Opinion

Thought for the day: Have flat management structures gone flat?

Outsourcing and communications expert Martyn Hart looks at a hot issue of the day.There is an "older" person that I see regularly at a client of mine. Normally his main theme is that things have gone to the dogs, especially information management. He's a bit of a management guru, and his line is that we never ask why things were as they were.

Why, up to 20 years ago, did companies structure around hierarchies? Well, I always thought it was because communications were bad in the past. So to ensure that the local boss could run things like the big boss wanted he had to respond in a particular way, a management structure was invented where the orders are passed down, appropriately disseminated on the way.

But no, my senior colleague argues that it was to stop corruption! So if the man at the top was corrupt, then tough luck for all below, but given that he (or his court) would object to too much straying below, the checks and balances of a hierarchy would control things.

So how can this be? Surely I thought flat structures are the fashion in popular management theory overcoming bureaucracy, making faster decisions, allowing communication paths to be shorter, plus local innovation and a high involvement style of management.

But then doesn't this ring a few bells? Local innovation? That might be a problem if you operate a centralist policy. Fast decision-making? Act in haste, repent at leisure? Shorter communications paths, what do they allow, exactly? Frequent changes of mind?

And what about this corruption idea? Would a hierarchy enable more people to have a picture of what was truly happening and act as a brake on excesses in one area or another?

Despite the popular appeal of flat structures it seems that claims made on its behalf are largely unchallenged. So is this another example of trends and fashions that soon will prove to be unsustainable?

That's it exactly, according to my ancient management guru. Where management theory leads, information management follows.

So are you ready to revert to a true management hierarchy? Relieved?


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Martyn Hart is chairman of the National Outsourcing Association and practice director at Mantix, a consultancy that delivers value from complex programmes.

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This was first published in August 2002

 

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