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The Silent Crisis – too many administrators and not enough managers

by Mark P. McDonald  |  June 1, 2012  |  5 Comments

Organizations face a silent crisis, one that they may not easily recognize but sense deep within their operations.  This is a unique type of crisis driven by the absence rather than the presence of a threat.  In this case, the crisis is management.  Not in the sense that organizations have too many managers, but the observation that they do not have enough ‘real’ managers doing management.

Too many managers are not managing.

They are administrating.

Administrating in the sense that they see their responsibilities, value and future in executing prescriptive, defined and ‘optimized’ processes with the goal of eliminating variance and enhancing compliance levels.  Just look at much of the work of day-to-day managers: budget meetings, reporting, coordination meetings, issues meetings, progress reports, routine job evaluations, etc.  This is all work focused on administering a predefined plan or a process not in creating value or results beyond having things ‘run smoothly and according to the plan.’

Administration ≠  management

Administration is important and necessary, but when management becomes dominated by administration we undercut the value, status and importance of true management.  We turn true managers from a source of enterprise adaptability, experience and energy into a cadre of clerks that we despise.  Most young people do not aspire to be managers as they see the work as old fashioned, demeaning and not interesting.   I think that they do not aspire to be administrators, and if you described the work of a management accurately they would say that’s for me.

The work of management, I believe, is inherently contextual, semi-structured, filled with gray areas and the need for judgment.  Managers create effective organizations.  They are the professionals who create adaptability based on recognizing and responding to factors that do not fit the plan.  Administrators work that plan.

Adding administrator as a formal title.

One of the reasons why so many ‘managers’ are actually administrators is that we call everyone a manager.  The term has become so overused that manager has lost most of its meaning.  We need to recognize that there are people who manage and people who administer and start to call them by their proper names.

I believe that perhaps 80% of people who currently called managers can be renamed administrators.

Here are a few ideas for identifying administrators:

  • If success is defined by conformance to plan or process, then you are probably an administrator.
  • If your primary means of communication is email and formal reports, then you are probably an administrator.
  • If your responsibilities revolve around managing a thing – like a database, customer list, budget, finance, a policy, product design, etc.; then you are probably an administrator.
  • If managing people who report to you concentrate on inspecting and assuring the quality of their work, then you are probably an administrator.
  • If solving a problem means passing it up to the next level, then you are probably an administrator.
  • If change the processes, procedures and rules that govern your activities is not within your authority, then you are probably an administrator.

I am sure you can come up with other conditions and I would welcome your contributions.   Applying these statements means that many of the people we call ‘managers’ are actually administrators – including people fairly high up in the organizational hierarchy.

But you can see a pattern here  — administrators are tied to predefined, predetermined and predictable processes, patterns and roles.  They are not asked nor expected to deviate from these structures.

Compliance is king and clearly different from the type of unstructured, contextually heavy and adaptive work required of managers.

Calling someone a manager does not make him or her a manager

Separating management from administration would be a start.  It would help recognize the amount of administrative work that actually exists in our organizations and highlight the dearth of actual managers in the organization.

Recognizing administration lets us accurately measure its contribution, role and criticality in operations rather than muddling it with management or even leadership.

So lets be clear:

  • Organizations are efficient when administrators do a good job of administering.
  • Organizations are effective and adaptive when managers are able to do the work of management.
  • Organizations are transformational when leaders work with managers and administrators who have the capability, capacity and confidence to execute their plans.

You need all three in the right amounts.  But that is the subject for another blog post.

Recognizing that you probably have too many ‘managers’ who are really administrators is one step in giving a voice to the silent crisis that is building whenever the creative, collaborative, contextually heavy work of management becomes tied down, folded into and consolidated into working a predefined plan.

When that happens the accumulation of meetings, plans, reports, status and issues takes over the agenda and crowdsout the work required to drive human achievement.  That is work of management and ultimately the work of leadership as well.

Related Posts:

The Silent Crisis – management 

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Category: leadership  management  

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Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on The Silent Crisis – too many administrators and not enough managers

  1. […] Gartner has its own Gandalf in Mark P. McDonald and he thinks that a CIO’s main problem is too few managers and too many administrators. […]

  2. Thanks Mark for calling out this issue. It may or may not point to a lack of real managers: who can tell when everyone is called one? We need to resist this terminological debasement, this job title inflation, before – as you say – words cease to have useful meaning.

    My satirical book Introduction to Real ITSM said
    Now that “management” has come to mean anything that people do, and “governance” is used to mean what “management” was supposed to, this raises the small problem of what to call Real ITSM governance. So Real ITSM refers to reigning and sovereignty instead. There will be an issue when the King takes out the garbage, and managers are known as “gods”. What is next?

  3. Same applies to the field of Project Management. Project Administrator or Associate title does not look sexy enough thus many organisations contribute to the title inflation by calling everyone Project Manager.

    At least IPMA 4 Level certification makes some difference:
    IPMA Level A® (Certified Projects Director)
    IPMA Level B® (Certified Senior Project Manager)
    IPMA Level C® (Certified Project Manager)
    IPMA Level D® (Certified Project Management Associate)

  4. Paul Kaerger says:

    I did enjoy this post. It does provide some interesting elements for debate. As you can guess, I’m not sure I agree with some of the conclusions.

    I would suggest that everyone’s role contains degrees of leadership, management and administration. As your career advances, that proportion changes. So it isn’t a case of calling people different job titles, more a case of recognising the ratios of those three elements in a job content.

    What I think happens, is that we overload our staff with too much administration. So maybe the conclusion is that we need to free up managers from doing all this lower value administrative work to give them time and freedom make the key decisions, to make changes and to be flexible enough to deal with uncertainty.

    One example of how this admin creep happens. Many businesses have now rationalised their large HR department into HR Business Managers. These businesses have done this by pushing the burden of HR admin onto the managers in order to make cost savings.

  5. Mark P. McDonald says:

    Paul, thanks for your comments.

    You recognized a central part of this series of posts in the fact that people who separate management from leadership and treat them differently you create an artificial distinction as both are required for success.

    I agree with your observation that staff has been overloaded with Administrative tasks and therefore managers to manage that administrative tasks. Employee self service is largely an administrative task given the way it is presented to employees, as we give them portals to fill out forms previously filled out by Admin clerks. However the central idea of giving associates greater control and participation in their work and how they are treated is a good thing. Unfortunately it is too often executed as an exercise in administration rather than self determination.

    Thanks for reading and commenting on the post.


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