TechRepublic members have been discussing reasons behind the sometimes-antagonistic relationship between network administrators and the support/help desk group. Often, poor communication is to blame, but in a recent article, I suggested that if the teams have managers at the same level in the company’s hierarchy, it might cause a power struggle between the groups. I further pondered whether having one manager supervise both groups would create a greater sense of teamwork.

Some members wrote or e-mailed to say that they’ve seen the centralized management of net admins and support pros work well. But according to two professors at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis, a better strategy may be to switch between the two methods. Here’s an explanation of their theory and some anecdotal evidence of how centralized management of the two groups worked for one member.

One theory about centralized vs. decentralized management
In general, the popularity of centralized vs. decentralized management switches frequently, and associate professor Jackson Nickerson and professor Todd Zenger, associate dean of faculty at Olin, have a theory on why that is. The two say that the role of management is not to craft an optimal organizational structure—which they believe is impossible anyway. Instead, they believe that management should learn to recognize when and how frequently to change strategies.

“With a decentralized organizational structure you can achieve flexibility and innovation and with a centralized organization you have control and coordination,” said Nickerson in an article on the subject. “You cannot design a single organizational structure that delivers both at the same time.”

The two do believe that organizations can temporarily achieve both goals by switching from centralized to decentralized management strategies at just the right time. They claim that optimum performance takes place just as the “informal organization”—the structure stemming from social relationships and routines—reconfigures from one set of formal policies to another.

Nickerson and Zenger cite the alternating management structures at Hewlett-Packard as a prime example. In the 1970s, the company was decentralized with a lot of small divisions. In the early 1980s, the company had three divisions working on desktop computers, which were not compatible with each other. HP then centralized its computer divisions, resulting in compatible computers, but that system proved to stifle innovation and talent. In 1990, HP switched back to a decentralized structure that elicited more creativity but again resulted in poor coordination. The company centralized again in 1994, swung back to decentralized units in 1998, and returned to centralization in 2000.

“Ford Motor Co. has similarly vacillated about every five years since 1980,” Nickerson said. “The decision for management is not if to switch but when and how frequently and how many divisions or the entire company.”

One member’s experience
Does the theory of switching between centralized and decentralized management hold water when applied to the network administration/support pro situation? Consider the following member’s experience before weighing in.

Jerry said he was with the U.S. Armed Forces when he saw “both sides of the battle.” As an experienced net admin, he was asked to develop a help desk team to provide support for multiple platforms across several companies. He was eventually named manager of both and experienced great success due to the “synergy” he created between the two teams.

“I can vouch for the validity in the single-man-in-charge idea, with common procedures and communications channels being the basic reasons for my success,” he said.

When Jerry retired, his replacement lacked experience and never built the same rapport Jerry had developed with his staff. Jerry said this led to the deterioration of the combined operation and, eventually, the two offices were reporting to separate bosses.

Tell us what you think

In the case of the net admin/support pro teams, should the management be centralized or decentralized? Should organizations try to switch between the two structures, as Zenger and Nickerson suggest? Post your opinion in the discussion below.