A Comprehensive Guide to Span of Control and Organizational Structure

December 2, 2015

7:54 PM

By OrgChart Team


A Comprehensive Guide to Span of Control and Organizational Structure

What Is Span of Control?

The term “span of control” plays a pivotal role in organizational structure. This crucial concept refers to the number of subordinates that fall directly under the purview of a manager. For instance, a supervisor with five team members under her charge has a span of control of five. This metric becomes particularly significant when viewed in the entire organization, enabling informed decisions about whether managers oversee an optimal number of direct reports.

Org Chart Average Span of Control Metrics

Expanding the Concept of Span of Control: Understanding Its Role in Organizational Structure

To truly comprehend the span of control, we must delve deeper and see how it fits into the overall organizational structure. You can describe the framework of an organization in terms of its width and height. The width refers to the span of control, with organizations having many direct reports being termed ‘wide’ and those with fewer being ‘narrow.’ Height indicates the number of managerial levels (sometimes called layers), with ‘tall’ organizations having numerous levels and ‘flat’ ones having fewer.

These descriptors are not value judgments; instead, they indicate different resource allocation and management strategies. You must choose strategically between a flat or tall structure to align with the organization’s objectives, the nature of the work, and the workforce’s capabilities. With OrgChart, leaders can visualize their organization’s structure, making it easier to understand the span of control and make informed decisions for structural adjustments.

Regardless of the structure, each has its unique advantages and challenges. The key is that the structure should align with the business’s needs, customer expectations, and workforce capabilities.

Determining the Optimal Span of Control: How Many Direct Reports Should a Manager Have?

When determining the ideal span of control, there isn’t a universal number that fits all scenarios. Various factors come into play, including the nature of subordinates’ work and the degree of oversight each role necessitates. To illustrate, in a high-volume setting like a call center, the span of control could easily exceed 100. In contrast, executive roles that demand high levels of collaboration and interaction often operate effectively with a span of control limited to three or four. Therefore, the nature of work and the level of supervision required govern the ideal span of control, and this can’t be generalized across industries.

Narrow Span of Control: The Case of an Executive Team Structure

In an executive team structure, the span of control is typically narrower. These teams often deal with complex tasks that require high levels of collaboration, strategic decision-making, and intricate problem-solving. Consequently, a manager or executive in this setting may only have three or four direct reports to ensure that each receives attention, guidance, and support. This narrow span of control fosters a dynamic that encourages closer working relationships, greater oversight, and more personalized mentoring. With OrgChart, visualizing this narrow span of control becomes intuitive, allowing for effective management and potential adjustments to optimize workflow and productivity.

Executive Team Narrow Span of Control

Wide Span of Control: A Snapshot of a Call Center Organization

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a call center organization exemplifies a wide span of control. In this setting, a manager may oversee over 100 employees, each performing relatively standardized tasks requiring less individualized supervision. The wide span of control in this context allows for efficient operations and cost-effectiveness due to the minimized need for managerial resources. However, the challenge lies in maintaining clear communication and engagement across a large team. OrgChart facilitates understanding such wide spans of control, helping organizations balance efficiency with employee engagement for optimal performance.

High Span of Control

Tall vs. Flat Organizational Structures: A Comparative Study

Characteristics of Flat Organizational Structures (Wide Span of Control)

Benefits of Wide Span of Control

  • Encourages Delegation: With many subordinates to manage, supervisors in flat organizations need to delegate tasks effectively. This approach not only eases the managerial workload but also allows employees to take on responsibilities and work autonomously.
  • Fosters Agility: Flat structures tend to improve communication speed and quality throughout the organization. Fewer hierarchical levels mean less time for information and knowledge to travel, promoting swift decision‑making.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Flat organizations are typically more cost-effective due to fewer managerial levels, leading to leaner overheads.
  • Boosts Engagement: With a focus on empowerment, autonomy, and self-direction, flat structures can help prevent disengagement among the workforce.

Pitfalls of Wide Span of Control

  • High Managerial Workload: Managing many direct reports can be daunting and stressful, leading to a heavy workload for managers.
  • Potential for Role Confusion: Less management may result in a lack of guidance, causing potential role confusion among team members.
  • Trust Issues: With limited access to managers, trust can be challenging to build and maintain, leading to potential employee morale and engagement issues.

Characteristics of Tall Organizational Structures (Narrow Span of Control)

Benefits of Narrow Span of Control

  • Rapid Communication: Within small teams, communication can be swift and practical, ensuring everyone stays on the same page.
  • Manageable Groups: Supervising a smaller group of employees can be more accessible, allowing for more direct and personalized management.
  • Specialization and Division of Labor: Tall structures facilitate a degree of specialization, enabling a clear division of labor. This often leads to efficiency and mastery in specific areas.
  • Promotion Opportunities: Due to the numerous managerial levels, tall structures tend to provide more and better opportunities for employee advancement.

Pitfalls of Narrow Span of Control

  • Communication Delays: With many levels to traverse, communication can sometimes be time-consuming, potentially hampering quick decision‑making.
  • Risk of Silos: There’s a risk of creating silos where cross-functional collaboration and problem-solving are restricted.
  • Employee Disengagement: Employees may feel overlooked or insignificant due to the sheer number of hierarchical levels, which can lead to disengagement.

In Conclusion: Balancing Span of Control and Organizational Structure

Balancing Span of Control and Organizational Structure

As demonstrated, the structure of an organization significantly influences the span of control assigned to managers. The choice between a ‘tall’ or ‘flat’ structure should depend on the business’s nature, the customers it serves, and the workforce’s unique capabilities.

While each structure has strengths and weaknesses, visualizing and understanding your organizational structure becomes much easier with the right tool. OrgChart simplifies this process, offering a comprehensive, automated solution to model your organization.

OrgChart’s powerful visualization capabilities provide a clear picture of the span of control across your organization, enabling you to make informed decisions about resource allocation and management structures. Whether you’re dealing with a broad span of control in a flat organization or a narrow span of control in a tall one, OrgChart can help you optimize your structure for maximum efficiency.

Ready to take the leap and optimize your organization’s span of control? Start a free trial with OrgChart today, or schedule a demo with our experts to learn more. Let OrgChart guide you in creating an efficient, agile, and effective organization optimized for success in today’s competitive business environment. Request a demo today!