Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Communities are Communication Bridges

In my last post I made my case for describing organizations in terms of communication structures.  Persons that are interacting much with each other should be in one cluster within the organization.  Bridges between clusters are needed and are created by communication paths between at least one member of each cluster.  By crossing multiple bridges everyone will be connected to most other people in the organization.

Let’s imagine in the situation above the organization is distributed across different locations and the teams each develop software based on a shared data base but with different purpose.  Due to some performance issues, Team 1 needs to change the DB schema for some of the data.  They communicate this to their PO who in turn lets the PO team know about the need to change the schema.  One of the POs realizes the impact it will probably have on his team and informs them about.  This is the red path in the picture above.
However, such communication paths are not a good idea if they become too long.  Too much noise on the way will distort the message and even if the message arrives intact, it will arrive with a delay.
To remedy this, shortcuts must be introduced to get more direct communication going.

In other words, the teams should talk directly to one another.  But simply drawing such a shortcut in an organizational chart is not going to make the communication happen.  Since the teams in our example have little common ground save for the underlying data base, which has been stable for long, they do not know much about each other.  Team 1 does not know which team will be impacted by their changes.
It is necessary to identify what the content of the communication is that needs to take place in a more direct form.  Does it happen frequently that such messages have to take a long way to reach the proper recipient?  In our example the question would be, how often the organization has data base issues that need to be coordinated across teams.
In many cases the people involved notice the need for more direct communication and self-organize into virtual teams with the same special interest.  In other cases it needs a good leader to identify the missing communication link and help the members of the organization to establish such special interest groups.  The very appropriate nom-du-jour for these groups is communities of practice.  Maybe a community of practice (CoP) for DB administration would be appropriate in the example.  Such a CoP should have a member from each team that uses the data base in question.  They organize themselves, meet on demand or regularly, face-to-face or virtually, set standards pertaining to their topic, make decisions about changes, etc.  They communicate directly and do not have to rely on messaging through other persons, particularly not their line managers...

And yet again - there are no managers in the organizational chart.  Do we need them at all?  If so, where do they fit into the picture?  Watch this space for answers to this and other world shattering questions.