In a crisis if people are not managed strongly everyone reverts to managing the situation by committee and normally it’s the strongest character in the group who will win the day and very often the wrong decisions are made. Dennis Shields, Chair of BCS Essex Branch, takes a somewhat humorous look at the world of senior management.

People like to be managed very much like teenagers. They think they know it all and that the parents (managers) are antiquated and out of touch. But the reality is that people who are well managed actually benefit and become more productive. The problem lies with bad management.

Bad managers, especially a manager who abdicates his/her responsibility cannot expect a unit to function properly. Without clear and fair directives, the group loses its cohesion and splinters into factions resulting in anarchy. If work is not done properly, efficiency plummets and costs escalate.

It is the responsibility of everyone to carry out the company’s policies and senior management has the responsibility of carrying forward the programmes that will achieve the company’s objectives. Problems arise when there is inconsistency and confusion, especially by the time it reaches the work force.

Section 172 of the Companies’ Act 2006 requires the director of a company to consider the stakeholder’s interests beyond the shareholders. Whilst this is a consideration there is strong emphasis on the need to take a long-term approach if a company and its infrastructure wishes to be successful.

Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Burton once said: ‘With a few notable exceptions, those who make 21st century policy and plan and set the budget have insufficient knowledge of technology’. In IT there is the tendency to want to do everything quickly, but there needs to be a good rapport and fluidity among a company’s stakeholders focusing on long-term strategy and success.

Might information and communication technology help to explain some of the behaviour involved in the process of senior management? Here I draw an analogy with a communications network and a computer system.

The ‘senior management system’

We are used to complex computer systems but a major system lies amongst us: senior management. Senior managers have an unenviable task: one could regard them as information decision action systems in complex organisations. They can be seen as; gathering data, processing and communicating information in a way that will produce maximum output (despite ever decreasing resources, both human and financial).

Processing data

Senior managers have to be multi-tasking and multi-functional systems: they have to be people managers, technologists, politicians, compassionate whilst being assertive and sometimes disciplinarians. Like a computer system the senior manager receives vast amounts of data (budgets, technology) and has to deal with competing priorities.

Output is dependant on rapid decisions based on their ever expanding memory bank and specialisms whilst sticking to the directives with which they have been programmed. However, there is always a tiny minority that can be a source of embarrassment to their senior management colleagues.

Indeed how these individuals have been ‘programmed’ can give variable results. The ‘program’ would also contain a collection of: childhood experiences, parental values and attitudes, adult and life experiences. In fact their whole ‘build’ can influence their originality. So contrary to expectations feeding the same ‘program’ of directives to different ‘machines’ may produce totally different results - possibly even unexpected behaviour.

A well programmed manager like a neural network learns to predict and prepare for a likely situation, therefore, when the situation arises they immediately move into a subroutine procedure. But less experienced managers may be dismissive and totally unprepared and suddenly treat everything as a major incident. They can be quickly seen carrying clipboards, marching up and down trying to micromanage it all.

For some it simply - ‘does not compute’. When a crisis occurs (despite their high rank) some may not know how to tackle a situation and begin to output all kinds of error messages (lash out). It is at odds with their pre-programmed parameters, clashes with their sub-routines and is from an un-trusted site. Therefore their ‘firewall’ goes up and blocks everything. One is then met with a continuous loop of refusal to accept any of further input.

For instance when presenting them with a carefully prepared spreadsheet they will turn away because they were used to the text format from the mainframe days. Presenting them with high calibre data, statistics and reports may be met with repeated rejections (of fact) - ‘Does not compute’. Once again, like the bandwidth of a network, the traffic is too high for their limited bandwidth.

Decision making

Information, decisions, and revision ratio - One thing management can cope with is good news and to a lesser extent bad news. What some managers cannot cope with is uncertainty. To some managers ideas come very easily but others (possibly due to lack of experience) may have really agonized and struggled extremely hard to formulate a decision.

Therefore they can be unduly apprehensive and not accept anything to the contrary. This may force them into revising their decisions and they do not want to appear as if they are indecisive. They react badly to any who might try to point out that they may have even been wrong. So the real danger is that they are likely to ignore any warnings.


In an almost science fiction scenario: what happens if that computer system we put in charge of our organisation becomes so powerful that it takes over its creator (us)? It seems that some organisations may sometimes attract a small number of individuals who might do more harm than good when they are in a place of authority.

The power seems to go to their heads, they feel that they are invincible and can do what they like - the ‘I say it and do it because I can’ mentality of senior management. Some politicians also spring to mind. By parenthesis it can have the opposite effect when another senior manager has the foresight to see one’s views, acknowledges and acts upon them.

A machine fit for purpose - choosing the right system (computer)

It is valid in suggesting that there are different types of manager including the type who the author terms as being ‘mechanics’- those who are given a machine and fix it but are not people persons. Others can be purely the ‘waffler’ type who may have obviously got to be senior managers by dubious means. While others are bureaucracy freaks.

Then there are those who can combine technical, analytical and coordinating skills rather than being purely technical or purely management. And, according to Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology, at University College, London, in a recent edition of ‘The Sunday Times’: ‘Sometimes those with real strategic skills do not have their talents recognised.’

In this line of work it helps to be both a technical and a people manager, but some are neither. This is where some of the conflict can be in this hypothetical machine. Equally as important are what an employer’s perceptions of a post are and what a prospective employee’s perception of the same job can be. Again this is an area where a conflict situation can develop at a later stage in the system.

Communication system and topologies

A great many management problems are due to poor communication. There can be two types of communication; Synchronous (all parties involved in the communication are present at the same time) and asynchronous.

Asynchronous communication utilises a transmitter (executive), a receiver (staff) and a medium (senior managers) but without coordination between the two end points. The transmitting device simply transmits leaving the receiving device to look at the incoming signal and figure out what it is receiving with the final insult of having to guess the coding/decoding algorithm.

The ‘inner-ring’ network somehow does not allow the signal to get to the nodes lower down and vice versa. Staff further down the network do not have the ear of senior management - like an ethernet network can somehow find the flow of information blocked due to contention and drops. There is a great deal of communication going on at executive level and at the front-line level, but there may be a bottle neck at the senior management level, not helped when some companies do not operate an ‘open culture’.

Most organisations use hierarchical networks (top-down), but meetings need to be a two-way communication and run on ‘full duplex’. A representative from each level of management needs to be present at the next level up and vice-versa. This way you have a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach, which can only help the organisation to improve efficiency.

Same management school (SMS)?

One wonders if these types of senior managers go to the same management school. Whether they are major airlines, banks, local authorities, telecommunication companies, education or the health service they seem to be unified in their principles. Of course with the current recession it gives them and others an excuse to get rid of staff - putting greater pressures on those remaining.

Consequently they are tightening the grip on the organisation to the point of destruction. It’s skilled, knowledgeable staff, with all their local knowledge that will have gone when there is an eventual upturn. This is analogous with an information system that becomes too unwieldy and thwarts the information being processed or makes it totally inefficient.

It is always useful to review processes and the way we work. Technology has helped us to become more flexible and produced efficient ways of working. Equally if an employer can use a machine rather than use people they are going to use it. Bringing this up-to-date and in the current climate one may also question the seemingly over inflated posts created and equally over inflated salaries?

There seems to be great inequality and a great divide. Indeed one school of thought is that it is now an inverted network with more and more management and fewer people at the sharp end. One often hears it said ‘There is too much work for one project manager so let us create four’. Yet sometime, quite literally, only two or three people do the actual IT work. This is analogous with having a very tiny network and spending all the resources, both human and financial, on an overwhelming array of network management programs, utilities and tools.

We need to readdress this and turn it to an upright pyramid. Yes, one can also consider matrix management too, but let’s stick to the pyramid for now. We need good people at the top; one cannot argue against this concept. But over the years there has been diminishing numbers ‘on the ground’ and yet more and more senior level posts. We need to recognise and compensate for this state of affairs. Our network should change from an inverted one to an upright one.

2010 - Can we see a new line of thinking and management style?

What we have seen so far has been reminiscent of the 80’s. If only organisations could benefit from modern military training and a military approach. Instead they seem to attract individuals who may be solely bent on plundering an organisation’s assets.

Perhaps we should be looking at a more ‘cellular’ operational approach to management with more emphasis on collaborative working. This author is convinced this would be a much more efficient way of working. Above all it harnesses a resource that is greatly under used, namely social networking within organisations.