In 1973, Managers Could Work 23 Minutes Without Distraction. And Today?

How much has a manager’s day changed in the last 40 years?

A study of business managers reports the following findings:

· Managers scarcely have time to start on a new task or to sit down before they are interrupted.

· Only 12 times in the study did the manager succeed in working undisturbed in his office for at least 23 minutes.

· "The brevity of many of the manager’s activities is most surprising…Half of the observed activities were completed in less than nine minutes, and only one tenth took more than an hour.

· Managers were seldom able or willing to spend much time on any one issue in any one session. Telephone calls were brief and to the point (averaging 6 minutes), and desk work sessions averaged around 15 minutes. Only scheduled meetings commonly took more than an hour. The same characteristic of brevity was reflected in the treatment of mail.

A recent study? Hardly. These quotes are taken from Henry Mintzberg’s classic The Nature of Managerial Work published in 1973.

Mintzberg, a professor of management at McGill University, concluded that "the manager is encouraged by the realities of his work to…overload himself with work, to do things abruptly, to avoid wasting time." In short, "in order to succeed, the manager must presumably become proficient at his superficiality."

So how much has a manager’s day changed in the almost 40 years, since these studies were performed? If the number of management handbooks lining bookstore shelves is any indication, than the answer must be "quite a bit." Many management theorists believe that management has undergone massive changes over the last decades. According to these thinkers, the geographic dispersion of workers, the flattening of organizational communications, the 24/7 nature of today’s work, the lack of job security, and the instantaneous nature of communication have completely changed how managers spend their work day.

Yet, the empirical evidence is not so clear-cut. Surprisingly, there are few recent studies that actually measure how managers use their time. One study was carried out by Stefan Tengblad, a professor in business administration at University of Skovde in Sweden. The study, performed in 2006 (and covered in Tengblad’s new book The Work of Managers), concludes that "the majority of Mintzberg’s propositions are still valid, [although] managerial work at the top that is less fragmented (with regard to time) and less oriented towards administrative efficiency." Tengblad draws three theoretical generalizations about the study of manager’s work patterns from his study:

· New changes in work patterns supplement (rather than replace) old work patterns. Case in point, geographic dispersion of work colleagues and the introduction of email may have flattened organizational communication and changed some of the work dynamic, but old work patterns still exist. For example, meetings, even if they are now largely virtual, still make up an important part of a manager’s work day.

· Managers' behavior is still unpredictable and dependent on factors that transcend specific work situations. In other words, people are still people.

· A lack of empirical data has created a gap between organizational theory and real-world experience. What I conclude from this is that "if my idea sounds good and I can find some anecdotes that back up my theory, I can probably write a management book and get it published."

The last point is particularly poignant. Mintzberg’s own research involved only 5 chief executives. And although his conclusions were based on a series of 14 studies involving a total of 579 subjects; only half of these studies looked at more than 10 managers. Tangblad’s conclusions are based on an even smaller group; just 8 chief executives over a period of four weeks. With so little empirical research to work from, any conclusion must be taken with a grain (or maybe a huge pinch) of salt.

Whichever theory is correct, what Mintzberg said 40 years ago is just as true today as it was back then: "Managers appear to be puppets. Some decide who will pull the string and how, and they then take advantage of each move that they are forced to make. Others, unable to exploit this high-tension environment, are swallowed up."

Do you think technology has altered the shape of managers' days today? How so? Tell us about it in the comments.

Author David Lavenda is a high-tech marketing and product strategy executive. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from the road as @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Josh Puetz]

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