Case to Monkey with Dunbar Limit


In a context of  understanding the next generation of performance management thinking, to overcome behavioral change barriers using social networks, a recent Wikinomics debate on relationship limits got my interest.

This debate asks the question:

If its true our neocortex has a finite limit to have only approximately 150 meaningful relationships, then what is social networking achieving?

At the root of this is a 1993 paper CO-EVOLUTION OF NEOCORTEX SIZE, GROUP  SIZE AND LANGUAGE IN HUMANS by Robin Dunbar, from the Human Evolutionary Biology Research Group, Department of Anthropology, University College London 

On reading the study it seemed to be looking at relationships of cognitive abilities in  primates. Being a simple person who also dared to venture into the world of the deep academia, I was quickly  overwhelmed by the scientific discussion that lead to the conclusion. So to understand this better I took a look at some case studies. One well known one in particular was Gore Industries, the highly successful company that has applied this theory.

Gore Industries are best known for their GORE-TEX? fabrics and arguably make, amongst other things, the best ski jackets on the planet. Their management style  adapts from Dunbar in a way they only ever allow a production plant to have no more than 150 people.

This privately held multimillion-dollar company, also known as W. L. Gore and Associates, was formed in 1958, by Bill and Vieve Gore. Simple controls Gore uses to manage, sets up the game plan so everyone wins. It also keeps the stakeholders to a manageable size so they can be  work together effectively; They can also work in a way so they are motivated to be innovative as they treat the business like their own. Today, the Gore enterprise is comprised of approximately 8,000 associates in more than 45 locations around the world. Annual revenues top $2 billion.

Here are a couple of key examples in approach makes them transparent and personal so it just works.

When constructing a plant, they put 150 spaces in the car parking lot, and when people start parking on the grass, they know it’s time for another plant.

Each Gore plant is set up to work as a group. “There are no bosses and no titles. Salaries are determined collectively. No organization charts, no budgets, no elaborate strategic plans.

These days,  as the value and understanding of social networking is becoming more pervasive, companies are starting to realize it builds value and ultimately may be a key to quality and ongoing growth. Hence with social take up of Twitter, FACEBOOK and so on, we may now be able to to extend the relationships limits in much more innovative ways. Deploying Dunbar 150 theory may be also take on extended dimensions. Likewise as we flatten the process with end to end transparency at a social behavior levels measured performance management will also take on a whole new meaning.

I also believe the business control and performance management software providers themselves ,need to  change the way they think. All now struggle to reach below the corporate tiers to the masses and fail to recognize we actually do work in quite a different ways now compared the traditional functional approach we are still offered. Supply chains and social networks make that painfully obvious  but even now the so called new generations of solutions are still object based without any real adaption to how people really interact.

Even quality thinkers like vendor advocate Gary Cokins  from SAS,  (Why-is-the-Adoption-Rate-of-Performance-Management-so-Slow)  who subscribes to the theory on social impediments, must to carry the message to his employer too. All vendors including emerging niche experts, need  to look closely at why performance management products still don’t address the inherent fear of knowing the truth.

So back to Dunbar’s theory, we need to also understanding how social networks are evolving and how this may impact the pillars of performance, being accountability and transparency.  As we do  it is clear to see they are emerging in line with the way markets, branding and supply chains work using a viral not personal relationships.  Hence the effect if we join them can change performance systems dramatically to make them work in a way that has never before been possible. And as people began to think about what they mean by , trust, integrity and feedback and how they can be managed, they will also unshackle limited personal relationships and realte to viral relationships  in quite an another way.

Using the plant example  you may  imagine how performance management would look if say, every person was given a personalized company twitter account and had it also etched in the label of the product. That would link the real people in the plant directly with the real people who bought their product. whoever they may eventually be,  The transparency of the quality control that would occur would be so obvious and reinforced  as seen by everyone including the distributor, retailer  other customers and even competitors. Then innovative change would be an imperative that would no longer threatened by hidden truths that causes Ostrich behavior.

Imagine the quality control focus and customer service responsiveness with such a transparent personal interest all along the supply chain. And the unbeatable satisfaction of people in the factory who know they connect with end customer who use what they make. Performance management as we know it now with its social weakness would be a truly resolved with workers at all stages directly networked to with the end customer  as real people, regardless of the levels of relationships in between.

As I reflect on the value of Dunbar’s ideas and his relative study of the behavior of primates, I am reminded that our ability to intelligently use information sets us apart from all other primates. Speech, language and discussion are the distinguishing attributes  as Dunbar observes. This is of course is now becoming more efficient and extended by the emergence of wider social networks. But relative information is however still like nuggets of gold and hard to find, so we need smarter ways to join discussion with facts. Until we do this effectively, the plethora  of performance management information  nuggets will continue to be mistaken for peanuts. And of course we all know that when we feed on peanuts we so often revert to become monkeys.

I wonder what others think adn how others are using this medium in this way?

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