From my experience, an optimal span of control is seven sub-ordinates. At lower levels of the organization, however, where there is less interlocking, or where responsibility is concerned more with the performance of specific tasks, the span of control may be larger. It varies widely in different organizations from three to twenty.
A number factors influence the limit of span of control and these include:
- Technology (Cell phones, email, and other forms of technology that facilitate communication and the exchange of information make it possible for managers to increase their spans of management over managers who do not have access to or who are unable to use the technology)
- organization level
- job complexity (Subordinate jobs that are complex, ambiguous, dynamic or otherwise complicated will likely require more management involvement and a narrower span of management).
- job similarity (The more similar and routine the tasks that subordinates are performing, the easier it is for a manager to supervise employees and the wider the span of management that will likely be effective.)
- supervisory specialities
- measure of overall organization effectiveness
- the nature of the organisation
- the ability and personal qualities of the manager including the capacity to cope with interruptions (Some managers are better organized, better at explaining things to subordinates, and more efficient in performing their jobs. Such managers can function effectively with a wider span of management than a less skilled manager)
- the amount of time the manager has available from other activities to spend with subordinates
- the ability and training of subordinate staff (Managers who supervise employees that lack ability, motivation, or confidence will have to spend more time with each employee. The result will be that the manager cannot supervise as many employees and would be most effective with a narrower span of management)
- the effectiveness of co-ordination and the nature of communication and control systems
- the physical location or geographical spread of subordinates (The more geographically dispersed a group of subordinates the more difficult it is for a manager to be in regular contact with them and the fewer employees a manager could reasonably oversee, resulting in a narrower span of management)
- the length of the scalar chain
If the span of control is too wide, it becomes difficult to supervise subordinates effectively and this places stress on the manager. With larger groupings, informal leaders and sub-groups or cliques are more likely to develop, and these may operate contrary to the policy of management. There may be lack of time to carry out all activities properly. Planning and development, training, inspection and control may suffer in particular, leading to poor job performance. A wide span of control may limit opportunities for promotion. Too wide a span of control may also result in a slowness to adapt to change or to the introduction of new methods or procedures.
If the span of control is too narrow, this may present a problem of co-ordination and consistency in decision-making, and hinder effective communications across the organisation structure. Morale and initiative of subordinates may suffer as a result of too close a level of supervision. Narrow spans of control increase administrative costs and can prevent the best use being made of the limited resource of managerial talent. They can lead to additional levels of authority in the organisation creating an unnecessarily long scalar chain.
Downsizing, in which firms attempt to cut costs by eliminating positions, has become popular among major corporations in recent years. This strategy has had an impact on decentralization and span of control. Employees who used to report to managers whose positions were eliminated have been assigned additional responsibilities. Span of control has become wider in downsized companies, and workers have become less specialized as they have taken on additional duties.