In a longitudinal series of studies of various U.S. Army organizations over a 25 year period, I uncovered some interesting findings that caused me to question the universal application of the time-span instrument in measuring level of work of a role. During this period, the Army moved from a peacetime environment to a wartime one. Senior leaders (General Officers) moved routinely back and forth between these two different situations. Consequently, it was possible to gather time-span data from both environments. Interestingly, in war-time situations the time perspective of a given General Officer changed dramatically. For example, a level V Major General went from a 5-7 year time horizon to a 2 year one. Similar results were obtained from other officers operating at different organizational layers. As a result of this research, I began to “muse” about the possibility that perhaps some other phenomenon was at play here. I chose to call this phenomenon time compression and began to study it in greater depth in both my military work as well as my commercial efforts.
Dr. Elliott Jaques first identified time in 1957 as the result of a series of observations regarding the substructure of the natural hierarchical management structure in his work at Glacier Metal Company . Jaques found that managers operating at successively higher management layers were concerned about events occurring further and further out into the future. He subsequently went on to codify the use of time in a measuring instrument he called time-span. Jaques then used the time-span measure as an operational definition of level of work based upon the maximum time-span during which people are required to exercise discretion. Time span is “the longest period which can elapse in a role before the manager can be sure that his or her subordinate has not been exercising marginally sub-standard discretion continuously in balancing the pace and quality of his or her work” . Time-span analysis is essentially a methodology for helping a manager quantify his or her intuitive experience about the work he assigns to his subordinate to the point where it is measurable in time terms. Its aim is to discover the maximum amount of time a manager requires a subordinate to work on his own account, e.g., the size of responsibility in terms of the time over which it is carried out.
To Jaques, all aspects of work are about time; tasks have a targeted completion time; planning involves crafting pathways to achieve a future objective; innovation and adaptability involve time concerns; and organizations restructure so they are more efficient and get things done quicker.
In 2005, a unique opportunity presented itself. Dr. Sergey Ivanov (one of Dr. Jaques last graduate students) completed a study of a specific Army organization utilizing the traditional time span measurement technique. Ivanov’s time-span data strongly suggested that many individuals were operating at lower organizational layers. This caused Ivanov to conclude that this organization was, in fact, operating at much lower organizational levels and consequently dealing with less complex work. Fortuitously, Dr. Clement had also studied this same organization 6 months earlier. Clement suggested that perhaps the organization was, in fact, operating in a time compressed environment and that the time-span data was impacted accordingly. To verify whether or not these roles were operating at a higher organizational layer, irrespective of their time-span information, a comparison was made of the Ivanov data with level of work information obtained by Dr. Clement from these same individuals six months earlier. Dr. Clement constructed his level of work estimates by analyzing work related data gathered from the following seven categories.
Task Information Resource Planning/ Problem Leadership Working
Complexity Complexity Management Decision Making Solving Relationships
Dr. Clement chose to use the more expansive work analysis methodology as a result of concern over the viability of the time-span data in the existing wartime environment. During the period of 2001 – 2008, Dr. Clement conducted detailed in-depth studies of virtually every Army Headquarters staff organization. These studies focused on the existing organizational structure, accompanying work system, underlying working relationship issues and the presence or absence of organizational pathologies, e.g., people at a given level focusing on the wrong work for that level, etc. A major finding from these studies concluded that many staff principals and supporting staff officers (both military and civilian) were, in fact, operating on short-term tasks. Clement’s conclusion, however, was that the entire work system was being affected by the time compression phenomenon typically associated with wartime experiences.
Dr. Clement then applied this same thinking to his on-going work with various corporate clients. One client was operating in a difficult economic environment where extreme financial pressures caused many senior executives to focus on short-term results. Survival was their primary business objective. The longest time horizon that they entertained had to do with succession planning issues, but even these concerns limited themselves to forecasting requirements and capabilities over the next 3 years. In today’s challenging economic times, survival is not an unusual business concern. Similarly, rapid changes in technology and growing governmental pressures also tend to drag one down.
Now, some might argue that perhaps if management had focused on longer term issues in the first place, survival concerns would not be prevalent today. While such an argument may be true, the simple fact is that many companies have not been blessed with “long-range” thinkers. Thus, sole reliance on the time-span instrument may cause one to underestimate work related complexity and the changes necessary to get the company moving again.