Span of Control – Meaning, Definitions, Factors and Approaches (BBA/MBA Notes)

Span of Control

Meaning, Definitions, Factors and Approaches


Meaning of Span of Control

Span of control is also known as span of management or span of supervisor and span of authority. A manager cannot supervise the activities of the unlimited number of people. It is an important principle that states that there should be manageable number of subordinates under one superior. Knowing span of control is necessary because managers/executives have limited both time and ability. The span of control refers to the number of subordinates a manager can supervise effectively.


i. Span of management (or span of control) implies the number of subordinates a superior can manage (or control) effectively. It is a key determinant of complexity of manager’s job, the number of managers required, and the shape (or structure) of the organization.

ii. Span of control (or span of management) refers to the number of subordinates who can be effectively controlled (or managed) by a superior. It also denotes the number of subordinates who report to a superior.

iii. Span of control (or span of management) refers to the number of subordinates who directly report to the superior, or the number of subordinates that a superior can manage effectively.

Factors Determining Span of Management

Following factors determine a proper span of management:

i. Capacity of Superior

Capacity of a manager to manage, i.e., planning and decisionmaking, leading and motivating, communicating, controlling, etc., affects the span of management. Obviously, a manager with more managerial capacity can manage more subordinates in a given situation. In the same way, a manager’s attitudes and personality aspects do affect the span of management.

ii. Capacity of Subordinates

Efficient and trained subordinates discharge their functions efficiently without much help of their subordinates. They only need broad guidelines. In such a case, the span may be larger because a superior will be required to devote less time in managing them. Similarly, changes in subordinates make span narrower. If a superior is going to direct the work of his subordinates, he must know what the jobs are and how they are performed and must possess the information on the state of work in and around them. Consequently, the superior’s task is much simpler when his subordinates do similar and identical work, and his span would be wider. The rate of change in work also affects the span. It determines the degree to which policies can be formulated and stability of formulated policies maintained. Low rate of changes provides scope for wider span of management. The types of technology used also affect the span. For example, in mass production and assembly lines, span of management tends to be much wider as compared to unit or small batch production.

iii. Degree of Centralisation

Degree of centralisation (or decentralisation) affect the degree of the superior’s involvement in decision-making. The rule is: The higher the degree of decentralisation, the higher is the span of management, and vice versa. In a centralised working pattern, a superior is required to spare more time and energy as subordinates require frequent and considerable consultation, clarification, instruction, etc., and the span of management contracts.

iv. Degree of Planning

When subordinates perform the perfectly planned (or well-planned) activities, i.e.. rules, policies, procedures, methods, schedules, and so forth are decided clearly and completely, a superior’s task reduces considerably. As against non-planned activities, well-planned activities expand the span of control. When everything is clearly laid down, subordinates can carry out their assignments without a direct assistance of their superior, and, consequently, the superior can manage more subordinates.

v. Communication Techniques

As against a face-to-face personal communication, the use of staff assistance with electronic media (like phone, fax, e-mail, intercom, and so forth) can expand the span of control. Personal communication requires a superior to spare more time and it decreases the span of control.

vi. Use of Staff Assistance

Use of staff assistance in reducing the work-load of managers enables them to manage more number of subordinates. Many of the managerial functions can be discharged by these staff personnel on behalf of the managers. They can collect information, process communications, and issue orders and instruction on behalf of their superior. This process saves time of managers and the degree of span  can be increased.

vii. Supervision from others

Classical theory suggests that each person should have only one superior; however, the trend is changing and organizational members receive some sort of supervision form other managers in the organization, such as staff personnel. Where subordinate receive supervision form superiors other than their immediate superiors, span can be wider.

The analysis of various factors affecting span of management suggests that there cannot be any fixed number of subordinates under one superior. While deciding span, one must take into account all these factors in totality.

Approaches in determining ideal span of control

Some of the approaches in determining ideal span of control are given as follows:

Classical thinkers opine that an ideal span of control ranges from three to eight subordinates. However, the number of subordinates depends on the level of management, for example, at lower level management, span of control widens.

Hamilton’s thesis – the first known work on this topic is done by late General ir Hamilton. According to him, “Average human brain finds it effective scope in handling from three to six other brains. The nearer we approach the supreme head of the whole organisation, the more we ought to work towards groups of six.

Davis calls managerial (higher) span of control as executive span and lower level as operative span. Acccording to him, span of control is three to nine for  managerial level ans as many as thirty for operative span.

Urwick’s Span of control – Lyndall F. Urwick  suggests that span of control for top management may be gour, but for supervisory level it may be in between eight to twelve.

Graicuna’s Formula

V.A. Graicuna, a French Management Consultant developed one formula based on theoretical projection by mathematics to analyse superior-subordinate relationships. He has identified three types of superior-subordinate relationships:

1. Direct single relationship

Such relations arise from the direct individual contact of the superior with the subordinates. If there are three subordinates, there will be three direct single relationships.

2. Direct group relations

Such relations arise between the superior and subordinates in all possible combinations. If there are three subordinates, there will be nine possible combinations

3. Cross relationship

Such relations arise because of mutual interactions of subordinates under one superior. If there are three subordinates, there will be six relatonships.

Graicunas gave following formulas to find out the number of relationshis with n number of subordinates, which determine span of control.

Graicuna's Formula to calculate span of control

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