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Span of Control in Management: Definition, Disadvantages & Advantages

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Carol Woods

Carol has taught college Finance, Accounting, Management and Business courses and has a MBA in Finance.

Span of control in management has implications for work flow, communications, and opportunities for promotion in a company. Read on to learn what it is, and how it impacts a company's results.

We also recommend watching Span of Control and Unity of Command: Definition & Examples and Controlling as a Function of Management

What is Span of Control?

Span of control is simply the number of staff that report to a manager. Some companies also have an ideal span of control, which is the number of reports they feel a manager can effectively manage. In this case, if a manager has fewer reports than the ideal, they may feel he or she is not being effectively used, while handling more they may feel that the manager is over-stretched and the reports will not receive enough direction.

What are the Implications of Span of Control?

Span of control of the average manager in an organization determines the width of the organization, as seen when viewing the organizational chart. Fewer reports to the average manager will result in a taller organizational chart, with more management positions relative to the number of individual contributors. A higher number of reports to the average manager will result in a flatter or wider chart, with fewer management positions relative to the number of individual contributors.

The average span of control will also impact the company's time to make decisions and cost structure.

Higher average span of control means fewer layers of management within the organization, and a relatively flatter organizational structure. This can lead to:

  • Faster decision-making due to fewer levels of approvals required for a specific decision, which allows the company to respond more quickly to business issues.
  • Better and more frequent communication between higher-level managers and staffers, so the staff is more knowledgeable about company goals and the higher-level managers are more knowledgeable about daily operational issues faced by staff.
  • Reduced costs relative to taller organization, since there are fewer management layers needing compensation.

Lower average span of control means relatively more layers of management within the organization, and a relatively taller organizational structure. This can lead to:

  • Fewer opportunities for promotions, since there are fewer management positions in the company.
  • The concern that manager input will be relatively harder for staffers to obtain, and managers will have less time to focus on specific decisions. Employees will need to be relatively more self-motivated and independent in their work style due to having less manager input.
  • Important strategic decisions by the company will have relatively less time spent on them, due to the reduced time available to focus on individual decisions. This can lead to less-than-optimal responses to business opportunities and threats.

What is the Optimal Span of Control?

The consensus on optimal span of control changes as thinking on organizational structure changes.

In the early part of the 20th century, optimal structures were based on a military model, and the ideal span of control was considered to be 6.

Later in the 20th century, flatter organizational structures became more common, and the ideal span of control rose to between 15 and 25, with a corresponding ideal of not more than 5 management layers in the organization - to speed up decision-making.

The most current thinking states that span of control needs to be determined by the type of work done by the group: managers with more experienced and independent staff can manage more of them effectively than the manager with relatively inexperienced workers who need more training and direction.

Summary

Span of control is the number of staff members that report to a manager. A higher number of reports per manager results in a flatter organizational structure and fewer opportunities for promotion. A lower number of reports per manager results in a taller organizational structure, and more management direction and input. The optimal span of control is generally based on the experience level of the people being managed.

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