Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Oh Local Management, where art thou?

Who needs local management?

Globalisation of our economies, and in particular of many of the companies making up these economies, is having a major impact on the way people engage with their work. And where undoubtedly this can have a positive bearing on some  (i.e. in terms of possible opportunities for development, growth – or indeed the mere survival - of the companies concerned), other elements are likely to have a much less favourable influence on the day-to-day working lives of the employees within (parts of) these companies. The obvious one being security and certainty; we don’t need to search very long to find examples of large, often global, organisations deciding to close, or sell off, parts of their operations, seemingly, at the stroke of a pen. You may be working for a highly successful operation one day, with this same unit being ‘surplus to requirements’ the next.

Another consequence of the increasingly global nature of the organisations we work for is that management structures often span different geographies, meaning that the person you report to is less and less likely to be occupying a desk near you, often not even in the same location. For many he or she may actually be based in a different country, or worse, time zone! And if that isn’t the case for you, it quite likely is for your boss. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does require a different approach to factors such as teamwork, communication, performance management, and learning and development.

And it has a major side-effect: increasingly, people work in locations where there is no formal type of ‘local’ management structure in place. Where their location, factory or office may, at some stage in the past, have been an almost independently operating unit, with all the managerial structures you would expect, the situation today is likely to be very different. Take-overs, mergers, de-mergers, restructurings, ‘realignments’, downsizing, and whatever other organisational development we can think of, is likely to have led, for many, to working in a local unit of a company increasingly managed from afar.

In many locations, offices, factories and warehouses belonging to large organisations, the concept of a ‘local management team’ is fast disappearing. There will still be people in managerial roles, some may even be quite senior, but the structure of the unit may be such that the various ‘sub-structures’ (think teams, departments, shifts, etc.) are all being run from outside the site, with a large likelihood even that department A ultimately reports to someone based in one location, with department B led from a totally different office, maybe even from a different country. As a result, the notion of a local team or group of individuals being ‘in charge’ of that specific location may have disappeared over the years.

It is this development I would like to put up for debate: is ‘doing away’ with a formal local or ‘site’ management structure simply something we have to get used to, or are there good (enough) reasons to consider some sort of replacement. When I am involved with reporting organisational engagement survey findings, more often than not these organisations will still measure ‘local’, yet without anyone to hand these findings to, as there is no longer a structure facilitating this. Yet, these same survey results often highlight that the site/unit/location has a very distinct culture, with all its associated local issues and challenges. It often actually suggests that as far as employees are concerned, not having this local structure in place is seen as a rather regrettable void.

And this is just one example where some sort of local managerial structure would be helpful. Communication, recruitment, building management and facilities, general housekeeping matters, CSR, local PR and dealing with various day-to-day issues are just a small selection where a local group of employees would very likely benefit from some sort of formalised guidance based in the same location. Or indeed the opportunity for senior management of the organisation to have some eyes and ears on the ground other than the hearsay from individual managers they may currently rely upon.

Putting something like this (back) in place doesn’t have to be a complicated matter, nor would it necessarily lead to an added layer of management and / or bureaucracy. Assuming the unit concerned is of a reasonable size, there is likely to be some form of informal hierarchy already, as will there possibly be people on site with roles that would typically lend themselves to be included in some sort of formalised ‘management’ structure. This is likely to involve HR, but may also benefit from involvement by functions such as Facilities, Communication and Finance. I purposely put the word management in inverted commas, as it may well be beneficial to, when naming such a structure, use different wording. Given its main roles are that of communication and representation, and that it will be of a more consultative rather than decision-making nature, calling it something like the ‘Communication Team’ may well be preferred.

Knowing that most organisations where this is a live scenario will have multiple sites / locations where this applies, running a pilot in one or two of these would be an easy way to test whether working this way is actually beneficial, or whether, for them, the notion of ‘local management’ can be assigned to the organisational scrapheap for ever.

Ruud Jansen Venneboer
Managing Partner
Think the Unthinkable
Making Change Happen

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