Communication (and coordination?) in complex organizations

Stumbled upon this Harvard working knowledge paper by Adam Kleinbaum, Toby Stuart, and Michael Tushman via Mike Gotta who highlighted the opening quote:

“The social system is an organization, like the individual, that is bound together by a system of communication.” − Norbert Wiener (1948, p. 24)

The paper asks which groups are most likely to communicate with others in a large organization, regardless of social-and physical-boundaries and finds that category-spanning communication patterns are demonstrated primarily by women, mid- to high-level executives, and members of the executive management, sales and marketing functions.

It is available for free download as a pdf. Here’s the abstract:

This is a descriptive study of the structure of communications in a modern organization. We analyze a dataset with millions of electronic mail messages, calendar meetings and teleconferences for many thousands of employees of a single, multidivisional firm during a three-month period in calendar 2006. The basic question we explore asks, what is the role of observable (to us) boundaries between individuals in structuring communications inside the firm? We measure three general types of boundaries: organizational boundaries (strategic business unit and function memberships), spatial boundaries (office locations and inter-office distances), and social categories (gender, tenure within the firm). In dyad-level models of the probability that pairs of individuals communicate, we find very large effects of formal organization structure and spatial collocation on the rate of communication. Homophily effects based on sociodemographic categories are much weaker. In individual-level regressions of engagement in category-spanning communication patterns, we find that women, mid- to high-level executives, and members of the executive management, sales and marketing functions are most likely to participate in cross-group communications. In effect, these individuals bridge the lacunae between distant groups in the company’s social structure.

I like the approach, and the systematization of the three types of boundaries. Moreover the results reminded me of McAfee’s empty quarter thoughts, esp. if we understand that building bridges is one thing that may emerge with the adoption of social software in the enterprise. Yes, to achieve the boundaryless organization, putting social web elements to use is a good idea – especially to support lateral, cross-division, cross-function and cross-rank communication patterns. Yet, I guess that breaking up the silos all the way, i.e. to achieve and leverage “cross-division, cross-function and cross-rank” cooperation and collaboration, will be a lot harder. Connectbeam‘s Hutch Carpenter highlights the status quo and the real issues to deal with, i.e. integrating the user experience and adding layers that do more than mere enterprise search:

Adding social computing features to existing enterprise silos certainly helps, but fails to connect the larger organization. […]

We have not yet seen the emergence of a full-suite vendor that addresses the different needs of the market. Expect to see enterprises with multiple social computing apps for the foreseeable future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *