The ship – the ideal metaphor for the scope

The larger a ship, the larger is the crew. This includes the simplest sailor to the captain – in any case just one skipper. On shipboard you find various areas that serve above all one purpose – keeping the ship running, e.g. engineers, navigators, technicians, operating masters, mechanics, cooks, and quartermasters. On the one hand a ship is incessantly moving outside of national borders. On the other hand it has clear boundaries – the hull. This makes the ship an ideal metaphor for the scope.

The following elements are necessary for the definition of the scope.

  • External boundaries
    The starting point for the general scope definition is the external boundary. All concerned components are inside – the people and the things as well as the concepts, the actions and the pertinent rules. The overview of these elements is the basis, in order to be able to effectively control and steer. Outside are infinitely many other entities that are combined into smaller or larger units. On the ship all are eventually governed by the captain, who has the absolute power on board. For this reason the captain leaves his ship as the latest. In the business life there are many scopes (e.g. departments, projects, Joint ventures, commercial zones that often overlap, with fuzzy borders between inside and outside. Therefore it is necessary to describe the scope clearly. You have a good example for clarifying the range from responsibility with the ship as metaphor.
  • Internal boundaries
    Within the external borders are further clearly defined areas. Those internal boundaries, between e.g. departments, are treated as external ones. The respective boss governs within his area exactly the same way as the superordinate chief. This nesting of areas leads to the usual hierarchical structure of an enterprise. The captain reduces his manager-to-staff ratio and the complexity of his direct reports.
    In business they tried to increase this span in the last years in favor of a flat hierarchy. The arrangement follows the offered products/ services, the processes, the geographical conditions and other criteria.
  • Levels of decision making
    The levels, where decisions are made, result from the need of the enterprise to control. The interaction of the internal and external boundaries specifies thereby the reach of the decisions. On a ship the captain gives the instructions to his officers, who pass it on to the operating people. The decision levels determine the scope.
    In the enterprise the boundaries of the validity of directions are not really clear cut. Areas, which are responsible for decisions from different points of view, give often contrary instructions. A good example is the responsibility for the business processes. In this case the process owners, the manufacturing, the organization, the quality assurance, the controlling, the human resources department etc. have their goals, which often compete to each other. The process should be limited to satisfying the customer needs, but the production lowers the costs of manufacturing; the organization creates functional job positions; the quality assurance is yearning for the best product; controlling wants to have as many measuring points, as possible; the human resources department decides trainings from an overall view. This leads to different key figures that undermine each other. Ambiguous responsibilities lead to a blurring of the instructions.
  • Interdependency
    You could clearly separate the individual scopes of responsibility. But the mutual dependency forces the bundling within one area and the definition of the internal borders. On a ship the various areas can only be outside of the external boundaries (for example the dinghy) with a lot of efforts. But it is not convenient to be on your own boat as a cook and only be in board for cooking. For this reason the galley and its members are part of the ship.
    In enterprises the outsourcing became a short-sighted practice since a long time. In the interest of decreasing the number of employees, individual areas are outsourced again and again. Thereafter the interaction takes place as with other external suppliers. Thus, well defined areas are outsourced – e.g. the security, the cafeteria, the building cleaning as well as specialized activities, like the development of IT the component manufacturing, or the manual data entry. Often the decision makers forget that this creates kind of artificial leakages that let knowledge disappear – with all competitive disadvantages.

Bottom line: The clear definition of the external and internal boundaries as well as the decision levels and the interdependency are important conditions for effective scopes. These clearly delimited zones of influence result in overlapping competencies, ambiguous balance of power and, eventually, the whole that can only be steered with difficulty. A boat symbolizes these aspects. Thus, the ship is the ideal metaphor for the scope.