Broader spans of control pushing out specialists


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The shift towards generalist skills in the public service in recent years may have had some negative impacts.

The increasing expectation that one must become a manager to remain in the senior ranks has undermined specialist knowledge in the Australian Public Service, according to public sector human resources experts.

“The risk is we waste a lot of money on people who don’t know what they’re doing, just as a sheer business case.”

The push to broaden spans of control, which started with gusto about five years ago, has led to specialists leaving the public service, says HR consultant Tanya Hammond.

In an effort to make organisational structures more “efficient”, people who were employed as specialists have increasingly been told they need to be in charge of other staff in recent years. This inevitably means some people unsuited to managing others have ended up in management positions — to the detriment of both their subordinates and themselves.

“There have been some unintended consequences,” Hammond tells The Mandarin. “People leaving who’ve said ‘I just can’t manage staff, I’ll go somewhere else where I don’t have to manage staff’.”

A similar problem has been identified in the United Kingdom. This has led to a change of tack, with the British Minister for the Cabinet Office recently announcing: “We want to stop the absurd reality that to get a promotion you have to move. It prevents people getting deep experience and staying put to see a job through, and encourages people to flit from one job to another.”

Training is key

The problem has been exacerbated by a lack of focus on training staff in management skills.

“It’s a bit of a generalisation, but specialists don’t always have great people management skills, often they have to learn them. But we expect they’ve more or less morphed into a people person, they’ve learned it by osmosis,” Hammond explains.

Hammond, whose PhD focuses on the development of effective HR practitioners in the APS, points to a lack of time as the main culprit behind the failure to develop management skills. “In conversations I’ve had what I hear is that training is available, but because everyone’s trying to do more with less, they’re not getting to it,” she says.

“The overwhelming response is ‘I don’t have time to continue my development because I’m running around in circles to get everything else done’.”

Hammond’s passion is promoting the professionalisation of human resources as a distinct and valuable career path. “I’m tired of people putting up a shingle and claiming to be in HR,” she says. “We need both generalists and specialists in HR — but you have to be in HR to begin with. There are 40 fields of research underpin that one field.”

This is one area where it’s possible to see the detrimental effects of the over-reliance on generalists. There are too many people in public service HR without formal training in the discipline, which she believes has serious knock on effects for the APS workforce. The lack of HR experts gives rise to what she calls “unconscious incompetence” — people being trained to be as incompetent as the person who taught them.

“If we get people who are properly trained in there, it could solve some of the problems. I really would challenge you that we wouldn’t have half the people issues that we do,” she argues. “The risk is we waste a lot of money on people who don’t know what they’re doing, just as a sheer business case. That’s a really big issue when you try and do more with less.”

Fewer competent employees means more rules are needed, which “makes it almost impossible to innovate, to respond to current events,” she says.

The Unlocking potential report, which followed a workforce management review and was published in May, found the APS lacks capability in strategic HR functions and set out how the public service can redesign its human resources capability. The review and its actions have been endorsed by the Secretaries Board.

The war on short spans of control

The zeal for increasing spans of control started around five years ago with a Boston Consulting Group report, which developed “best practice” targets for spans of control, and was given a boost with the 2013 National Commission of Audit, which argued wider spans of control “can reduce duplication and improve operations which can ultimately drive improvements in organisational performance”.

The NCoA found spans of control at EL2 level for specialist and policy and research roles ranged from two to 12 people; at EL1 the range was one to 10.

The APS framework for optimal management structures lists the benchmark number of reports for a specialist policy position as three to seven.

“In a lot of the organisations you could get to EL2 without having to be a generalist or manager,” says Professor Deborah Blackman of the School of Business at UNSW, Canberra. But this is becoming less common, and in the past few years many specialist career paths have broken down in policy areas from tax to geosciences.

Blackman says she “wouldn’t be surprised” if that were ultimately reversed, however.

The problem is that by pushing specialists into generalist roles, you’re paying someone who is really skilled at doing one particular thing to do a different job.

“There was a time when hospitals were run by surgeons and doctors. It’s ridiculous because they spent all this time learning how to do something and then get them to do something else,” she argues. “It wasn’t an efficient use of their time. It’s now accepted you have people who manage, they’re specialists in managing health.”

It would help if “generalist” skills were seen as a distinct skillset. “If you’re a generalist, does that mean you’re not very good at what you do? No, managing people is a specialism.”

More support is needed for people progressing into management positions, at any rate.

“I can say quite comfortably that there is concern about the capabilities about actually being able to manage at the middle management level of organisations. If you talk to those people, they say their job does change at a certain point, whether they’re generalists or specialists, and they’re not given enough support for that,” she notes.

“There is an assumption people learn from experience, which they may or may not do.”

Are we even having the right debate?

The discussion about generalists versus specialists somewhat misses the point, in Blackman’s view.

Questions about who is a specialist and how broad their span of control should be can obscure more important questions. She wants to see government putting more resources into strategic workforce planning.

“There’s not enough focus on what the organisation really needs, and too much focus on individuals. Are agencies really looking at their workforces and asking what are the skills we’re going to need in the future?” she asks.

“The whole generalists versus specialists debate should become almost irrelevant. It should be: ‘we need these specialist skills, so tick, we’ll get those, but we’ll need these generalist skills’.”

Read more at The Mandarin: The days of an HR leader being a people person with soft skills have long passed.

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