Conversational Support Across Boundaries

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
John Thomas
IBM Research Hawthorne

As Herb Simon (1962) pointed out in the "Architecture of Complexity", a common heuristic for dealing with complexity is to break complex problems into smaller, more or less independent components. When a complex organization is broken down into smaller units (such as divisions, departments, teams) each unit specializes. People are selected, trained, and motivated to optimize the performance of that unit. However, there remains the necessity for coordinating across units to deal with changes, exceptions, and errors in organizational design. In these cases, it is necessary for human beings to solve problems across organizational boundaries. However, since people in different organizations have been selected, trained, and motivated differently, such conversations are often very difficult.


Context: Organizations strive to become more efficient partly through automation and partly through specialization of function. Organizations train one group of people to perform a function and then "hand off" the process to another group trained to perform another function, etc.
Integration often extends across formal organizational boundaries so that; e.g., various participants in supply chains attempt to coordinate their efforts. Such larger scale integration can result in greater efficiency.

Systems are not designed, however, with complete knowledge of every possible contingency. When design assumptions break down, it is important for people on both sides of a functional boundary to have a cooperative conversation in order to solve the problem left by the gap between reality and the design assumptions.



Many processes are too complex to be understood in detail by one person.
Performance on a task is generally a logarithmic function of time on task.
A person's time is limited.
Complex systems are typically designed and built by decomposition.
Systems to automate, semi-automate, or coordinate are generally designed by people who are not the people who actually do the tasks.
Designs can never anticipate all contingencies.
Human beings can negotiate to solve novel coordination problems via conversation.
People find conversation in the service of finding and solving problems rewarding.
People are subject to forming "in-groups" and "out-groups."
If "in-groups" and "out-groups" are formed, rather than negotiating a solution to a problem that is globally optimal, each group will try to "win" by forcing the solution that is optimal for their subfunction.


Historically, many organizations have recognized the need for such informal conversational ties and have provided both special places (Officer's Club; Traditional Pub; Company Cafeterias) and events (Company Picnics; Religious Retreats; Holiday Parties; Clubs) to facilitate such interchanges. As organizations attempt integration across ever wider scales however, providing appropriate venues becomes increasingly challenging.
In some cases, two related functions report to a single manager and the manager may serve as a communication bridge. Clearly, however, in complex organizations, formal management methods alone will be insufficient for coordination across all the boundaries.
When links in a processing chain do not converse, inefficiency results. For example, telecommunications company Customer Service Reps gave out credit card numbers to business customers. However, they had to get these numbers from the accounting department. The customer service reps were only allowed to make outbound calls between 12 and 1. The accounting department generally had lunch between 12 and 1. As a result, it was often many days before customers were able to begin using their business accounts. The accounting department and the customer service reps also disliked each other, had no informal contact, and when other coordination problems arose, generally blamed each other.

The same general difficulty arises in attempting to deal with any complex problem; e.g., attempting to voluntarily and democratically facilitate social change. For instance, in the pattern, "Community of Communities" it is possible for various communities to develop plans that inadvertently interfer with each other. That is why it is useful, on a regular basis, to have conversations that cross community boundaries.

At IBM Research, I used to play a lot of tennis with other IBMers including an inter-company league. Here, I met someone in the corporate tax department named Frank.
I also used a system which returned the abstracts of scientific and technical articles that contained key-words of interest. Such systems return many false positives. One in particular had nothing whatever to do with my interests; it was about a new federal program that allowed highly profitable companies to trade tax credits with companies that were losing money. Instead of throwing this in the trash, because I had had conversations with Frank, I forwarded him the abstract. He looked into this program and saved a lot of money for IBM. This case illustrates that ideally even people with no obvious process connection should be able to converse informally.
In planning the first Universal Usability Conference (ACM SIGCHI), it was necessary to delegate various functions to various parties. We attempted to plan ahead of time by standard tools such as budgets and project timelines. A weekly conference call proved crucial in allowing us to identify and solve unanticipated problems effectively and efficiently.
In WorldJam (an on-line 3 day company-wide electronic meeting for all IBMers), moderators and facilitators used Babble (an electronic blended synchronous/asynchonous chat) and Sametime (a synchronous chat system) as backchannels to collectively solve problems and coordinate information among jam topics.
In Hanna Pavillion, a children's psychiatric hospital, each change of shift is marked by a short joint staff meeting in which critical issues are discussed so that a continuity of knowledge persists across shift boundaries (common in most medical settings). In addition, at least some people work double or rotating shifts and get to know people from various shifts. There are ample opportunties for informal conversation during the day as well as special outings. Then, staff members can coordinate treatment for a specific child across the boundaries of profession and shift.

Additional Reviewers/Editors: Catalina Danis, Alison Lee, David Ing, Ian Simmonds
Image of Babble courtesty of: "Visual by"


At a minimum, Time, Space, and Means as well as Motivation must be provided for people who need to coordinate acoss units to carry on continuing informal conversation. People must have time to carry on such conversations. A space must be provided in which such conversations can take place. If a physical space convenient to both parties is not feasible, some means of support for informal distant collaboration and conversation is necessary. Payoffs must accrue to the parties across a boundary for jointly for solving problems, not for proving that the other party is to blame.

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