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Dunbar’s Number and the Social Business

Dunbar’s Number
Most people working with social technologies will be familiar with Dunbar’s Number: the number of people we can comfortably maintain stable social relationships with. Apparently it varies from 100 to 230, with 150 being the norm. This we each typically connect up with and socialise with on average 150 people. This applies both to our friends in the ‘real’ as in the virtual – our own core social network will adhere to Dunbar’s principle.

Evolutionary Anthropology and our neocortex
Dunbar reckons that the reason for this is all to be found in our neocortex, so at heart it is an evolutionary anthropology argument and implies that we are working around biological limits. Whether this is the case or not is moot and indeed questions have been raised as to whether technology in the form of social networks can increase the number, so that American politicians for example, might have 300 friends.

Does E 2.0 = multiple 150s?
Rather than toy with this concept, I’d like instead to turn it on its head and ask this – how does Dunbar’s number relate to the efficiency gained to using social business software in an enterprise? Or put another way, what’s the biting point for e-mail – how big can a company get before the inefficiencies of using e-mail get so much, that using social software is a no-brainer? Or another, can we have multiple 150s around social projects when using Enterprise 2.0 collaborative technology?

E-mail overload, Jive and SharePoint
The backdrop to this are some recent conversations, a couple were with people senior in large organisations, who were overwhelmed with e-mail. What I’ve been wondering is this – is e-mail overload the inability to surpass the 150 limit? In other words, we can only process the interactions of 150 friends but e-mail can dump those of several 1,000s into our inbox every week. How do we manage this when the organisation is 100,000 + people? Social of course, but are we then, and I’m thinking of a recent Jive Software project I worked on, creating lots of manageable Groups and Spaces where information gets packaged up into bite sized 230 max pieces? On a note here, one of Jive’s big strengths is the ability to split of content and create discussion threads or to port over discussions, blogs and documents into a new Jive Group or Space. Jive manages this with aplomb, not something I can say for SharePoint 2010, but that can itself package up information if used correctly.

Why do I need a social intranet?
A second related conversation was with one of my own ‘150 people’ at the local wine bar. My friend works for an international company with global clients, who themselves will have a multi-national presence. One of these clients presented a business issue and my friend was able to e-mail his internal network and get an answer within a very short time. Thus the question put to me was “Tell me what one of your social intranet things can do that I can’t already do with e-mail?”

What’s the e-mail limit?
The examples I gave were the ability to manage that information and the like, the fact that the answer could be shared and socialised much more easily. I gave quite a few others but didn’t really convince my pal. The conversation did make me wonder this though: is there a business size at which you can get away with e-mail? The business in this discussion was around 1,000 employees. My gut feel is this: the e-mail traffic of 1,000 people communicating falls into a Dunbar’s Number sized package. That is 1,000 people’s e-mails in a group such as a business on average create an information pool equivalent to on average 150 people.

Benefits of of social business software
Now I wonder, at what point, on average does employee size it surpass this? My guess is 1,500 people – if you have 1,500 people using e-mail as their primary communication tool then you’re at the limit of what that technology can do without it having a negative impact. 1,500 people sending e-mail overloads the 150 social limit – you need a better way of managing that information, the business needs the benefits of social business software.

 

2 thoughts on “Dunbar’s Number and the Social Business”

  1. Interesting post, Russell! And no comments… I get that question a lot as well. And I think it’s an important question. Knowledge workers live in their email, start and finish their work day there. Giving them new (social) tools will make them wonder: is this really much better than just emailing (to groups)?
    I don’t understand where you get the number 1.500 from? How did you calculate that? Or is it a gut-feeling? I’d say email gets less productive when you have a bit more than 150 employees emailing each other. They can’t know everybody, so context and meaning of email content decreases.
    Furthermore I try to answer this question in a different way. I usually say: 90% of my email is interesting for a much larger part of the organization (and the world) than just the people that I sent emails to. I challenge my audience by saying: what if we would open up more of the email system? Would that help? They always answer with yes.
    Hope this helps!

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