Communication Patterns and Workplace Design

This blog is the fourth in a series examining a new meta-theory of the design of the workplace. I am specifically concerned about healthcare delivery workspaces’ design (and operation). You can review my opening thoughts for more detail on my motivation. The last blog was about work culture. Now I turn to how people communicate with one another. This is important because persistent communications patterns actually form the organization’s structure – and that’s what persists as people come and go. Put in design terms, if you change the form, you change the function.

Henry Mintzberg and his colleagues believe that there are four primary patterns to communication in organizations. While they don’t see these patterns as varying along any particular dimension, I think a deeper analysis of social network structure in business firms shows that these differences are distributed in terms of their network dimensions.1

Using our familiar 2X2 matrix, I see their communication patterns this way. The density of communication refers to the amount of ‘interconnectedness’ in community member communication—little interconnections; low density. Channels refer to the absolute number of ways to communicate something ranging from a single step-by-step track to a multi-channel capacity.

Hub-type communications occur when several signals come into and move outward from a single point. It can handle quite a bit of traffic, say from several operating divisions. Still, sometimes the hub becomes congested, and everything backs up. When things get overall congested, traffic slows down until congestion is cleared. Federal Express is an example of this in the distribution environment. It looked like a hub and spoke systems familiar to the airlines.

Chain communication is through one channel that is not connected to any other source. Strict hierarchical communication in serial form. From President to VP to Director and on down. Upward communication works the same way. It tends to be slow and offers significant distortion to the signals, and it is not error-correcting. There’s a reason they are called ‘supply chains,’ and we have seen first hand lately what happens when a link in the chain breaks.

The Set form of communications is low bandwidth, disconnected parallel patterns. These are independent elements following the same general rules, such as academic departments, lawyers in a law firm, or similar situations. The same signal goes out several pathways simultaneously. Good for redundancy but poor for efficiency. This form of communication may lie at the heart of the fragmented healthcare system. More on this in an upcoming white paper.

Web communication is the most complex offering multiple signals over multiple paths simultaneously without any apparent central control. This is how the Internet is designed at its core. Packets of information (messages) move over numerous routes, error correct themselves through redundancy, and are tremendously robust to the failure of any one link. While most people don’t yet realize it, “blockchain” technology is the current embodiment of web communications.

I would like to speculate here that Web communications will supplant more traditional forms of organizational communication such as Chain and Set forms. That’s why we need to co-design communication structures as we examine culture, management focus, and following the physical design of the future workplace.

Form and function? Are you the wave or the water? Take us out, Jimmy Dale…

1 Social Networks and Marital Interaction, Ph.D. Dissertation, C. Grantham, Univ. of Maryland, 1980.

By | 2022-03-15T10:28:36-07:00 March 15th, 2022|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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