The Company Version of the Dunbar Number

Way back in 1992, Robin Dunbar estimated a limit on the human ability to maintain stable relationships. This limit is known as the Dunbar’s number, and it has a value around 150. “Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.” To me personally, the key words here are “limit” and “stable”. In other words, there are those of us (too bold to simply say “you”) that are pushing the limits and I would question the stability of relationships when the number grows beyond 150. How many people can I really ‘know’, much less comprehend how they are are related to everyone else (unless of course they are family). In trying to play catch-up from being away last week, reading a great post did get me thinking…

Last week, Michael Wu of Lithium posted some interesting thoughts on Dunbar’s number. I would encourage you to take a look at his post, and the great conversations which often ensue.  This part, where researchers suggest the number should be bigger, definitely grabbed my attention:

So what is the new Dunbar Limit? A new estimate for the average size of personal social networks has been investigated recently by Prof. Russell Bernard and Prof. Peter Killworth. This new “Dunbar limit” is roughly 291 at the height of the information revolution (before the bust). It almost doubled the original estimate by Dunbar for the pre-industrial era. However, the Barnard-Killworth estimate was derived from data prior to the social media revolution. Now, 10 years later, could the advance in social technologies today push this limit further?

Yes, no question (and I am looking forward to Michael’s further thoughts on the topic)!

From Individual to Company

If the topic is worth understanding and exploring at the individual level (which it is), I suppose it is also worth talking a look at it from a company level too, no? Isn’t that what the whole Social CRM conversation is all about? If you, as a company, are better armed with the details of your relationships with your customers, as well as how they are interconnected and interdependent, then I will suggest you are better equipped to maintain a powerful and balanced relationship with them.  Based on the analysis at the individual layer (From Michael’s post):

There are two assumptions to bear in mind when talking about the Dunbar Number:

  1. Dunbar number applies to groups that have very high incentive (e.g. survival) to maintain social cohesion. In these groups, Dunbar speculated that 42% of the time budget is devoted to “social grooming” (for non-human primates, or socializing for humans) so that everyone knows everything about everyone else’s social relationship.
  2. Dunbar estimated his number with brain size data and group size data derived from 38 different primate species. Then he survey many pre-industrial villages and tribes and found their size all hover around his predicted number of 148.

Many many people are writing, blogging and talking about how to engage with your customers, have a relationship with your customers all with the purpose of better understanding your customers.  I will quickly pass beyond my ability to bring this conversation home. For example if the Dunbar number is tied to the size of the Neocortex, as summarized by Michael, and the size of the Neocortex has not changed much in 300 years (industrialization timeline), then how can the number have increased? If businesses are mimicking biology, then what strategy or system best mimics the neocortex? If the organizational goal is to build and maintain relationships, beyond just connections, then a deeper understanding of these concepts does seem like time well spent…to me anyway. What are your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “The Company Version of the Dunbar Number

  1. Mitch,

    Interesting points. I don;t believe the number has changed – I just think that we are better visualizing our tenuous connections in networks like Facebook etc.

    Companies, like individuals, need to prioritize and identify their key relationships. Now, if enough people are managing 150 strong relationships in a company (lead sales reps) you can scale effectively in a social, connected world.

    However, if you are a company with 20 million customers, and you hire three people to manage your social outreach, engagement, etc. – you’re in trouble. Look at Comcast as a great example of overloaded, useless, social “reps” trying to engage while being ridiculously over their heads in terms of volume and complexity of the relationship.

    Just throwing more fuel to an interesting fire.


  2. Mitch,

    Great post! Super interesting topic. I think the number has increased, for individuals and businesses, because technology has given us more memory and, as noted by Martin, better tools to visualize our connections.

    By better memory, I mean my neocortex might still be at its limit with 148 friends, but my email inboxes, address books, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. keep reminding me about hundreds of other people and companies I care about…and store much of what I know about them.

    Certainly, though, the number is not very, very much higher (e.g. 10x) since everyone seems overwhelmed by the volume of information and interactions that come from many hundreds of connections.

    I hope that we are still at the beginning of a phase of innovation that will bring us better and better tools to manage higher numbers of relationships (personal and commercial). When used effectively, Marketing Automation, Lead Scoring, Drip Marketing, CRM software, email, IM and social media all increase the Business Dunbar Number. That’s a cool metric to think about. Thanks for sharing it!


    – David

  3. Hi,

    Don’t get too carried away with Dunbars number. The original research was based on primate relationships, and then extrapolated to human ones. The environmental conditions, and well as the cognitive ones, differ obviously between humans and gorillas, chimps and Orang-u-tans…well mostly. I do concede there is a case for this in some industries. The primary example of the divergence is that humans have a strong ability to ‘chunk’ relationships, and compartmentalise, leading to potentail a higher capacity to manage relationships. Secondly beyond the jungle we have developed a number of tools that extend our ability to manage relationships outside our brains, from taking notes to contact lists and social media networks.


  4. Hi,
    Perhaps related to the Dunbar number (the monkey brain view) is a measure of so called “community”. The definition of community size that has stuck with me is the one that states: You would notice if someone wasn’t present. Of course one can be a member of several communities. In some ways, I think this is a more relevant way to think about relationship management. In the context of a community.

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