Ashley Kleynhans

Osmotic Communication

Introduction

I recently came across a book called Crystal Clear, A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams by Alistair Cockburn where I learnt about Osmotic Communication.

The basic principle of Osomotic Communication is that team members subconsciously absorb information that is being discussed by the team members around them.

This can only really be accomplished when team members are all located within the same room.

If someone in the team asks a question, the other team members can either tune in and contribute towards the discussion, or tune out and continue with their work.

Osmotic Communication is most beneficial to small teams, but a small team can range from all the employees of a small start-up to a small team within a large organisation which employs thousands of people.

Personal Experience

I have been fortunate enough to work for many different types of companies, ranging from large corporates with hundreds of thousands of employees to start-ups with less than 10 employees.

Some of the companies had flexible working conditions where I could work remotely, and others did not.

Although more and more companies seem to be allowing telecommuting, I find that working remotely can have a huge disadvantage for the team members who are telecommuting as well as the rest of the team, compared with being in the office and being able to benefit from Osmotic Communication.

For example, I recently joined a new company and they were kind enough to let me work from home while I’m in the process of selling my home and purchasing a new one. They flew me up to come and work in their office for a couple of weeks, and while I was in the office I learnt a great deal about the product, processes, and many other things just by overhearing the conversations of my team members.

One of my team members needed to implement device detection so that he could determine whether to forward people to the regular website or to the mobile version. I had previously used DeviceaAtlas and was able to suggest it, as a result of overhearing the conversation.

I then flew back home and continued working remotely while having our daily standup and other catch up sessions online, but even though we communicated online frequently, I was not able to keep as up-to-date with what was happening with our product as the team members who were in the office every day.

There were also instances of miscommunication where someone thought that one of our systems had broken because I was returning to the office for a couple of days.

Prior to joining this company, I had worked at start-up which allowed me to work from home most of the week, and only required that I had to come into the office once per week. Prior to the telecommuting arrangement, I went into the office every day. I found that telecommuting was extremely convenient, but had distinct disadvantages in that I didn’t know what my colleagues were working on, what cool new technologies they had discovered, and even missed out on the office jokes and humour.

Conclusion

Having had the opportunity to telecommute and also to work in small teams, I find that Osmotic Communication far outweighs the benefits of telecommuting, so I strongly recommend that all members of small teams should be seated within the same room so that they can benefit from the advantages that Osmotic Communication has to offer.

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