What Is the Logistical Long-tail?
A couple of years ago, Chris Anderson wrote an article for Wired magazine (that eventually became a book; 2006) about his long-tail theory. The theory is that Internet commerce and social-networking software are making it possible for businesses to target narrower and narrower niches. The “long tail” term, in this case, is a reference to the long, tapering end of a skewed distribution graph. I preface with Anderson’s theory only to mention that this essay has nothing to do with it. This essay is about a completely different use of the analogy.
The “long tail” I intend to discuss comes from the field of military logistics management. Military logicians use the term to refer to the resource-intensiveness of putting a soldier into the field. For every “shooter” (combat soldier) who is posted “in theatre” (place of war or other conflict), there is a cast of support staff who supply the shooter with the resources he or she needs. Shooters are far from self-sufficient. They need people to fuel and maintain their vehicles. They need personnel to feed them and provide medical treatment. The mail and other creature comforts have to be supplied by others. Military supplies (bullets, batteries, etc.) and intelligence reports require more specialists. The list goes on. These support-people all form a long tail behind the shooter, so to speak.
This usage of the term is insightful because it allows us to think about how military logistics management has changed over the years. For example, the tail of a Canadian combat soldier in World War II is significantly shorter than a Canadian combat soldier currently fighting in Afghanistan. That’s because modern soldiers have greater intelligence demands. Their combat operations are more technology intensive and that technology requires greater levels of support. And these soldiers expect more creature comforts and communications with the outside. Moreover, the tail of the modern Canadian combat soldier is shorter than that of an American combat soldier. The American soldier has support from a much larger and costlier military infrastructure. The technology used is more advanced. And the U.S. military has made choices that make its resource-intensiveness higher than the Canadian military. For example, U.S. Hummers are bigger gas guzzlers than the Canadian equivalent, the Mercedes G Wagon and BAE Nyala. That has implications for military supply chains. These are all things that lengthen the tail: sometimes in a big way, sometimes fractionally.
Thus, the notion of the logistical long tail is a handy way to visualize the productivity of military capital and labour. It shows us how the role of military logicians have changed over the decades. It explains why modern military campaigns, such as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, can cost tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars a day.
What Does This Have To Do With Executives?
I don’t often write about military affairs, so why am I bringing this up? The reason is that I have a theory about the productivity of the executive class that is best understood by invoking the imagery of the logistical long tail. This is a theory I’ve been testing with executives during martini-bar conversations and it seems to be getting nods of agreement. That’s one way of saying: it’s just an untested hypothesis at the moment.
Here’s the hypothesis. The demands placed on executives are requiring them to have longer and longer tails of support staff. Executives resort to several forms of support. First, some demands are workload related. Workload increases dependence on executive- and scheduling assistants, who help with the task-juggling. It can also require the deputization of lower level executives, who stand-in for the executive to accomplish less critical tasks. These deputies will probably require their own support staff. Second, some demands are related to the amount of transactions an executive’s office has to execute. Secretaries, receptionists, and correspondence assistants are all examples of additional support needed. Third, as the support-staff increase, there is a need to manage them, so an office manager may be required. Finally, all of these people all require “back-office” support, such as training and personnel-management support.
But the growth of the tail doesn’t end there. As executives have less time to keep up with subjects relevant to their job, they need more support staff. Of course, bureaucratic organisations have always been designed to provide support to those higher up. What is different here is that analytical support is now required as part of the executive’s personal staff, both as a means to keep on top of events and as a way to process information coming from other parts of the organisation. Or staff lower down in the organisation have to spend a larger portion of their time servicing executives needs instead of those of, say, clients. The tail lengthens. More knowledge-management and information-technology support is required to design the information systems that feed the executive and his analytical staff. All of this means that executives have less time to inform themselves and reflect on experience. This is replaced with a dependence on support staff, some of whom may be subject-matter experts … others might be speech writers or communications advisors … others may be special advisors who have been tasked with particular missions. Again, all of these people increase the need for “back-office” staff, such as information technology and training staff. The tail grows longer, still.
The Demographic Imperative
Now, think about this in terms of national and organisational demographics. In most economically advanced democracies, there is a population bulge because of the so-called Baby-Boomer generation. That generation is now retiring. Plus, fertility rates are declining: couples are having fewer children because both partners are pursuing careers; the diversity of lifestyles is increasing, with more people opting not to have children; among other causes. Some countries are more vulnerable than others: Germany, Singapore, and Japan, as examples, are highly vulnerable because they are far from keeping up a population replacement rate; Canada, Australia, and the United States, which import a lot of citizens and have smaller demographic bulges, are less vulnerable. Nonetheless, all countries need to adapt quickly to these changes. The demographics of organisations reflect this, with few organisations adequately preparing themselves. Also consider the increasing knowledge-intensiveness of work. Executives are dealing with more complex situations that unfold at faster rates. Executives need to know more and be better scrutinizers of the advice they receive.
All of this has a couple of troubling implications.
For a long time, many aspiring executives were hindered in their climb up the job-ladder because Baby Boomers were occupying most of the senior positions. Now that the Boomers are retiring, executives are being promoted up job-ladders very quickly. Many executives are moving up before they can build up the experience necessary to do their jobs effectively. In a conversation I had with one executive, she described this as “rising to your level of incompetence” (as opposed to “level of competence”). In other words, whereas before there was some underemployment, now executives are moving up beyond their comfort levels … and ability levels. This is accompanied with increased reliance on support staff to make up for the lack of experience. The tail grows longer. Moreover, many organizations rely on headhunters to poach executives from elsewhere, perhaps radically different types of business. The widespread assumption is that executive labour is inherently generic: an executive for a car manufacturer, for example, can be installed in a chemical company and apply much the same skills. I would argue that this assumption is not well founded. More executives are moving out of their comfort zones and the tail grows to compensate.
The demographic trends create an imperitive: with fewer people available in the workforce, there is a crucial need to improve productivity rates. If we don’t do more with less labour, or allocate more labour to higher value activities, then our economies will accomplish less. Standards of living will suffer.
What does this have to do with the long tail forming behind executives? More than you’d think at first blush.
The lengthening of the executive tail is a major decrease in labour productivity. A senior executive in the 1950s had relatively few support staff. He might have a secretary, maybe two, but would more likely be reliant on a secretarial pool. He would also be better versed in his areas of responsibility. Multinational and governmental organisations were large but not as large as they are now. Today, the size of the executive tail is getting very large, indeed. The tail gets larger as inexperienced executives move up faster and take on larger responsibilities and workloads. The tail gets larger as executives are parachuted into unfamiliar jobs. The tail gets larger as executives engage in “empire building” activities that often happen within large bureaucracies.
Considering Executive Productivity
We don’t normally think of executives as having a labour productivity. Usually, organisations squeeze productivity out of the most populous workers: labourers, service personnel, sales people, and the like. But executives’ labour productivity is declining. It’s declining at precisely the moment in history where we need it to increase. The bigger problem, however, is that this decline in productivity is drawing in more and more labour that could be better used elsewhere. Sophisticated knowledge workers are being tasked, in greater numbers, with making up for the shortcomings of senior decision-makers. Again, this comes at precisely the moment when knowledge workers need to be deployed to more productive jobs.
It is a mistake to assume that the growth of the logistical long-tail is entirely a function of demographics or the nature of executive work. Of course, the seniority of the executive is the biggest factor determining the length of the tail: lower level executives don’t have the discretionary spending and must absorb growing work-burdens with limited staff support. That said, much else remains within the discretion of executives, either individually or as a cadre.
The design of the organisation has implications for the length of the tail. Organisations with highly centralized decision structures are growing much larger tails. Micro-managing and executive second-guessing require more capacity at the centre. If an executive’s area of responsibility is an agglomeration of disparate business-lines, as opposed to a streamlined and coherent business line, then more analytical capacity is required, still.
The length of the tail is partly determined by executive’s work-styles. Those who have a hard time letting go of control and delegating will hire courtiers to help them keep up with demands. Some executives don’t prioritize and streamline responsibilities, which usually results in low-value activities taking up the time of staff. Some executives can even be driven by the busyness and frenetics of having a big office and personal staff. Big staffs may also be a sign of status within an organisation. Time starved executives may not be able to carefully consider items that come before them and, thus, may cope by groping along in less efficient ways (such as having documents revised and resubmitted more times that is otherwise necessary). These are all part of the tail-lengthening trend.
The Qualities of Long-tail Work
I write a lot about the subjects of organisational learning, personnel management, and knowledge management. There is an important story to tell here, as well.
What are the qualities of jobs within the tail? Some are highly administrative, to be sure. Those which feed executive judgment and decision-making are more analytical and knowledge-intensive. However, that analytical work is more of a reactive, triage nature. This labour is being used as an appendage of executives’ immediate-to-short-term activities. Less time is spent thinking up new products and services, or business models, or enhancing those business lines that already exist. Less time is spent working through tough problems or implementing worthwhile projects. The work in the tail is highly tertiary. Besides the productivity question, I wonder whether people in these jobs are as engaged in what they do. Do people feel that their jobs are very meaningful if they are making up for the inadequacies of a boss? How do they cope with the frantic, on-call nature of the job?
For those in the fields of knowledge and information management, it seems to me that this is an enormous opportunity. Any technology, system, or organisational arrangement that increases the analytical efficiency of the tail will make that labour more efficient. More efficiency will reduce the length of the tail. The problem, however, is that the promise has never measured up to the reality in this area. The promise of “management information systems” has underachieved for a quarter century. Commonplace support systems, such as executive dashboards, are of limited decision-making power. Knowledge managers are now advising about the need to streamline and prioritize, yet the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
To conclude, the combination of executive dependency, work design, and demographics is creating a considerable drag on organisational productivity and effectiveness. This “leak” of organisational resources usually goes unnoticed by those in authority because they are too close to the problem. I wonder what would instigate reform given that the highly dependent executive has an interest in not highlighting that dependency. But something’s gotta give: declines in organisational productivity and effectiveness will eventually get noticed. The question is whether the problems that result from executive dependence will be properly attributed … or whether those who wag the tail will look for scapegoats.
By Peter Stoyko
I just finished reading “Centres of Attention” in the November 13th edition of The Economist. The article discusses the problem of too much staff located at corporate headquarters. Articles like this appear early in every recession, as business leaders look for ways to trim costs while not harming the operation of the organisation. Staffing levels are an obvious target. However, I think that the observation made in this article (bloated staff at headquarters) is a symptom of a much more complicated problemâ€”the problem I describe above. The Economist article points to the problem of centralisation. The implications of that centralisation need to be better understood.