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Why SMBs Need Social Software – Dunbar’s Number Limits Metcalfe’s Law

A general observation of collaborative work is this:

The larger and more diverse are your personal network of contacts,
the higher the quality of your ideas and project work.

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In the enterprise market, the opportunity being seized by companies is to better connect employees. The sheer size of these firms makes it obvious that they are not optimizing collaborative activities. Social software plays an important role in helping that. SunGard’s CEO has a great take on this issue in the New York Times.

But what about small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs)? Do they have issues with maintaining connections? We’ll tackle that issue in a second. First, however…

WE by Spigit: Innovation Management for SMBs

Spigit is introducing its SaaS application for SMBs, called WE. WE leverages the enterprise functionality of enterprise Spigit, but streamlines the features to account for a self-service process and cost in tune with an SMB’s budget. The critical things firms need for innovation are there: easy idea entry, community feedback, workflow stages, analytics, individual reputation scores, multiple ways to filter for ideas, social profiles, connections, activity streams, etc.

It also reflects a slick new user interface, with multiple themes to choose from.

You can see more about WE innovation management for SMBs on the Spigit website. And read eWeek’s coverage of the release here.

The Challenge of Growth: Traditional Collaboration Modes Don’t Scale

When a small company starts out, it’s rather easy to stay on top of what colleagues are doing. There just aren’t too many of them. You easily banter, bounce ideas off one another and contribute your part to projects.

It’s natural human interactions.

The problem is that small businesses continue to rely exclusively on the tried-and-true methods of collaborative work as they grow. Keep on with the emails, the desk meetings, the lunches. Sure, it’s fun to keep with those who sit essentially in your visual perimeter. But it means you’re missing out on a lot of valuable ideas and insight from colleagues.

The graphic below shows the challenge of scale in collaborative work:

The easy interactions of old are now replaced by the departmental exchanges, and the daily work inherent in those micro environments.The small firm mentality that employees enjoyed with fewer employees is no longer applicable as the company expands.

Yet as research has shown, employees who are able to break out of departmental silos and leverage a diversity of connections perform better in terms of innovation.

So how does this fit SMBs?

Metcalfe’s Law Hits Dunbar’s Number

Metcalfe’s Law. Initially addressing fax machines, it speaks to the value of networks. Specifically:

The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected participants.

For those who study the value of information networks, this law makes sense. You increase your number of information sources. And all things being equal, the person with greater information has a decided advantage in term of:

  • Awareness of key issues
  • Long tail knowledge of different issues
  • Access to information that will solidify an idea
  • Identification of colleagues who can help advance an idea or a project
  • Different points of view and information that make up for the knowledge limitations we all have

Every new connection inside a company increases these information advantages, for all members of the network. The problem occurs when employees are only using traditional methods for making and accessing these connections: email, desk conversations, departmental meetings.

They run into Dunbar’s Number. I use Dunbar’s Number here as a heuristic, describing the mental limit we each have to stay in top of what others are working on. With traditional means of engaging in collaborative work, the Metcalfe’s Law advantages of information diversity are limited by our Dunbar’s Number ability to keep up with the new connections.

This graph describes the issue, and SMBs’ opportunity:

Up to a certain point, employees can stay on top of what their colleagues are working on, and interact relatively easily. Is this up to 150 employees? Maybe. As Danah Boyd noted about Dunbar’s Number:

He found that the MAXIMUM number of people that a person could keep up with socially at any given time, gossip maintenance, was 150. This doesn’t mean that people don’t have 150 people in their social network, but that they only keep tabs on 150 people max at any given point.

150 is a maximum number. Meaning for many of us it’s less. And I’d argue, in a work context, where we’re busy delivering on the daily tasks that define our jobs, it’s an even lower theoretical maximum.

Which means at some point, small businesses begin to lose out on those information advantages when they rely only on traditional collaborative work modes. In the graph above, that’s the part of the graph where Dunbar’s Number crosses over Metcalfe’s Law.

Call it the Metcalfe’s Law Opportunity Gap.

At that point, companies need to look at systems that allow employees to share and filter information, and to interact with others outside their daily sphere of contacts. To access non-redundant information and points of view.

This is a problem well-known to large organizations. It also applies to SMBs as well. It’s why they need social software at a certain point in their growth trajectory.

This is an important issue for innovation. So many of these employees will have front line customer and supplier experience, and ideas for the business. But visibility on these ideas will get harder and harder as the firm grows.

If this area interests you, check out WE by Spigit. Social software for SMBs.

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My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 022709

From the home office in Denver, Colorado…

#1: Please, I don’t want your automated DMs after I follow you. This practice needs to stop. I never click your links, it’s just spam.

#2: To all you social media whales doing the mass unfollow routine, I say: “Go ahead, make my day.” Got my unfollow trigger finger ready.

#3: Reading @loic post about the realities of following thousands http://bit.ly/CR6A9 Future = Dunbar’s Number + @replies + keyword tracking?

#4: Yammer rolls out new features: lifestreaming a la FriendFeed, and DM like Twitter. VentureBeat: http://bit.ly/qamnq

#5: “Discovering problems actually requires as much creativity as discovering solutions” The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun

#6: Innovation myth inside companies: “if the idea were any good, the people at the top would have thought of it already.” http://bit.ly/CfPgl

#7: FriendFeed guys have created the FriendFeed Therapy Room, featuring Eliza http://bit.ly/LseaI See if you can get past her therapist tenacity

#8: Do you suppose accident rates are down in California now that we’ve banned cell phones in the car? Do you feel safer?

#9: My favorite Jelly Belly beans: 1. coffee 2. watermelon. My 4.y.o. son Harrison: smelly skunk (betcha didn’t know about that one). You?

#10: Driving down 101, behind this car. Smelled an odd sweet odor that I recognized. Pass the car minutes later, sure enough dude had a fat one.

The Serendipity of Attention

In the recent post Forget Dunbar’s Number, Our Future Is in Scoble’s Number, commenter Adam Metz wrote:

H-Dog,

Maybe I’m missing something, but where’s your definition of Attention? Can you add it in to the second or third paragraph? Good idea, but a little rough around the edges.

Calling me “H-Dog” is one way to get my attention. ūüėČ But back to the definition of attention. Putting it simply:

Attention = time + interest

Time being a real-world constraint. There are only but so many hours in a day, so attention is bound by that dimension. If I’m tied up with work or playing with the kids, I’m not going to give anything my attention. The second aspect is interest. Say, I do have some time. If I’m viewing something on the foraging habits of the scaup bird, my interest is quite low and I’m likely not to pay attention even though I have the time. I’ll find something else.

I will observe though, that while time is a concrete and unyielding dimension, interest is fluid and dynamic. Our moods, activities, friends and life events¬† affect what is interesting at any given point in time. It’s not like it’s totally random – there is a baseline of things that consistently interest us. While time is rigid, interest is a flexible dimension of attention.

Next question is how we find things that are of interest to us when we do have the time.

The Reducing Bands of Attention

I think I can make this statement with certainty:

You will miss the vast majority of information which would fit both your interests and time available to read

Anyone disagree? That’s probably a frustrating aspect of our information age. Am I finding the things I should know? How do I improve that? How can I be both more efficient and systematic in finding what interests me?

Technology is making it easier to be more efficient and systematic, but we’re nowhere near perfecting that. And we can’t get too perfect, because as I mentioned before, our “interests” are fluid and I don’t think we could possibly catalog all of what interests us.

Honestly, we have to accept a certain serendipity of attention. And realize we’ve got a much better system of discovery than we did just ten years ago. I’ve thought about my own experience. What’s my personal system for attention?¬† It’s a mix of ways, as the graphic below shows:

bands-of-managing-reduced-attention

Let me describe the bands.

Dunbar’s Number: This is the theoretical limit on the number of individuals whom you can follow closely. The number is pegged at 150, a number of people which even Robert Scoble uses for his core basis of attention. My Dunbar’s number includes the 70 or so people I’m following each day on my Enterprise 2.0 List on FriendFeed. It then includes some other folks who fall outside Enterprise 2.0 but interest me in other ways.

With people in your Dunbar’s Number, you read what they create, share and talk about. My guess is that this is the core use case of Facebook members. Note that you expand the number of people you track via this group when they share content or talk with someone outside your core 150. The expansion is temporary though – based on what someone you follow has engaged with.

@replies: I use the Twitter @replies function as shorthand for the ways in which people reach out directly to you. This includes the @replies, the DMs, the Facebook messages, email itself,¬† etc. Now I’m not inundated with these, so they still get my attention. As you rise in the social media pecking order, apparently you get bombarded with these directed messages. Then they probably move to an outer band of attention for you.

Keyword tracking: This is how people, information and conversations outside my Dunbar’s Number most often get my attention. I track content that includes keywords in which I’m interested. This is the most systematic way I have for improving the efficiency and coverage of things that interest me. As I often write here, I use the Enterprise 2.0 Room on FriendFeed for this. Another good option is Filtrbox. I’m sure there are others.

Other groups: OK, you’ve got the core group of people you follow in your Dunbar’s Number. But there are others you like to keep up with as well. This is where the group functions come in to play. You can group people based on some characteristic, and check on those groups as attention allows. On FriendFeed, these are Lists. TweetDeck lets you group people.

Groups are great for when you’ve already seen your Dunbar’s List and @replies. And sometimes you just need a break from the usual topics and people on which you’ve put focus.

Random views: I do this as well. For some, it may be dipping into the public timeline of Twitter. Or FriendFeed’s everyone tab. Once you’re following a large number of people, checking out the tweets or FriendFeed entries of everyone you follow becomes a form of random views. Because you can’t possibly take in the full river of content all the time. You’d get nothing else done. But it is worth it to dip in occasionally.

Scoble’s Number Requires a System

In the graphic, I categorize all the bands outside Dunbar’s Number as the province of Scoble’s Number. To track people well outside your core 150, you need a way that aids the goals of better efficiency and more systematic coverage, while preserving the serendipity that accompanies the fluidity of our interests.

That’s where I am these days when it comes to attention. How about you?

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?required=q&q=%22The+Serendipity+of+Attention%22

Forget Dunbar’s Number, Our Future Is in Scoble’s Number

social-graph-graphic

Photo credit: Mark Wallace

I probably don’t know about your latest job project. I don’t know what your kids are up to. I don’t know about that vacation you’ve got coming up. I can’t say what city you’re visiting for business. I have no idea that you’re having a bad day.

But I do know you’ve got a really strong take about where social software helps companies.

Why? Because that’s an area where we have a common interest. I don’t need to know all of you, as Dunbar’s Number posits. I only need to know part of you.

From Wikipedia, here’s what Dunbar’s Number is:

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.

This is a recurring issue in social networks. As in, why do people maintain large numbers of connections that can’t possibly be personal?

I like to break it people down into three types.

Three Types of Social Network Participants

I’m oversimplifying here, but this is a useful way to segment how people view their social network participation:

Close Friends: These folks view social networks as sites for staying up to date on a limited set of close connections. As in, “actual” friends.

Information Seekers: These folks, including me, expand beyond those with whom they have a pre-existing connection. Their interest is a bit of networking, and tapping information in their field.

Power Networkers: These folks amass thousands of connections. In the offline world, they’d have huge rolodexes. They want to connect with as many people as possible. Connections are fundamental to their professions. Think Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble.

The Close Friends users really want just that…updates from and interactions with their actual offline connections. When they post an update, they’ll hear from someone they know. When they read an update, it will be from someone they know. This is what Dunbar’s Number is all about.

Then there are the rest of us.

We Have Dunbar’s Number…How about Scoble’s Number?

If Dunbar’s Number is defined at 150 connections, perhaps we can term the looser connection of thousands as Scoble’s Number. The next model of social connections. Now let me explain what I’m saying here.

I’m not saying we can magically follow thousands of people closely because of social media. We can’t.

I’m not saying that we won’t have close connections that we know much more about. We will.

I am saying that a significant percentage of our online interactions will be with people about whom we know little.

That last point occurs as your connections get larger and larger. I follow 1,600 people on FriendFeed, 1,100 on Twitter. I can say from experience now that I know little about many of the people with whom I have @reply and thread conversations.

And it doesn’t bother me. I get plenty of value from these drive-by interactions.

Here’s how I differentiate interactions between Dunbar’s Number and Scoble’s Number:

scobles-number

In the top graph for Dunbar’s Number, you’re aware of a fuller range of what’s happening in someone’s life. Even if you aren’t actively trying to know about it. This is the stuff of warm friendships. You internalize a lot more information about someone, and they know a lot more about you. You develop short-hand ways of talking, and can call on older experiences to relate to new information and developments.

The bottom graph is for Scoble’s Number. Here, you only intersect socially with someone periodically. This happens when the stars align:

  • Someone is talking about a topic of interest to you
  • You happen to see this topic being discussed

Scoble’s Number is a our new reality. By maintaining a larger number of weaker connections, you can tap a wider range of opinions. People often deride “echo chamber” aspects of social media. Well, if you’re only paying attention to same people over and over, you will have created your own personal echo chamber.

This is not to say that we don’t have a more limited set of people we trust as information filters. Those people are important for keeping on top of things in a more systematic way.

But I tend to think of Scoble’s Number as a rich, chaotic frenzy of interactions that never would have occurred before social media was adopted so heavily. Online bulletin boards have this aspect, in that you “followed” thousands of participants on them. Think of molecules bouncing around, with occasional collisions. It’s these collisions where interesting reactions occur. Where you learn things you didn’t know, and you get perspective from people beyond your immediate circle.

It’s healthy. And given the growing participation in social media, and the low friction for finding and interacting with others, I see the trend as favoring Scoble’s Number.

Over time, some connections will move from being out there in your Scoble’s Number into your more personal Dunbar’s Number.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Follow Everything by a Select Few, Select Content by Everyone

Item #1: Fred Wilson tweet:

@timoreilly i want to follow less people and more keywords in my twitter timeline. can’t wait for summize to get integrated into twitter

Item #2: Adam Lasnik FriendFeed post:

I switched over to reading mostly a ‘subgroup’ (“Favorites”) on FF, and was missing the serendipity of new voices. One way I’ve remedied that is to do searches on some of my favorite things (“a cappella”, “lindy hop”, etc.) and see who and what comes up.

Item #3: Steve Gillmor blog post:

A small number of Follows combined with Track produces a high degree of coverage on a daily basis.

The three items above share a common theme…limit the number of people you follow. At first, this sounds obvious. Isn’t that what people normally would do? Well no, it’s not. In social networks, there’s a dynamic whereby people tend to return the favor when someone follows them. This build up your follows over time.¬† As Louis Gray noted in a recent post:

While you might be following thousands of people and making new “friends” on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed and all the other networks, you would likely hesitate before sending them an open invitation to your home.

“Thousands of people” I’m doing it: following 1,000+ people on FriendFeed, 600+ on Twitter. For seeing a broad range of information and opinion sources, it’s great to track so many people.

But there is a big downside. Much of what I see doesn’t interest me. The greater the number of people you follow, the more content you will see that falls outside your areas of interest. Putting this into attention terms, for any given minute you spend on a site, what is the probability you will see something that interests you?

It’s an odd phenomenon. I actually like that I’m following a lot of people, because it increases the number of instances where something that interests me will go by on my screen. But it affects the rate at which something interesting goes by. As you follow people that stretch outside your core interests, their streams do have a higher percentage of stuff that you don’t care about. And the overall probability of seeing content that interests you declines.

I want to differentiate this idea from Dunbar’s number, which describes limits on people’s ability to maintain inter-personal relationships. I’m not talking inter-personal relationships. I’m talking information foraging.

What Are You Trying to Get from Your Social Media

I enjoy following people that stream content outside my normal range of interests, such as Anna Haro on FriendFeed. It’s important to step outside the things that regularly occupy you, if you want to grow.

But the three items above show there is another rationale for people to participate in social media. Rather than seek content outside their interests, they want a concentrated dose. Personally, I’m finding I need this professionally. The Enterprise 2.0 space (my field) is fluid, and undergoing the stress of the global recession. Tracking the news, ideas, perspectives, trends and relationships is critical. For example, the microblogging trend (e.g. Yammer) is new and I’m interested in seeing how that plays out.

If you can see the point of that social media use case, you can understand the value of this idea:

Follow everything by a select few, select content by everyone

As I noted in my last blog post, I’m tracking everything for a select group of Enterprise 2.0 people, and keywords/tags for everyone.

In terms of the three items with which I started this post, Fred Wilson describes this approach. Adam Lasnik isn’t too far away. His manual searches for “a cappella”, “lindy hop”, etc. could be turned into persistent searches to find new content and people. Steve Gillmor is a little more of the social media whale philosophy, where he only wants to follow a specific set of users and then interact with the @replies on Twitter. But even Steve could add keyword tracking via a FriendFeed Room as a way to improve his daily “coverage”.

Will This Trend Grow?

I’m a fan of this use case. It fits my needs professionally. It’s almost like I have my 9-to-5 social media, and then my nighttime social media.

I suspect this use case will make more and more sense as social media expands its mainstream footprint. Information workers are the ones who will be most interested. The hardest part is figuring out which keyword/tags to follow, what sites to track and what mechanism to use for this tracking. I’d argue FriendFeed with its Rooms and Lists is perfect for this, but certainly there are other ways.

One final thought. If this trend takes hold out in the wider market, I can see people practicing a little SEO on their content. Get those hash tags in your tweets to make sure Fred Wilson will see your content (if he ever reveals what he tracks).

For kicks, I’m curious what you think of this idea. Please take a second to answer the poll below. If you’re reading this via RSS, click out to participate in the poll.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Follow+Everything+by+a+Select+Few%2C+Select+Content+by+Everyone%22&who=everyone