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Dunbar’s Number and the Jetson Fallacy

By Paul Hebert, VP, Solutions Design, Symbolist

Some of you may be familiar with Dunbar’s Number. It was defined originally by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist who, based on extrapolations from primates to humans, suggested that humans tend to only comfortably manage relationships with about 150 people. Once that threshold (plus or minus a few people of course – nothing with humans is exact) is reached, there’s a need for more restrictive rules, regulations and enforced norms to maintain order and stability.

You may think this only applies in social contexts, but the 150 person rule has been discussed and observed in businesses as well. W.L.Gore & Associates – makers of Gore-Tex and a company repeatedly recognized as a “best company to work for” – limits its production plants to 150 people. According to Bill Gore, the late founder of the company: “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty.”

So what does Dunbar’s Number have to do with engagement? Simple. Readers of ESM are businesspeople. We get paid to make money. Either for ourselves or our business overlords – or both. We focus on those things that can most easily, most readily (and most importantly) make it rain. And one of the things that has become almost stupidly obvious with technology is that scale is the killer app.

Scale helps us make money.

The Holy Grail

Scale is the holy grail of today’s business world. Scale is all about getting more (much, much, more) and spending less (much, much, less) to get it. If you’re not looking for something that can scale then you’re toast. Even the engagement space isn’t immune to the desire for scale. The last 10 years or so has seen a huge uptick in the number and type of SaaS products all designed to create a “write once – run everywhere” experience for clients. The theory being that engagement is a software problem and if I can just get enough people to run the software I can engage my customers, my vendors, my employees. And, if I can just get enough people on the software – employees, vendors, customers – then I can increase engagement and therefore increase profits.

The result was an investment in the technologies that connect people and (with a little finger crossing) engage them.

The first step was software that was custom designed. One-off solutions, custom built for each client. But custom didn’t scale well. Then it was “mass-customization” – smaller blocks of code easily updated and connected to create bigger system with less effort. Still, however, not enough scale to really drive profit.

Then came service as a software (SaaS) – programming’s version of the holy grail – for multiple clients with similar problems. Now companies can theoretically write a single instance of a product and re-sell the software over and over with limited if any customization.

It Isn’t Working

Now, I’m oversimplifying this because a) I’m not that smart, and b) there are various flavors of SaaS, each with its own specifications, and those difference don’t impact the point I’m trying to make. And that point is that we’ve invested a lot of time and treasure into creating scalable systems to impact engagement. And it isn’t working.

It isn’t working because scaling a process, or product, is a play for efficiency. We want to increase the ability to engage – without a corresponding increase in cost. We want the same benefits in our engagement efforts as we see when we add additional people in our email systems.

But engagement doesn’t scale well.

It doesn’t scale because at it’s not a technology issue. It’s a human issue. And I think humans have built-in roadblocks to scalability.

‘The Jetson Fallacy’

Remember Dunbar’s Number? That is a big roadblock. If we can only truly and personally connect with roughly 150 people at a time, then more scale isn’t the answer. Sometimes more isn’t better. It’s just more. And if you look at engagement (and this applies to customers, vendor and suppliers, as well as employees) through a lens of “human relationships” instead of bits and bytes and systems, it means different thinking is needed.

Example: An article I recently read in Slate called “The Jetson Fallacy” talked about how to scale care for our elderly. As our world gets progressively older due to advances in medicine and health, the need to take care of more and more people becomes a priority. And like engagement, some folks looked to the process and looked for ways to scale support. But according to the author, scaling healthcare services for our elderly isn’t a simple solution:

…here's the thing about caregiving: It doesn't get more efficient with time. Unlike computer technology, human caregiving doesn’t double in processing power every two years. It remains slow and labor-intensive. How we experience life as we [age] depends on the technology we create and our access to that technology, but it also depends on our access to people we love and who love us back

Think about engagement. Think about good management. They don’t scale either. True engagement doesn’t get more efficient as you add people to the “network.” It gets worse. That’s because engagement – like eldercare and childcare – is labor intensive. It requires one-on-one.

Engagement is human intensive. Humans don’t scale. Humans engage.

Don’t Mechanize the Message

Think about your engagement activities across all your important business audiences. Are you simply mechanizing the same message, or are you engaging? People turn off machines but lean in for conversations with other people.

Is the future of engagement really about teaching and training and not about toys and technology? Is it less about SaaS and more about HaaS (humans as a support)?

Bottom line: Use technology where it makes sense, but not at the expense of the human factor.

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