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Administrative Theory

Administrative Theory

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Published by Abhijit Jadhav
Public administration IGNOU study material.
Public administration IGNOU study material.

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Published by: Abhijit Jadhav on Nov 06, 2010
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We have seen in the previous unit that a hierarchical system of organisation involves a
number of tiers or levels one above the others. The question is how many successive
tiers or levels should there be in an organisation? Each superior in a hierarchical set-up
is supposed to supervise the work of his subordinates. The answer to the question posed
above depends upon the the total number of employees at the lower level to be
effectively supervised by the superior officer. In other words, what is the span of
attention of a normal human being? In Public Administration, what is the span of
control of a superior officer i.e., how many subordinates can be effectively supervised
by him? We shall now try to understand and evaluate the implications of the theory and
practice of the principle of span of control in this unit.

As you have studied in Unit 22 (Hierarchy), hierarchy means control of the higher over
the lower. It is a graded organisation of several successive steps or levels headed by the
chief executive. Every employee obeys the orders of his superior and issues orders to
his subordinates. But how many subordinates can be efficiently and effectively
supervised by a superior officer? This is an important question which we shall try to
answer in this unit. Your knowledge and familiarity of this topic will also enable you to
understand the next Unit 24 (Unity of Command) where it is stressed that the
commands or orders should come from only one source. For each employee, there
should be-only one boss whose orders he is expected to obey. While span of control
limits the number of subordinates to be supervised by a superior officer, unity of
command restricts the number of superiors for each employee to only one to avoid
confusion and misunderstanding.




Literally, the word 'span' means distance between the tip of a person's thumb and the
little finger when stretched out, while the world 'control' means power or authority to
.direct, order or restrain. In Public Administration, span of control refers to the number
of subordinates whom an officer can effectively control. It also means the number of
subordinates an officer can direct. It may be also said, that the spa? of control means,
simply, he number of subordinates or the units of work that an ~dministrator can

-- a -

personally direct. In the works of Dimock, "'1'Ple: span of coaltrolis the number ofrshgk
of direct, habitual corv~nmunicaaiora contacts between the chicf executive of an enterprise
and his principal fellow-officers". This concept is related to the principle of 'Span of
Attention', described by V.A. Graicunas, in psychology.

Span of control is dependent upon .span of attention. None'of pascan attend $0 more
than a certain number of thiilngs at i,tjrne. ~i~r:lhilo~i~ks

hawe conducted many


in the field of'Attention' and have conaaeto else esnclonsispn that nolmmall8ya
person can att.eiad to only ;!'certain number ofthings at a time and not beyond a
particular limit. Since span sfcolatacsl in Public ,4&iministsation is related to span1 of
attention in psychology, it foliows rlaae there is a limit to the number of persons
which a srlperior officer can conatlrcrleffectiveiy. Tt is harmfall Y"3rthe organisiatiotl if the
n~urnber of subordinates to be sul~eavised by a siiperior officer is increased heyonmdthat


These are limits to klunnan capacity both physical anld mental. So, it is vaniversally
believed that no supervisor, however competent he'may beA can supervise the work of
urllimited number of persons. There is 11o agreement annsng the wlitkrs of Public
Administratiorn about the exact limit of tlac span ofcorltrol.~ii ]La?IBaariitrori put Fh6
limit at 3 to 4. Haldane and Grahart~. Wallace felt that a supervisor could supervise
10 to 22 subordinates. Urwia:!:drew a difference in regard to span of confrlol between
higher and lower levels. According to him. a sa.~picrvisor carknot aapervise directly more'
than5 to6 subordirlates at the higher level, whereas at rYneIswer levels, where the work
is simple and routine in'nature, the span ca$eontrol varies from 8 to 12. According to a
survey conducted by Wallace in 1957, the sppa of control of a chief executive differed'
from country to country. A chief executive in Japan llad 13 departments under him, in
Casada, Gern~any and Italy 14, in France 117,in Russia I!)or 20, in EGland 25 and in
U.S.A. about 60. Though the number was not uniform, nowhere did the adnlinistration

According to some writers, the span of.dontro~ in gove~.nmerrtai'or~~qnisatik


America is large becir~sse of the followink reasons (1) there: is n tendency towards a.
large nantnber of departtrrer~ts because the 'empire builder' type of depart~nent he&
wants to be answerable only to the chief executive or governing body, (2) each pressure
grolip desires its own pet administrative activity to be set up irs an indegenderat
depsrtrnerirI a17d (3) every Euracticsnal chief desires access to the seat uf authority without

, going thrmlgh inter-vening Izierarc8rical steps. ?be Hoover Comrr~issic~n

ina 11649critieised

the hugel span of co~~trol

exercised by the President of the United States. Thc


listed 65 departme~~ts

or agencies (exclzrcfing the independent
regraiatory commissions) falling within the span of control exercised by the President.

However, ihere has beer1 general agreenment among all the writers that the sliortcr tile
span, the greater will be the contact and cont;eqnently, morG effective control. On the
oiher hand, as Seckler.+Hudson says "There are dangers inherent in excessively 1irnitt:d
span of control, such as, rhc risk of detailed supervision ofthe few reporting, the

, resultant failure to stirnulate subordinrater; or to fully use the capacities of them. It is


possible also that stmi-t spans of control mean Is~g

chains of cominands". Hence, various

i writers have, by and large, felt that the span ofcontrol can] be between 3 l0 IS. Though
attempts have been made by the w;itcrs tu search for the 'ideal number' of persons a
supervisor can supervise, they !lave not succeeded itmdoing so because of many factors
which are discussed later.

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