I took part in an interesting session today, talking about scale. It’s interesting to think about how things scale: we are used to talking about it in terms of technology, can you scale the number of users, can you expand the number of locations that something is deployed to, or in terms of scale of the business, can it cope with more clients, can it add more buildings, can it increase the number of locations that it serves.
But there are other aspects of scale, what about the culture itself. Can the culture scale? I tend to fall into a space where I believe that culture can only scale so far: beyond which, it tends to fragment into highly coherent sub cultures, unified by one frame of organisational culture. Whilst you can share purpose and high-level values up to a certain point, as groups grow larger, it’s almost inevitable that localised team dynamics will kick in, and the people will find a primary alignment with some subset of the whole.
Certainly this is the case if we look at most of the evidence around us: within one society we see multiple political viewpoints, within one city we see multiple gangs, multiple zones, separated not just by wealth but by ethical and moral viewpoints very often. We can have a national culture, but it’s largely made up of a series of more localised sub cultures.
So perhaps there are different types of scaling: on the one hand, more functional or technical types, where increased scale in technology comes from additional components, more processing power, more sheer muscle, and then cultural scaling, which is governed by different effects, somehow harder to hold together. No amount of muscle or processing power is going to give you a coherent culture.
So in an organisational context, when we talk about scale, perhaps we should be talking about aspects of scale, facets of scaling. How do we scale technology, but also how do we scale community, and ultimately, how do we scale the culture, all the while recognising that whilst some of these dimensions are under our control, many are not.
As ever, when we look at apparently simple social situations, we discover complex underlying subdivisions. Human and organisational systems are inherently tricky to predict, and almost impossible to control. And yet we often persist in trying, convincing ourselves that we can somehow control the very things which by their nature slip through our fingers.