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6 November 2007

A principle of management control

By Andrew Clifford

Management control should focus on listening to and acting on the recommendations of staff, not checking that they are doing their job properly.

Clients occasionally ask me what level of detail they should go to when implementing system governance. Answering this question has helped me to clarify an important principle of management control.

Control is part of every management job, whether it is day-to-day supervision, or high-level governance. At every level, the question is the same: at what level of detail should controls be applied? If control is too detailed, you drown in information. If control is too high level, it does not provide enough information to make confident, justified decisions.

The principle we need to adopt is that control should be applied at one level above the work that you manage.

To illustrate, what controls should you apply to make sure that performance of your systems is adequate?

The answer depends on who you are.

If you are the systems administrator, you manage the systems themselves. Your controls should be based on the systems' measures of response times, CPU usage, memory, and so on. You need to take this information, interpret it, and understand where performance is an issue.

At a more senior level, you do not manage the systems directly, you manage the systems administrators. You do not need information about response times, CPU and memory. You need the judgements of the systems administrator about where there are performance problems, and why. Your job is not to repeat the work of those below you, but to listen to them, balance their recommendations with other inputs, and act accordingly.

This may seem obvious. But I think we often forget it

Sometimes we forget the purpose of management control. Using our systems administrator example, the primary purpose of higher level management is to provide a channel for addressing performance issues, not to check that the system administrator is doing their job properly. Having worked as a specialist myself, I know how frustrating it is to have managers crawl over the detail of your work, but not listen to and act on its recommendations.

Sometimes we manage at the wrong level of detail. We consider tools that attempt to bypass lower level work, such as "executive dashboards" showing summaries based on code scanning technology. This might be interesting to programmers, but it needs interpretation before it is presented higher up. Sometimes we carry out reviews based on high-level subjective opinions, without any reference to hard facts or specialist insights. Sometimes we simply repeat specialist work, re-asking the same questions that existing staff ask daily.

This has helped me to clarify the answer to the question about the level of detail for system governance. In each aspect of your IT, system governance should be applied at one level above current management activities. System governance takes the outputs of specialist management, consolidates and interprets them, and identifies and justifies what higher level actions are required. It is not a way of checking that specialists are doing their job properly; it is a way of making sure that they are heard.

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