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Cross-Team Collaboration at Scale
The factors that affect communication between teams.
This week I read Inter‑team communication in large‑scale co‑located software engineering by Elizabeth Bjarnason, Baldvin Gislason Bern, and Linda Svedberg. This study sought to understand the factors that affect inter-team communication and identify strategies for facilitating communication at scale.
My summary of the paper
While there is a host of research within software engineering on communication in general, research on communication between software engineering teams is sparse. This is an important topic to investigate because when an organization’s inter-team communication is weak or inefficient, this can result in rework, increased lead times and quality issues with the product, and frustration within the company.
This study was conducted within a large development organization and was carried out in two phases. The researchers first measured the cognitive and psychological distance between teams using interactive posters, then used focus group sessions to further explore how distance and other factors relate to inter-team communication.
This study also builds on prior research that identified the types of distance between teams:
Geographical distance, or the physical distance between people,
Organizational distance, or the distance between people within an organizational structure,
Psychological distance, or the subjective level of effort perceived to be required by one person to communicate with another, and
Cognitive distance, or the difference in levels of cognition (knowledge, competence, or understanding of a domain) between people.
Here are the takeaways from the study:
What affects inter-team communication
The researchers identified 10 factors that affect inter-team communication. In addition, they explored how each factor relates to the different types of distance between teams.
1: Awareness of others. Having an awareness of what other teams do, who they are, and how they work helps facilitate communication between teams. A lack of awareness creates a perceived psychological distance: it feels harder to go and talk with others.
2: Interaction frequency and extent. Frequent interaction with other teams is a prerequisite for good inter-team communication since this increases their awareness of others. Teams with a low interaction frequency express a low awareness of each other.
Physical proximity and technical dependencies naturally help interaction frequency, as does seniority at the company (getting to know more people with time).
3, 4, and 5: Attitudes toward others. Communication between teams is greatly affected by their attitudes towards other teams and the work they do, as well as whether they share similar cultural values (e.g., being open and helpful).
6-10: Team characteristics. There are several team-related aspects that affect inter-team communication: the age and the size of a team, the amount of senior team members, the sense of team belonging, and the work tasks for which the team is responsible.
The age of a team and amount of senior team members affect their awareness of other teams. The size of a team may affect their attitude to others. A team’s organizational belonging refers to where they sit in the organizational structure; when teams are closer in an org chart or are sharing the same manager or director, communication is easier. Additionally, when teams’ work tasks are similar and require similar knowledge, the cognitive distance is shorter.
Strategies for facilitating communication between teams
Five strategies were identified for facilitating inter-team communication, which are summarized in the table below.
Become aware of the cognitive distance between teams. If a team is not familiar with a certain technology, consider facilitating frequent interaction between teams. This will help reduce the risk of misunderstandings due to a mismatch in knowledge.
Encourage teams to talk face to face, not just over email or chat. Physical proximity is ideal as it naturally facilitates frequent and informal communication. However, other social events help as well, for example hackathons, lunch and learns, or joint kickoffs.
Rotate employees between teams to facilitate greater knowledge of others as well as reduced cognitive distance from having worked in another team.
Ensure teams have informal or formal points of contact. These people play a vital role in brokering communication between teams.
There are two common misconceptions about communication between teams: that this communication will happen naturally, and that physical distance is the only type of distance that matters. This paper may be helpful for companies experiencing symptoms of inefficient communication by providing specific action items to improve. It also provides an eye-opening perpective on distance: beyond geographical distance, leaders should also consider the organizational, psychological, and cognitive distance between teams.
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