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Discovering management
Discovering management

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2.1 Management activities

When asked what was most challenging about politics, Harold Macmillan, British prime minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is reported to have replied, ‘Events, dear boy, events’.

Many managers today might find themselves giving a similar kind of response to a question about what is difficult or challenging about their job. Curiously, it is often difficult to summarise what a management job is really about or involves, or for managers to explain in an informative, well-ordered way, what they are there to do. They may say something like: ‘I’m head of x, responsible for y, keep an eye on z and liaise with departments p and q.’ Beyond that very general level, it is the particular pressures, challenges or surprises of this month, this week, or this particular day that may be what is most vivid and easy for them to relate. It is as if the job is made up of a string of ‘events’.

Researchers who have studied the realities of managerial jobs have come to the conclusion that in spite of enormous variety across different kinds of managerial jobs, the common characteristic of managerial work is its fragmented nature. In the 1980s, Rosemary Stewart, one of the best-known researchers of what managers actually do, summarised this research tradition as follows:

The best documented finding from a variety of studies in different countries is about the pace of managerial work ... The manager typically switches every few minutes from one subject or person to another, rarely completing one task before being involved in another. There are few opportunities for uninterrupted work for half an hour or longer. This hectic pattern is, in part, a demand of most managerial jobs because the manager must respond to a variety of people and problems. It can also be, in part, a choice, as observational studies have shown.

(Source: Stewart, 1984, p. 326)

Few would dispute that this picture applies just as well today in the context of developments such as globalisation, an increased emphasis on performance measurement, e-commerce, and all that email. Fragmentation may happen in ever-changing ways, but is still very much a fact. The only countervailing tendency is perhaps that many managers are now taking advantage of their laptops and widespread access to the internet to work in a more concentrated way at home for perhaps one day a week, getting to grips with more complex analytical tasks or report production. Indeed, computer firms have begun to market laptop computers using images of blissfully uninterrupted professionals working in unorthodox locations. Fragmentation is now so intense that it is driving managers out of their offices, unless of course they no longer have their own office because they have become based at home or use a variety of desks in different offices (‘hot-desking’) in order to carry out responsibilities split across a number of different sites.

If we want to understand what is involved in improving our own practice as managers and, by implication, the practices of others in our organisations, the first step is to find a way of standing back from this overcrowded surface experience of a management job. We need to find a way of thinking in a more systematic way about what our management ‘practice’ is actually like, why it has become so, and how it might be improved.

Unlike earlier sections, which explored the question ‘What is management?’, this reading explores some of the answers to an apparently more straightforward question: ‘What do managers actually do?’

The problem in answering this second question is that many of those who have written about management talk about what they think managers ought to be doing rather than what they actually do. Rather than basing their answers on systematic observation, many writers tend to present ideal or normative answers to the question. It is worth noting, incidentally, that the distinction between what is descriptive and what is normative in management writing has been very blurred for a very long time. Much of the ambiguity of management theories and models can be traced back to the failure to make this crucial distinction.

Henri Fayol is a case in point. His definition of management was not based on systematic observation and research – it was a statement of what he thought managers should be doing. However, when the activities of managers are observed, a rather different picture emerges. Let’s begin, however, by looking at what a few management theorists think managers ought to be doing.

Activity 4 Management activities

The following section sets out several ways of organising the different activities and responsibilities that make up most managers’ workloads.

Task: Your management activities

Pay particular attention to the framework suggested by Luthans for classifying a manager’s workload. Then, using the framework linked below as a guide:

  1. Make a breakdown of the proportion of your own time that is spent on each of the categories of management activity – over a day, a week, a month and a year,
  2. Using the same template, do the same breakdown for the proportion of time another manager with whom you have worked spends on each of Luthans’ categories of management activity. If possible, you should aim to do this independently and then ask them to make their own breakdown.

    The comparison will be interesting in examining how you and another manager may approach the task of managing differently and specifically how you have perceived the other manager’s job compared to how they have represented it. This could act as a springboard for opening up a debate about the nature of management practice with another manager.

  3. On the basis of these analyses, to what extent is management work a fragmented experience for you?
    • What surprised or startled you about the results of your time analysis?
    • What are the implications of this analysis on how you manage your own time and commitments?
    • Are the activity categories you use the most reactive or proactive?
    • Why do you undertake the activities that you do? How could you rationalise your choices?
    • What are the motivations behind how you manage your time and workload?
    • To what extent are you in control of what you do? Or how much freedom do you have to prioritise the activity categories you employ?

Once you have completed your analysis, write a brief note reflecting on your findings.

You may also wish to consider the important distinction made by Luthans about the significantly different patterns of work undertaken by managers who are effective and managers who are successful.Management activities template [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]