Organizations, bandwidth and social networking

I have read that the human bandwidth for communicating with and perceiving the outer world that is 10- 11 Megabits per second, most of it visual. We are not conscious of most of this information flow. Consciously, we can handle 30 to 40 bits per second. This of course has implications on how we manage and structure organisations. Let’s assume that we are looking at a first-line manager with 10 subordinates. They totally absorb 10 by 10 Mbit = 100 Mbits per second. With the manager only being able to consciously manage 30-40 of those bits, there is a huge overflow.

This completely overthrows the concept of the manager being able to see and hear everything and take informed decisions. It means that the manager cannot micromanage as that reduces the capability of the organisation to the communication bandwidth of the manager, i.e. nothing gets done, which is what we often hear about micromanaged organizations.

So what can we do about it?

  • Allowing employee discretion.
  • Context setting and information chunking.

Employees need to be allowed to use their discretion in taking decisions. Their bandwidth is closest to the point of need of the decision-making. But they need to see not only the local context but also the overall company context. That means that the manager needs to spend most of his/her bandwidth to set context and understand the situation around the employees, guiding them in their decision-making.

If employees absorb 10 Mb per second the possibilities are immense for them to overflow the bandwidth of the manager by telling him/her absolutely everything. Many managers fall for this and become micromanaged by their employees. Employees overfeeding info and demanding desicions become like Denial of Service attacks, where web servers get blocked by overwhelming traffic. However managers and subordinates need to communicate and discuss what is important. The manager cannot only be fed aggregates and what is thought to be significant deviations. There can be weak patterns that not one single employee can see – it is found in the context of several employees.

In some organizations I have seen higher managers that are like albatrosses gliding over the ocean, believing that from up there they can see the big picture. But like albatrosses they can spot a significant bit down in the water. Suddenly they swoop down and catch the fish that broke the waves. Great eyesight, but not the big picture. Sometimes higher managers dive into something that they just spotted, that everybody else thought they had talked about in strategy or budget sessions, a project is terminated suddenly, and people learn to avoid being conspicuous.

Elliott Jaques talked about information chunking. How are relevant bits of information ”fed” to the manager. The employee knows a lot more than what managers may see a self-evident. Managers at different levels and employees need to talk about what is important and patterning, so that information can be fed upwards in significant chunks.

I recently read ”Freedom from Command and Control”. Seddon gives an example from call centres were managers focus on number of calls, call time and call forwarding calls per hour but completely miss the fact that 47% of all calls were avoidable as they were prompted by sloppy routines elsewhere. All those who took he calls knew, but not the managers as they were busy ”manageing”. Clearly an example of a severe lack of communication between managers and employees.

We consultants often play games. The one I am thinking of usually has a poker-related name. There are three managers and 8 employees in a formal hierarchy. Only written communication along organizational lines is permitted. Everybody has got four playing cards and may swap them along lines. Only the top manager knows the objective, but does not know that nobody else does not know. People start swapping cards making assumptions based on the poker name. Notes fly all over the place. Eventually the top manager realizes the problem and starts organizing.

The middle managers are overwhelmed by communicating. At the debriefing the middle managers table are cluttered by mostly irrelevant notes from understimulated subordinates. In fact the ”chatter” is so overwhelming that the real clues as to what is going on gets hidden. Usually the task is solved by command and control. I have done experiments where I do not distribute the cars randomly but in such a way that a few cards need to pass through the top manager so that most of the solution could be delegated. It would be interesting to consider what would happen in social networking was allowed i.e. employees were allowed to talk with each other.

Social networking is how stuff really gets done in an organisation. A manager can still be held accountable for the results of the unit, while not micromanaging but creating the circumstances for the employees to a sort out and resolve the situations at hand.

I sometimes wonder if matrix organisations are a way of imposing structure on something which is better left informal. I often find that matrix structures create dual and competing command and control structures that in the end are incapable of taking requisite decisions and action. The tiny available bandwidth gets completely filled up by coordinational demands.

The only way to be ”in control” is to be ”out of control”.

Ett svar på ”Organizations, bandwidth and social networking”

  1. Paul,

    I hadn’t heard the bandwidth statistics before. That’s really interesting.

    I think one of the reasons managers are leery about allowing employee discretion is because they do not understand the role, and then they can’t understand the cognitive requirements, and then they cannot hire well. If they mis-hire (too low capability), then they have every reason not to be comfortable giving discretion because the employee will not be able to deliver the requirements of the role.

    Having said that, even when properly matched to their roles, employees cannot use their discretion without proper context so this is truly a partner piece.

    A manager’s not providing context can be due to ignorance or laziness, but it can also be that they are providing context, just not at the right level! When the manager is incapable of his role, the context he is able to provide to his direct reports (who are equally capable) will not feel like ”big picture” context to the employees.

    Nice post.

    Michelle

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