest and lowest managers. In these organizations, a long chain of command slows decision making a disadvantage in a rapidly changing environment. Wide spans, in contrast create flat hierarchies, with fewer management levels between top and bottom.

One of the most noticeable trends in recent years is a move toward flatter organizational hierarchies. This trend is called as part of the phenomenon known as downsizing. At Hewlett-Packard, Platt has reason not to operate with long chain of command. The competitive lineup in the computer and telecommunications industries are changing with amazing regularity. Platt and his managers cannot to take months on most decisions although some decisions are worth careful prolonged consideration.

Early in the twentieth century, various writers tried to determine the maximum number of people one manager could supervise, and many concluded that the universal maximum was six. Today the notion that a manager can control the efforts of only six people regardless of circumstances seems odd, but the earlier writers must be understood in the context of the historical circumstances in which they lived and worked. When large scale organizations were a new phenomenon, there were few precedents to follow.

A number of organizations, large and small, are moving to flatter structures. At Atmospheric Processing Inc. (API) CEO Gail Hering discovered that she could maximize the productivity and competitiveness of her company by flattening its organizational structure. At API, the pyramid structure worked against the flow of progress. During their heyday, doing the work was about the last thing on their managers’ minds, Hering remarked. They were too busy looking over everyone else’s shoulders and hiring more and more people to build their fiefdoms and give their own careers a boost. Customer service often took a back seat to internal politics. Hering therefore abandoned API’s traditional top down pyramid structure, which appeared to inhibit productivity. Changing the organizational structure reducing a workforce of 170 employees to 54 but it resulted in an organization geared toward customer service. API is now a flattened organization she asserted. No one’s productivity is constrained by the structure.