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Span of Control

Smita Pandit

The term 'span of control' refers to the number of subordinates under one superior or manager in a hierarchy. Read on to know more.
Span of control, which is also referred to as span of management, is an integral part of modern management theory and principles. It is a very important concept of human resource management. It is defined as the number of people a manager can supervise effectively. It could either be narrow or wide.

The Concept

A narrow span means that a manager or supervisor has fewer employees under his supervision. A wider span means that a single manager has many employees under his supervision.
For example, a manager having twenty subordinates under him in the organizational hierarchy would have a wider span as opposed to a manager who has ten subordinates under him.
In case of a wide span with well-established operating procedures, fewer problems are expected in running the concern. When a single manager has many subordinates reporting directly to him/her, it gives rise to a flat organizational structure.
There is an inverse relationship between the organizational structure and the number of employees that would directly report to a single manager. If in a company, a manager has fewer employees under his/her supervision, the number of levels in the organization will be greater.
You could also say that the company will have a tall organizational structure. A narrower span could also indicate that the employees are self-motivated, experienced, and need very little supervision due to their high capacity to deliver.
It could also indicate that work is extremely repetitive in nature and employees have developed a proficiency in the same. Narrower spans could also aid in more effective management as managers would have lesser subordinates under them, thereby enhancing managerial quality.
Narrower spans could also indicate that the workers and management are physically located at distances from each other. It is also required when workers need greater supervision and new challenges arise frequently.

Factors Affecting Span of Management

This concept is based on an understanding of the chain of command in an organization. The chain of command refers to the line along which orders are passed down in an organization.
Reports of the implementation of the orders makes its way up the same line. This aids in ensuring clear cut lines of communication within the organization. This enhances inter and intra team coordination by removing any ambiguities.
The subordinates and superiors know which department they belong to, what is expected of them, and whom do they report to. This clarity aids in greater motivation and enhanced employee performance.
The number of subordinates under a superior in an organization depends on the type or the size of organization and the capability of the managers therein.
A tall organization usually has lesser number of subordinates under a supervisor when compared to a flat organization. A tall structure could have more managers at the top. This results in too much time taken in the flow of communication within the organization. This could increase the organization's response time to situations and could prove costly.
On the other hand, a wider organizational structure and span of management results in the quicker movement of messages. The number of managers is less and this saves on cost.

Ideal Scenario

For a significant period of time, management theorists and practitioners have debated and discussed on this concept with reference to the ideal scenario regarding the number of subordinates under the supervision of a manager.
Well, this would depend on several factors such as the nature of the organization, skills of managers and employees, and the quality of interaction that takes place between them.
There is a need to understand what should constitute an ideal number of subordinates under a superior, but this may not be determined that easily, as it is dependent on a number of variables.
A complex external operating environment characterized by unpredictability may demand a wider span. The concepts of centralization and decentralization too have an impact on the number of subordinates under a manager.
Centralization may indicate a situation where many subordinates report to a single manager, with very little leeway being given to subordinates.
Decentralization would indicate the opposite. It is also dependent on the personality of the manager. A manager who enjoys delegating could indicate a desire towards a narrower span of control.
So, the aforementioned factors influence and determine the number of employees that would be under the supervision of a manager or a supervisor. The span of management continues to be a key theoretical and practical concept in management even after several centuries since its inception.