When I began my career in social care 28 years ago, a phrase that was in common use in the residential childcare organisation I worked in was “Who’s holding the boundary?” What was meant was “Who is in charge of the service right now?” The organisation had four children’s homes and a school on one site, and the question could relate to each of the services individually, or at a more senior level to the organisation as a whole.
This way of thinking about management is related to the work on open systems by social scientists E. Miller and A. K. Rice and was developed by them in their 1967 work ‘Systems of Organisation’. I was lucky enough to meet and work with Eric Miller at this time, and he impressed upon me the importance of the boundary, both within and between organisations.
This is a concept that I continue to use in my work leading social care organisations today. In my work with Registered Managers and Head Teachers, I encourage them to think about the service they run as having a semi-permeable skin around it, and that their role is to control what is allowed in and what is allowed out. In this way, management sits on the boundary of the service and serves to protect the people and processes happening within, and to communicate and negotiate with the environment without.
Management of the boundary is even more important during a period of crisis. At these times, there is a greater level of threat to the service, and the people within it. The protective function of the boundary is emphasised in a crisis and the primary role of the manager is to keep the threat out. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a forceful and accessible example of the primacy of this management function above all others.
Gordon Ramsey, now on our screens again as a Game Show host, came to popular fame on television as a celebrity chef who would help struggling restaurant businesses. In his work with the beleaguered restaurant owners, he regularly referenced the boundary. He would help them to set which staff were in the kitchen, and what ingredients they would use to produce the dishes (inputs). He would teach and coach the team on how to cook the food to the required standard during the day before diners arrived (process). And finally, he positioned himself at the hotplate and checked the quality of the food prepared by the team before it was allowed to be served in the restaurants (outputs). Although his confrontational and expletive laden communication style wouldn’t be a good fit with a care business, his understanding of the role of the manager on the boundary is clearly visible and of great illustrative benefit.
One of the benefits of this way of thinking about management is that it is helpful in clarifying lines of authority and control which is common in many models, but also good at clarifying autonomy which is not so commonly referenced or defined. Traditional models of management tend to be overtly hierarchical with the emphasis on position and rank within an organisational chart. When these traditional models are translated into organisational practice and culture, the experience of the manager is that they are in charge of their service unless a more senior manager arrives to take charge. In my work with my managers, I clarify for them that they are in charge of their service regardless of whoever else turns up.
Why is this important? In my experience, social care organisations which fail to recognise and value the role of the Registered Manager tend to find themselves in real difficulties. Across all four nations of the UK, the Registered Manager is statutorily required position, and one which is accountable to a regulator for the quality of their service. If they are unable to control their boundary then they will be unable to maintain the quality of their service. Put more simply, the manager will lose control of their service, both ins and outs, and quality will suffer.