Collaborative Thinking: Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization

I needed some time to understand this paper! ‘Collaborative Thinking’ pointed me to it. (Thanks!) The title sounded very interesting and after reading it, understanding most (not all!) of it, I’d like to pass it on to you as recommended reading.

The title of this HBS Working Knowledge paper is: “Communication (and coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization” by Adam M. Kleinbaum, Toby E. Stuart and Michael L. Tushman. I’ll give you some highlights.

First the main question of their research:
“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).”

They go into what literature has said about the managerial task:
“In these and other theories of the firm, the key managerial task is to effect coordination. (…) The implication of extant theories is that organizational members communicate to coordinate activities.”

However… “Despite the fundamental role of coordination – and the communication that enables it – to the purpose of organizations, we have little understanding of actual interaction patterns in modern, complex, multi-unit firms. To open the proverbial “black box” and begin to reveal the internal wiring of the firm, this paper presents a detailed, descriptive analysis of the network of communications among members of a large, structurally, functionally, geographically, and strategically diverse firm (hereafter, “BigCo”).”

So, they focussed on one company. This has implications for the conclusions they may draw:
“Moreover, at the level at which we can measure the communications network within BigCo, there is not a conclusive, one-to-one mapping between the evidence we marshal and the different theories of organization that populate the literature. Thus, despite our belief that the preponderance of the evidence is most consistent with one point of view – classical organization theory‘s emphasis on formal structure in shaping interaction – we will make no strong claim of proof.”

Then they summarize some of their findings, which are very interesting:

“First, relative to men, women participate in a greater volume of electronic and face-to-face interactions and do so with a larger and more diverse set of communication partners. (…)
Second, organizational boundaries – business unit, job function, and office location – have an enormous influence on who interacts with whom inside the firm. As a summary statistic, we find that relative to two people that share none of these categories in common and who are geographically separated by the sample‘s mean dyadic distance, a pair of individuals that shares the same business unit, job function, and office location communicates at an estimated rate that is approximately 1,000 times higher. (…)
Third, among all employees, executive-level communication appears to be least (but still very heavily) delimited by the pathways of formal organizational structure.”

Wow, women are very important in this (and all?) organizations! With respect to the second finding, I was surprised the authors didn’t refer to Kraut and Egido’s work on distance and communiction. (Robert Kraut and Carmen Egido (1998), “Patterns of contact and communication in scientific research and collaboration”.) Their work showed that when coworkers are 30 meters apart, this is perceived as the same as when they’re 1 kilometer apart.

Based on their survey of literature they found 3 bases for interaction within organizations:
“Thus, our survey of the extant literature suggests three very different bases for interaction within organizations. In classical work in organization theory and some contemporary theorizing it has inspired, formal structure reigns supreme; in more behaviorally oriented work with roots in mid-century sociology and social psychology, informal structure occupies a central position; and in a more recent stream of the literature, the image is one of a federation of organizational members woven together in lateral and fluid communication structures. (…) As we see it, therefore, the relevant empirical question – and the one we hope to illuminate – is, to what extent do communication patterns map to formal organization structures, versus emerge organically in a manner that is unfettered by the proscribed authority structures of the organization, or by the geographic and organizational locations of members?”

Now we’ll skip to the conclusions. I found the middle section most hard to understand and check.

First they pass on an interesting statement by Jack Welch:
“Specifically, he wrote of his intention to mold GE into a boundaryless organization, stating, “The boundaryless company we envision will remove the barriers among engineering, manufacturing, marketing, sales and customer service; it will recognize no distinction between domestic and foreign operations – we’ll be as comfortable doing business in Budapest and Seoul as we are in Louisville and Schenectady. A boundaryless organization will ignore or erase group labels such as ‘management’, ‘salaried’ or ‘hourly’, which get in the way of people working together.””

There main findings (in sum) are:
- “Repeating the statistic we reported earlier, relative to two people who share none of these categories in common and who are geographically separated by the sample’s mean geographic distance, pairs of individuals that are in the same business unit, subfunction, and office location communicate at an estimated rate that is 1,000 times higher. Social categories also matter at BigCo, but to a much lesser degree. Moreover, the formal authority structure of the firm clearly forms the vertical column of interaction: employees communicate within salary levels and with those in adjacent salary bands, but only rarely do they e-mail beyond this range…”

- “When we invert our perspective to focus on those who span the densely interacting groups within the firm, we were surprised to discover that women at BigCo are more likely to bridge the communication silos in the company.”

- “Similarly, those in the general executive management, sales, and marketing functions, as well as junior- to mid-level executives, were also more likely to engage in category-spanning communication patterns that run across the lessfrequently traversed boundaries in the firm.”

- “Indeed, one of our most surprising findings is the modest role that the firm’s most senior executives seem to play in coordinating the activities of the enterprise.”

- “So regardless of whether coordination is effected through widespread communication or communication among a select group of important individuals, we find that the same categories of people are crucial in spanning organizational boundaries.”

And finally some conclusive remarks, also phrasing the limitations of the research and the need for more comparative data from other companies:
“We began with the observation that although theories of communication and coordination are central to the field of organization theory, we have theories and assumptions but little empirical evidence about the structure of communication in the modern, complex organization. (…) This means that interpretations of whether or not the data indicate that communications are strongly structured by the categories we examine is necessarily a function of one’s prior about what the magnitude of these effects would be in a more siloed versus a more lateral organization.”

“In a related vein, although we analyze a vast dataset, we must not allow the enormous volume of the data to cause us to lose sight of the fact that we look at but a single organization. At the moment, we have no basis for any claim of generalizability beyond the single organization we study.”

“Electronic communications data should offer an unprecedented window into the social and work relations inside firm. Not only will this offer an opportunity for us to develop taxonomies of internal organizational structures, it will also enable analysis of many individual-, group-, and organization-level outcomes.”

As said, this research is very interesting and I hope someone with extend this research with data from other companies.


  1. This is the nice blogs..good to post here..Thanks for sharing here with us.........


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