Sociologists have long recognized that businesses of less than 200 individuals can operate through the free flow of information among the members. Once their size exceeds this figure, however, some kind of hierarchical structure or line management system is necessary to prevent total chaos resulting from failures of communication. Imposing structures of this kind has its costs: information can only flow along certain channels because only certain individuals contact each other regularly; moreover, the lack of personalized contacts means that individuals lack that sense of personal commitment that makes the world of small groups go round. Favours will only be done when there is a clear quid pro quo, an immediate return to the giver, rather than being a matter of communal obligation. Large organizations are less flexible.
One solution to this problem would, of course, be to structure large organizations into smaller units of a size that can act as a cohesive group. By allowing these groups to build reciprocal alliances with each other, larger organizations can be built up. However, merely having groups of, say, 150 will never of itself be a panacea to the problems of the organization. Something else is needed: the people involved must be able to build direct personal relationships. To allow free flow of information, they have to be able to interact in a casual way. Maintaining too formal a structure of relationships inevitably inhibits the way a system works.
The importance of this was drawn to my attention a couple of years ago by a TV producer. The production unit for which she worked produced all the educational output for a particular TV station. Whether by chance or by design, it so happened that there were almost exactly 150 people in the unit. The whole process worked very smoothly as an organization for many years until they were moved into purpose-built accommodation. Then, for no apparent reason, everything started to fall apart. The work seemed to be more difficult to do, not to say less satisfying.
It was some time before they worked out what the problem was. It turned out that, when the architects were designing the new building, they decided that the coffee room where everyone ate their sandwiches at lunch times was an unnecessary luxury and so dispensed with it. The logic seemed to be that if people were encouraged to eat their sandwiches at their desks, then they were more likely to get on with their work and less likely to idle time away. And with that, they inadvertently destroyed the intimate social networks that empowered the whole organization. What had apparently been happening was that, as people gathered informally over their sandwiches in the coffee room, useful snippets of information were casually being exchanged. Someone had a problem they could not solve, and began to discuss it over lunch with a friend from another section. The friend knew just the person to ask. Or someone overhearing the conversation would have a suggestion, or would go away and happen to bump into someone who knew the answer a day or so later; a quick phone call and the problem was resolved. Or a casual comment sparked an idea for a new programme.
It was these kinds of chance encounter in the coffee room, idle chatter around the photocopier, that made the difference between a successful organization and a less successful one.
From Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,
by Robin Dunbar
C. Answer these questions about words and phrases from the article.
1. Look at this key sentence from paragraph 4: And with that, they inadvertently destroyed the intimate social networks that empowered the whole organization.
a) What does that refer to?
b) Who does they refer to?
2. In the same sentence, what do these words and phrases mean?
a) inadvertently destroyed
b) intimate social networks
3. Choose the correct answer. Quid pro quo means:
a) something that you give or do in exchange for something else
b) a situation that exists at a particular time without changes being made to it
c) money in pounds sterling that you give in return for a favour
4. Panacea means something that people think will:
a) make everything better
b) make everything worse
c) not change the situation
5. Explain the meaning of purpose-built.
D. In your own words describe what happened to the effectiveness of the TV production unit.
E. The article mentions informal communication over lunch and around the photocopier. Can you give other examples of this kind of informal communication? What are the benefits of this?
F. What changes can you suggest to improve communication within your own organization or an organization you know well?