Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Pattern Discussion: Conversational Support across Boundaries
by John Thomas

Problem: Although thought goes into how best to break up complex processes into smaller sub-processes, it inevitably happens that unanticipated coordination and communication is required among groups in order to meet the overall goal. However, absent regular communication across boundaries, groups develop an "in-group" vs. "out-group" view thus making cooperative problem solving and action difficult.

Discussion: Such difficulties from lack of regular communication occur in many settings; e.g., isolated academic departments in a University; service personnel not having a way to communicate common problems back to developers; management and union leadership only talking during tense contract negotiations.

Supporting conversation across boundaries did occur at Hanna Pavillion, a psychiatric hospital where I worked. Each shift overlapped a half hour with the next and some personnel from both shifts participated in daily hand-off meetings and used on-going jointly produced nursing notes as well as informal gatherings to foster coordination across shifts.

In June 2001, IBM held WorldJam, a 3-day virtual on-line meeting to which all IBM employees world-wide were invited to participate and discuss common problems thus allowing conversation and interchange across organizational boundaries.

Solution: No matter how you organize a complex social structure, provide support (time, place, atmosphere and motivation) for conversations across any boundaries created. Then, when emergencies or breakdowns occur, people will engage in collaborative problem solving rather than finger pointing.

John C. Thomas, Catalina Danis, Alison Lee are researchers at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center.

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