George Walford: The Corporation Hunter

Supermarkets displace corner shops, multi-nationals squeeze out local enterprises, mergers and takeovers reduce the number of independents. The great corporations are absorbing industrial and commercial life, and in doing this they stifle enterprise and suppress initiative. Head Office issues the orders while those below have only to carry them out. People who once worked and thought for themselves are degraded to mere instruments.Critics of capitalism present it in this way, placing all responsibility with ‘the bosses,’ seeing ‘the workers’ as little more than servants compelled to obedience by their need of a salary, mere ‘wage-slaves.’ Antony Jay took the unusual step of looking into big corporations to find out how they do in fact operate, and the results led him to reject this picture. He found the most efficient to be organised in groups of eight to fourteen people which he came to call ‘ten-groups,’ each group free to find its own way towards a target set for it within the general objects of the corporation. He found this form of organisation to have such powerful drives behind it that if denied expression within the corporation it was likely to appear in opposition. The formal reason for a strike, Jay argues, often provides no more than a pretext; the real reason is that the ten-group finds, in strike committees, the expression forbidden it within the corporation. On the other hand, a firm organised in ten-groups finds in this structure protection from the worst of the damage stoppages can cause; while some ten-groups may strike, others will carry on working. This discovery, of the part played by the ten- group, provides the main substance of his book Corporation Man (Pelican 1975):

the basic unit is not the individual but a group, nearly always a male group, which varies from three to twelve or fifteen in number, and perhaps optimizes somewhere around ten; that this group is bound together by a common objective, and that the bond of trust and loyalty thus formed can become an extremely powerful uniting force; that the group needs to decide on (or at least take part in deciding on) its own objective, and to work out for itself how that objective shall be achieved…

Jay draws attention to units of around this size in many fields beyond the corporation. A committee works best with about ten members; if it grows much beyond that size the extra people do not take a fully active part. Nearly all team games use a group of about ten on each side. Juries have 12 members and the Jewish minyan 10. In an army, organization often decides life and death, and under this pressure armies, too, adopt a basic unit of about ten; the British army, the US army, the ancient Roman army and that of Genghiz Khan, in fact every long-standing successful army, has built up its larger formations from squads or sections of about this size.

That mention of the Roman army takes us back some two thousand years, and Jay traces the ten-group back still farther, back to the foraging communities. The ten-group, found today as a structural unit in successful corporations began, he argues, as the male hunting-group of pre-agricultural times, still with us and still functional.

This group displays qualities in addition to its size. Small enough for the contribution of each member to make a noticeable contribution, in order to function it needs mutual dependence, a common objective and a single criterion of success for them all; as the hunting band fed or went hungry together so members of the modern ten-group must receive praise, blame and material rewards collectively for the unit to function at its best.

Since Jay wrote it has come to be accepted that the hunting of large animals began only towards the end of the paleolithic, a very long period of foraging for mainly vegetable food (in which women played a larger part than in hunting) preceding it. This did not carry the same need for cooperation, so the hunting band is unlikely to have been coeval with humanity; but it came very early, long before agriculture.

Having recognised this early form of organisation surviving inside the modern corporation, Jay expected to find large organisations following the same pattern as it were all through, the leaders of ten ten-groups coming together to form a ten-group regulating a group of about a hundred people, and so on. It did not work out like that. The next distinct level above the ten-group comprised three or four of these, some thirty or forty people. This also dates back to very early times. The need for the hunting band to bring its kill back to feed the people at the base each night limits the ground it can cover in a day and thus the size of band it can feed; paleozoologists calculating times, distances and numbers, come up with a figure for the whole band of about forty. This agrees with Jay’s figure for the next unit above the ten-group in the corporation, and also with the figure of not much over fifty reported by anthropologists for the foraging band of more recent times.

Above this comes a grouping of some five to six hundred people. This is about the limit of size for a firm under the control of one person, and it is also about the figure for a Roman cohort in wartime and what most principals think of as the right size for a school or college. Australian aborigines still arrange themselves into ‘dialectical tribes’ which maintain a steady size of about five hundred members, any growing much above that figure splitting in two. Also, while a soldier may be proud to belong to a particular corps or division, his membership of a battalion or regiment is something different; this arouses his loyalty, becomes a part of his personal identity. Jay regards this grouping as a continuance of the village or the tribe (though that term gets used also for much bigger units), the reason for its size being that six hundred is about the largest number of individuals one person can recognise on sight.

Jay continues his analysis to show kingdoms and empires surviving within the greatest corporations, and also a distinction, in corporations generally, between the active hunters and the base unit supporting them. (In business terms the salesmen and producers on the one hand, with departments such as personnel, planning and accounts on the other).

Summarising Jay’s observations we can say that, in the range running from the individual person to the total society, a number of nodal points appear, among them the ten-group, the band of forty to fifty and the tribe of around five hundred. Having first appeared in the course of early social development these groupings tend to persist within new and larger forms of organisation, continuing to offer opportunities for initiative, leadership, authority and charisma. Band, tribe, kingdom and empire all reappear within the structure of each great organisation, each of them displaying not only a distinct level of size and complexity but also a distinctive pattern of behaviour. Corporations function more effectively as they recognise this and take it into account.

Jay makes out a good case, so far as he goes, but although corporations seem likely to persist, as the forms of organisation they incorporate have done, they are not the final stage of social development. Corporations come under political control, and people concerned to understand the behaviour of society as a whole need to take account of this too.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.