In July this year HBS published a working paper by the name: Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization where the authors analyzed e-mails from 30.000 employees in a large company over a 3-month period. It is really interesting that this has been done, even if I wonder why it wasn’t done before (or am I wrong?).Their conclusions are really interesting, especially in present times of the social networks, where horizontal communication is growing rapidly.
Communication patterns were extremely hierarchical: Executives, middle managers, and rank-and-file employees communicated extensively within their own levels, but there were far fewer cross-pay-grade interactions in the firm.
Junior executives, women, and members of the salesforce were the key actors in bridging the silos.
[From the executive summary: The Silo Lives! Analyzing Coordination and Communication in Multiunit Companies â€” HBS Working Knowledge]
To those people who believe in the strong transformative power of technology this may sound surprising or even depressing. Because it basically means that in spite if all this wonderful technology that creates transparency and breaks down borders people are still communicating within silos.
To me this just underlines one of the important lessons from the research area of diffusion of innovations: it is our social connections that are the vehicles for the spread of innovations, and first in the next step technology changes social patterns. Social patterns doesn’t change over night, because they are based on human behavior which follows much longer cycles.
Another way to put it is that the people as both employees and as company culture members embodies values and mental structures that in practice regulates e g who is invited to which project or who to contact to get a problem solved. In 1990 Paul A. David published an article called The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox where he tried to explain why the productivity gain of computers didn’t showed up in the balance sheet. His point is that productivity doesn’t rise until the whole system is redesigned in a new way, a process that may take decades because of the built in inertia in a working systems consisting of both people, machines and information structures in complex interrelation with each other.
What I think lacks in this research is how these social communication patterns changes with age, education and the individuals earlier experience of e g social software. I don’t doubt that physical, geographical or organizational barriers creates this effect, but I am curious what is happening what is happing to people which are heavy users of communication and have a wide reach before they enter a large organization. Are they changing their behavior? And how much??
It would also be very interesting to compare companies of different age and maturity to understand how and how fast these silo patterns are emerging.
My comment as a futurist about this is (as usual): think s-curves! A lot of communication patterns on this planet haven’t changed a bit yet, but they are about to. We are just inflating our expectations about this horizontal and social communications.