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Understanding Matrix Management

Many older managers and some who are now in retirement operated within a traditional business management structure. This included organization charts, which outlined the company functions and lines of reporting. Occasionally a "dotted line" relationship would be indicated for certain departments and individuals, and for the most part, the overall system was fairly rigid but easy to understand. But with increasing globalization and the need for more flexibility in today's markets, the rate of change frequently exceeded the ability to adapt using a traditional style. In other words, the wider variety of tasks and projects became very difficult to accomplish efficiently. This led to the need for a more fluid management structure, for example, one in which people with similar or complimentary skills are brought together for work assignments, and are then required to function with more than one manager.

The term for this management structure is Matrix Management, and it often is defined as the management of individuals with more than one reporting line. In fact, employees under this concept often have both dual responsibilities and dual managers. Those involved find their day to day activities often can be separated from their previous functional responsibilities. The concept originated in the 1970-1980 time period, but in many companies today a combination of functional and matrix management co-exists. During my career, I recall being part of a group of specialized engineers who were assigned to a project for the purpose of improving the manufacturing efficiency of specific paper machines in the company. We continued also to report to both our individual department managers and to the project manager. The project manager reported on a dotted line relationship to the production manager, bypassing the machine superintendent. Needless to say, there were conflicts in accomplishing some of the changes we felt necessary! It did not take long to realize that the strength of our "matrix" group depended heavily on the power given to the project manager, and his courage in carrying out the assignment.

I think initially the basic idea of dealing with multiple managers was negatively viewed. It is not difficult to find reasons why the concept may not succeed. Some of these include:

• There may be confusion concerning authority, and conflicts with previously established loyalties can arise.
• It could be difficult to adapt to losing unity of command.
• Costs may increase due to more managers being involved.
• Progress on project assignments can become harder to monitor.
• The basic idea of dual command is in itself a conflict, sometimes leading to power struggles.
• There can be a tendency toward the evolution of "anarchy" due to growth in workplace confusion.
• It appears the higher the level of organization, the more difficult it becomes for matrix management (dual command) to survive.

There are reasons to be concerned after examining the above list. After all, matrix management can almost be viewed as the absence of structure, being more dependent on the "frame of mind" of the organization. It results in a lot of group decision making, which some employees inherently dislike. The increased costs may cause the matrix to collapse if the economy deteriorates. Conversely, matrices may become layered when the economy is good. The basic nature of the matrix could result in delayed or ineffective actions. And finally, the matrix can become so involved with assignment completion that members lose touch with the marketplace.

Since there are so many potentially negative features in matrix management, why would a company decide to risk using the approach? Are there useful guidelines to assist in making it succeed with measurable benefits? Let's examine these questions individually.

Reasons to Use

1.) The organization may be going through major change, resulting in a wider variety of tasks and processes. It may be faced with growing external complexity, to include global challenges.
2.) The need may arise for specialized skills to be focused on a specific project or process.
3.) The organization may decide to use matrix management as a means of developing the abilities of future managers.
4.) There could be a need to define more clearly the relationships between functional and project managers within the organization, and to develop improved communication skills.

Guidelines for Success

1.) Realize that most problems cannot be solved by restructuring alone. The focus must remain on the work to be done.
2.) Develop a structure where information flows freely.
3.) Define the roles of the individuals in the structure, and make it clear who is involved in major decisions.
4.) Recognize and eliminate conflicting loyalties early.
5.) Even though "dotted line" relationships exist, make sure all managers have aligned goals.

Senior management must not only support but also be directly involved in sponsoring a matrix management structure within the organization. The decision to use this management culture cannot be relegated solely to the human resources office. One approach is to use groups of professionals who serve as integrators of the style into the existing management structure. This requires building a common vocabulary that all managers understand comfortably. There must also be strong and highly visible matrix leadership personnel. Once the matrix management is functioning, management must find ways to measure both its success and to identify any deficiencies. And finally, bringing recognition and visibility to project teams that are successful will significantly strengthen the overall effort.

Is it possible that matrix management will evolve into an even more complex structure? For example, in medical schools the organization is much freer in style, yet the results are very successful. Perhaps some future organizations might be able to function using only top level managers, allowing all other qualified professionals to assume responsibility for successful completion of tasks without direct leadership. In other words, except for upper management the entire organization would be made up of "dotted lines". While this may seem unlikely, in the future business world, anything could be possible.

Robert Moore is a retired chemical engineer, and is an experienced technical and fictional writer. His past work experience spanned the chemical, paper and equipment manufacturing industries, including holding management positions at Voith Paper, Scapa plc, and The Mead Paper Corporation. He is also the author of humorous short stories about life in southwest Virginia, circa 1940-1960.


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