42 Collection Scope And Scale

You know from your own experience that some collections of resources are more difficult to organize than others.  This chapter introduces two new concepts, SCOPE and SCALE, that explain these difficulties.  You can use these concepts to analyze organizing tasks so you can better estimate how much time it will take to do them.   And if you are clever, you can make an organizing task easier using these ideas!


  • SCOPE is the variety of resources you need to organize.
  • SCALE is the number of resources you need to organize.


Look at the small collection of nine items in the left box here. You can easily see that they come in three colors and three shapes, so we would say that the collection has small scope and small scale. The color and shape properties are the obvious choices for organizing them. Now look at the much larger collection of items in the right box. There are nine times as many items in right box than in the left box, but they still only come in the same three colors and three shapes as the items in the small collection. We would say that the second collection has a larger scale, but it has the same small scope as the first collection.  Even though the second collection is larger, it isn’t harder to organize than the first one.   What is it that makes an organizing problem hard?
The picture on the left is of the Harris Cattle Ranch in California.  It has over 100,000 cattle at any one time, but it has only 400 employees, about one employee for every 250 cattle. On the right is a map of the San Francisco Zoo.  It has about 2000 animals of 250 species,  and it has about 200 employees, about one employee for every 10 animals.  Why is there such a big difference in the ratio of animals to employees at these two places?



You can answer this question about the ratio of animals to employees using the concepts of scope and scale.  The Harris Cattle Ranch has a very small scope because it only has one type of animal.   The scale is very large, but because all the animals are treated as equivalent (remember the “Santa” question), a single employee can manage the required interactions with a lot of animals.  No one is ever going to search for a specific cow in a herd that has 100,000 of them.

In contrast, the zoo has a much smaller scale in terms of the overall number of animals, but because there are so many different species, employees need to specialize. Just think how different penguins, monkeys, and elephants are in their habitats, diets, and medical treatments! Furthermore, some of the animals have been in the zoo for many years and are treated as “celebrity animals” and identified by name. You can buy a stuffed animal version of the celebrity animal in the zoo gift shop to take home.

But you have to remember the fundamental secret of organizing…. that WHY you organize and HOW you organize are interconnected decisions.   At the Harris Cattle Ranch, the ratio of cattle to employees can be very big because the WHY is simple — the cattle just need to be fed so they grow, so they can be kept in big feedlots and not organized too much.

Make sure you understand what makes the Harris Cattle Ranch easy to organize.  It isn’t because cattle are always easy to organize. You can imagine a “farm petting zoo” with just a few cattle there, but they might be treated as individual cows with names and separate areas for interacting with kids.   The complexity of the organizing system depends on whether you treat all the cattle as the same type of thing or as individuals.

The big idea of this chapter is that the SCOPE of a collection — how many types of things to be organized — is much more important than the SCALE — the number of things to be organized. You can make a hard organizing problem easier if you change the answer to the “Santa” question and treat many slightly different things as equivalent. This makes the SCOPE of the collection smaller.


In the next chapter you will do some activities that will ensure that you understand these concepts of SCOPE and SCALE.


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"The Discipline of Organizing" for Kids Copyright © 2022 by Robert J Glushko is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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