My First Post on Magic Numbers

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Locus for action.

Who Needs an Intranet?. Martin White has an interesting answer for managers of small companies wondering about intranets — you probably don’t need one! I concur, companies under about 50 employees, with everyone located in the same facility, can likely forego the expense and ha [b.cognosco]

I think this is where I begin to diverge from mainstream thinking on Intranets.  My thinking here is along the same lines as my previous post on whether an Intranet is a factory or a gallery.  I agree with Martin that a 50-man organisation doesn’t need a gallery intranet to reflect upon work done or to showcase the HR policy set.  But who does?  More often than not I think these sites are built with an eye on senior management approval.  Hence: glossy, bright colours, simple headlines and little substance.

However if an intranet is living work, an embodyment of the spinning flywheels and turning cogs of the organisation, then why is it any less relevant to a 50-man, or even 5-man organisation?  To me it’s just as relevant.  In a small organsiation there are less people doing the work, everyone needs to be that bit more focused on it (and I don’t I know that).  In a large organisation there are more cracks for things to fall through, but the idea is the same.

An intranet should help to collect things together and provide a locus for action.  The intranet should be part of the process, embedded in the work not separate to it.  As Terry says in response to the gallery post:

In “The 21st-Century Intranet” Jennifer Gonzalez describes four types of intranets ranging from the asynchronous broadcast model to the symmetrical interactive model. Almost none of the later exist and I belive it is becasue of the point you make — there is almost no room for people. Even the idea of adding people to the intranet draws gap-mouthed stares from executives in many companies.

I don’t think a change in workflow alone will do it. As numerous k-log threads have discussed, the cultural and personal barriers are greater than a simple change in workflow can address. But a comprehensive approach, will solid management support, could drastically change the nature of intra-company communication.

The basic point is this: If the Intranet is about the people, and their work, then why does the number of people matter?

[Curiouser and curiouser!]

I think that the answer can partly be found in understanding the “Magic Numbers”

Magic Numbers

You asked why the number of people matters.

There seem to be a set of what are called “magic numbers” of human social combinations. We think that they are related to our hunter gatherer past. You see them most clearly in the military. They pose big challenges for any organization such as a business which grows through the thresholds as they drive a different dynamic

1. 5-8 the core group of intimacy,. In the Roman army the number was 8. They shared a tent. This seems to be the ideal meeting number for rich ideas without too much inertia. Many sports teams are built around this number. It is likely the ideal hunting number of men – you see this on the basketball court – it is the number where you don’t have to think about the others – you just know that they are there. In a business this would be the size where little formal action will be required to connect everyone and no work on the culture is needed either as this size always connects by design. This can be quite democratic

2. 25-35 The platoon. We think that this number can be extended to 50. This was likely the size of most Hunter gatherer tribes and represents the core group for work. This is still an intimate group but a hierarchy will have formed. There will have to be a leader – if not appointed one will emerge. Not a lot of cultural work needed to link everyone but a good connecting tool will be needed to link everyone. The fire was the old tool. Blogging seems like a good modern version of the fire where learning was given and received in the form of stories.

3. 450-650. The battalion. This is a very tricky number. It represents the most people that one leader can know and the largest group that can self police. It was likely the size of a “nation” or confederation by blood of tribes. It has to be sub organized into the tribal groups and it has to have a leader. This group is still small enough to “trust” the rest and has the social capital to be collaborative. It is large enough to be quite diverse and can perform very complex work. With all those connectins a channel of connection is important. In the tribal past these groups would have met infrequently and had some sporting, religious or major hunting event to knit the group. In the evenings there would have been extended partying. This is the gene pool bank for successful tribes – you would have married your sister off to a cousin tribe and vice versa so not only would the memes be linked but also the genes.

The problem seems to arise when we violate these building blocks. A school with 1,000 kids and no formal tribal subdivisions will have bullying and discipline problems. Factories with 900 on the shift will have problems. Work teams of less than 5 will not have the richness to outperform teams of 8. Work teams of 12 are too big to function as an intimate group and build friction in a non linear fashion. Intersting that all armies hold true to these numbers and that so few few businesses even consider them.

I am sure that we will find that these numbers will play out in communities of practice. I would be interested to consider the blog-rolls. What is the number for those who closely keep in touch? I bet it is in the 8 person size. I bet most blog-rolls do not practically extend beyond 30

Robert Paterson [rob@renew.com] � 12/12/02; 3:07:49 AM
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