Robert Davis


Is it time to say good-bye to the chain of command?

Henri Fayol was a French mining engineer who published General and Industrial Management, one of the first theories of management, in 1916.  His work identified and explained 14 principles of management.

Among these 14 principles, better known examples are (1) division of work – people should specialize in their work so they can produce more with higher quality, (2) unity of direction – one person should only receive orders from one superior, and (3) scalar chain – which became known as the chain of command.

Chain of command defined the chain of superiors from the ultimate authority to the lowest ranks. This last principle, chain of command, and how it has been applied in business haunts our industry today.

The French army soon embraced Fayol’s principles of management to better manage troops. General Motors began to embrace Fayol’s principles in its management systems in the 1930s. GM was a large company, even then, and needed a structure to manage and control employees.

Over time, the notion of chain of command began to permeate corporate America. As people have left the military, to work in civilian jobs, they bring this mental framework with them to their places of employment.

However, what made sense for managing a large hierarchal, industrial era firm does not apply to today’s knowledge-based businesses.

The notion of chain of command has become an explicit or implicit element of most companies’ culture and management system. In the traditional company structure of yesteryear, this may have made some sense to manage the work of blue-collar workers. Management was there to lead; employees were there to obey orders.

Today, this antiquated view of management’s role, with wisdom flowing down from high, severely constrains a company’s competitiveness.

Work is no longer about specific work roles, an employee’s goals or what is best for a department. One indicator of this kind of thinking is hearing someone say, “That’s not my job”.

Work is about team-based roles, enterprise-wide functions, cross-functional goals, knowledge sharing, and the company’s objectives.

Today, our industry’s common program/project/task/activity work orientation reduces employees to being foot soldiers thereby having minimal opportunity to provide input to management’s decision making and business growth.

An employee may report to one person for administrative purposes but the employee works for the company. Every employee is a company-wide asset that can be leveraged well beyond their immediate task. It is management’s responsibility to identify and tap into this unrealized value. 

Today, employees are knowledge workers who must share knowledge and maintain their learning in order to continue to be relevant. The manner by which employees can perform these value creation processes extend well beyond the domain of one supervisor’s charge.

Management should be an enabler that allows employees to contribute more, remove internal obstacles to growth and maximize knowledge sharing across the organization.

Companies in our industry are struggling, for several reasons, while competing for fewer opportunities and contract awards. Management wants employees to be engaged, committed to growth, and demonstrating buy-in to the company’s success, so now is the time for management to embrace a new approach and cast aside industrial-era thinking.

About the Author

Robert Davis is a 35-year veteran of the government IT marketing and has held positions large and small firms in areas such as marketing and sales, program management, business development and market development. He is an expert in business development, marketing, and management.

Reader Comments

Mon, Apr 27, 2015 Frederick

Is it possible that the real issue is a lack of preparation and development of managers and supervisors to facilitate knowledge and communications? How does one operationalize this flattened hierarchy?

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 Cribbidge Washington

Maybe author will honor us with one or two examples. For example, what government contractor comes close to the posture he recommends; as a default, name one that is "well managed," in his opinion. Secondly, outside of the special (fantasy) world of govcon, name a Fortune 500 company that, in his view is well managed. Without some illustrations like this, one would tend to discount the ideas and dismiss them as just so much cogitating, which is what adds additional shelf-feet to the 40-year old bookcase of govt procurement improvement studies and policies.

Wed, Jan 22, 2014 Ken

The argument that a classical management structure may not be suitable for modern knowledge based companies only addresses a symptom of the true problem. Good, professional, and experienced managers will always be able to lead efficiently and effectively. The problem however is that many employees simply rise through the organization and are promoted not on merit, skills, or capabilities, but on their ability to "Please" their boss. Regardless of the organization structure, if the key employees or managers do not possess the necessary knowledge, experience, and decision making skills, then the organization is not going to prosper. If you remove the "Yes Men" your company has the opportunity to grow. Keep uninformed, non-participating leaders in charge and your will continue to struggle.

Thu, Jan 16, 2014 Scott Ackerson DC Metro

I like the concept of an inverted organization ... chief executive at the bottom supporting teams and individuals interacting with customers at the top. Managers still need to have authority to direct, hire and fire. But, managers had better be enablers not micro-managers. They had better realize that they cannot be the source of most knowledge useful to the organization. In more decentralized, flatter organizations, software/IT tools facilitate shared understanding of organizational goals, strategies, resources, responsibilities, accomplishments, etc.

Wed, Jan 15, 2014 Don O'Neill

It's time to get rid of the chain of command if you want to repeat the ACA web site fiasco every time.

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