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Dunbar’s Number for the Workplace


Louis Armstrong in 1967 famously sang ‘What a wonderful world’ which topped the pop charts in the United Kingdom. Robin Dunbar a 20-year-old lad from Liverpool must have definitely felt the beauty of this wonderful world. Dunbar later went on to become a world-renowned anthropologist. His most famous work came in 1990 when he created a correlation between the size of a primate’s brain and its average social group size. This correlation famously became known as Dunbar’s Number when extrapolated to humans and states that we can maintain only 150 stable social relationships. 

You might argue that your 60-year-old grandmother has 500+ connections on Facebook and an equal fan following on Instagram, but the key here is “Stable Social Relationships”. We often confuse our social connections with stable social relationships. To simplify this, in his book Grooming, Gossip, and Evolution of Language Dunbar explains it informally as, “The number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”


Workplace Collaboration

Workplace collaboration, where colleagues share and discuss to achieve a common goal for the organization, has evolved organically and is now fueled by powerful technological tools. This software provided by interesting vendors like Slack, Yammer, Kissflow, Monday.com, etc., represents the enterprise collaboration market which is poised to grow at a high CAGR. The tools provide solutions to the fundamental needs of productivity and contextual collaboration for the digital enterprise which is predominantly dominated by millennials and the gen-z demographic cohort.

With all the top vendors offering unified work and collaboration, smart integrations with third party solution providers, faster onboarding, and world-class user experience, can Dunbar offer any hidden insights to workplace collaboration? 


Curious Case

The knowledge gained about Dunbar’s number and our understanding of workplace collaboration has induced our curiosity because sometimes collaboration doesn’t happen despite the presence of the right set of drivers and facilitators. This has led us to reflect on a few questions: 

  1. Is there a magical Dunbar number for the workplace? 
  2. If yes, can it impact collaboration at the workplace?
  3. Can your collaboration tool intelligently recommend X number of super-supportive workmates for efficient collaboration?
  4. Office spaces mentions group restructuring, hot desking, and fluid spaces as ways to make the physical office support Dunbar’s theory, but what more can be done? 

The key to workplace collaboration lies in first acknowledging the fact that there are a lot of unknowns and our intuitions about people and groups are generally wrong. Testing our hypothesis around workplace collaboration should involve a human-first approach as technology is just a facilitator. 

Taking cues from Louis Armstrong,

I hear employees crying (for collaboration),
I watch them grow,
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know…
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.