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The rule of 150 applied to data
by Robert Hillard

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has used his research in primates over recent decades to argue that there is a cognitive limit to the number of social relationships that an individual can maintain and hence a natural limit to the breadth of their social group.  In humans, he has proposed that this number is 150, the so-called “Dunbar’s number”.

In the modern organisation, relationships are maintained using data.  It doesn’t matter whether it is the relationship between staff and their customers, tracking vendor contracts, the allocation of products to sales teams or any other of the literally thousands of relationships that exist, they are all recorded centrally and tracked through the data that they throw off.

Social structures have evolved over thousands of years using data to deal with the inability of groups of more than 150 to effectively align. One of the best examples of this is the 11th century Doomsday Book ordered by William the Conqueror.  Fast forward to the 21st century and technology has allowed the alignment of businesses and even whole societies in ways that were unimaginable 50 years ago.

Just as a leadership team needs to have a group of people that they relate to that falls within the 150 of Dunbar’s number, they also need to rely on information which allows the management system to extend that span of control.  For the average executive, and ultimately for the average executive leadership team, this means that they can really only keep a handle on 150 “aspects” of their business, reflected in 150 “key data elements”.  These elements anchor data sets that define the organisation.

Key Data Elements

To overcome the constraints of Dunbar’s number, mid-twentieth century conglomerates relied on a hierarchy with delegated management decisions whereas most companies today have heavily centralised decision making which (mostly) delivers a substantial gain in productivity and more efficient allocation of capital.  They can only do this because of the ability to share information efficiently through the introduction of information technology across all layers of the enterprise.

This sharing, though, is dependent on the ability of an executive to remember what data is important.  The same constraint of the human brain to know more than 150 people also applies to the use of that information.  It is reasonable to argue that the information flows have the same constraint as social relationships.

Observing hundreds of organisations over many years, the variety of key data elements is wide but their number is consistently in the range of one to a few hundred.  Perhaps topping out at 500, the majority of well-run organisations have nearer to 150 elements dimensioning their most important data sets.

While decisions are made through metrics, it is the most important key data elements that make up the measures and allow them to be dimensioned.

Although organisations have literally hundreds of thousands of different data elements they record, only a very small number are central to the running of the enterprise.  Arguably, the centre can only keep track of about 150 and use them as a core of managing the business.

Another way of looking at this is that the leadership team (or even the CEO) can really only have 150 close relationships.  If each relationship has one assigned data set or key data element they are responsible for then the overall organisation will have 150.

Choosing the right 150

While most organisations have around 150 key data elements that anchor their most important information, few actually know what they are.  That’s a pity because the choice of 150 tells you a lot about the organisation.  If the 150 don’t encompass the breadth of the enterprise then you can gain insight into what’s really important to the management team.  If there is little to differentiate the key data elements from those that a competitor might choose then the company may lack a clear point of difference and be overly dependent on operational excellence or cost to gain an advantage.

Any information management initiative should start by identifying the 150 most important elements.  If they can’t narrow the set down below a few hundred, they should be suspicious they haven’t gotten to the core of what’s really important to their sponsors.  They should then look to ask the question of whether these key data elements span the  enterprise or pick organisational favourites; whether they offer differentiation or are “me too” and whether they are easy or hard for a competitor to emulate.

The identification of the 150 key data elements provides a powerful foundation for any information and business strategy.  Enabling a discussion on how the organisation is led and managed.  While processes evolve quickly, the information flows persist.  Understanding the 150 allows a strategist to determine whether the business is living up to its strategy or if its strategy needs to be adjusted to reflect the business’s strengths.

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