Dunbar’s Number and Organization of Organizations

I’ve been reading some of Robin Dunbar’s work recently, specifically Dunbar’s number. According to this idea, humans are capable of having meaningful interaction with about 150 people. In my recent readings, it seems “other” personified entities (such as God or our pets) can be included in our counts.

Dunbar suggests the number is actually one in a hierarchy, with each level comprising about three times the number of individuals at the previous level. The exact numbers are not important, but Dunbar finds humans maintain about five with who they have close interactions (think immediate family members and closest friends), 15 fill the next layer of associates. With each layer, we have more individuals with less intimate, but still meaningful, interactions.

I have started to think about those layers and the world of work, especially in the world of information technology. I am starting to see that we have close colleagues who are interdependent on each other. We cannot do our jobs unless they are doing their jobs. Our interdependence is mutual.

At the next layer, there are those whose work depends on us doing our jobs, but these relationships are asymmetric. As an IT professional, other depend on the systems I create, configure, and manage; but functioning IT systems does not guarantee their success.

At the final layer, there are those with whom I interact, but we work on different aspects of the organization. As I conceptualize this hierarchy right now, we contribute to the climate of the organization, but we interact only indirectly.

The hierarchical nature of Dunbar’s number

I’ve been chatting with others (who are outside of my circles right now) about this and they are intrigued at the way Dunbar’s number might help us to think about our colleagues and the support we provide to others. I am intrigues to see where they might take it.