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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Communication Within Teams in the IT Industry

By Aaron S. Robertson

The following is the author's contribution to a group paper submitted in May 2012 for a class assignment in a course on teams. The author is currently pursuing a master of science in management degree from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. For this assignment, the group analyzed a working group within a company in the IT industry. The working group was experiencing communication breakdowns, misunderstandings, and other issues between its members.

In order to overcome the obstacles the group within the company is currently facing, it is imperative that communication is improved. Communication is no doubt important for the health and vitality of any team or organization, but it may prove especially important for firms engaged in the business of software and engineering, where there is often highly-specialized technical or industry-specific language in use, both in written and verbal forms. This jargon, along with insights, ways of thinking, goals, needs, and so forth, may not be so well-understood by other teams within such an organization, like sales, marketing, support, operations, and etc. This is where communication breakdowns, misunderstandings, and barriers can easily occur. Wagstrom, Herbsleb, & Carley (2010) attest to this by pointing out that,
Software is often developed by dynamic and virtual teams. Frequently forming for short term tasks, dynamically adding and removing team members, and often incorporating members at remote sites, communication amongst members is never a given and is rarely predictable. Successful teams must contend with a myriad of challenges including gaps in organizational knowledge, a lack of experience working together, and varying skill sets (p. 1).
Addressing engineering in broader terms, our colleague Aaron Robertson was recently a participant in a meeting that took place at his town’s public high school. That meeting, in which prominent members of the business community, parents, academics from post-secondary institutions, and select teachers and support staff from the high school also took part in, resolved to find ways to create more opportunities for local high school students interested in pursuing post-secondary education, and eventually, careers, in an engineering field. A variety of possible solutions emerged from the discussion, including additions or revisions made to the specialized elective curriculum at the high school and the creation of a number of community partnerships. One of the common themes shared at this meeting was the perception, whether real or perceived, that many engineering students and engineers are ineffective communicators, and, tying into their communication skills, struggle to bridge their skillful craft with themes like business, marketing, and entrepreneurship (A. Robertson, personal communication, April 30, 2012).

Returning to the subject of communication specifically, Pentland (2012), in research he and his colleagues recently conducted on the role and power of communication within teams, found that,
With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined (p. 62).
One strategy that would help foster more efficient and effective communication and hence improve overall coherence amongst team members is the creation of a problem statement, followed by the implementation of a team charter that seeks to adequately address the problem that has been identified and targeted for correction or improvement. Such a strategy is known simply as “localizing the problem”. Scholtes, Joiner, & Streibel (2003) elaborate on this process, stating,
One way to define a problem is to pinpoint when and where the problem occurs. This is called “localizing.” You will use your energies best if you localize a problem before plunging deeply into a project. Often the problem observed may only be a symptom of other problems upstream in the process. For example, an error that appears when calling up a computer record could be caused upstream when the information is entered into the computer, or mistakes in a customer’s bill may result from mistakes in the original order or any steps in between. Localizing directs the team to the part of the process that really needs improvement (p. 2-12).
In the instance of the particular group this team is analyzing, the problem can be summed up by stating that communication barriers currently exist between members of the group’s two divisions, the engineering and operations sides, respectively. Obstacles such as lack of formally-established migration process, coupled with barriers like a lack of fully understanding the jargon, needs, goals, and insights of colleagues on the other side of the group result in numerous inefficiencies that can easily be corrected by a commitment on the part of the team in adopting a charter. But Mathieu & Rapp (2009) take the team chartering process a step further, cautioning that establishing a charter alone will not necessarily lead to a high-performance team. Their research indicates that a team must not only have a quality charter in place to be of noteworthy caliber, but must also pair that charter with solid performance strategies, as well. They note that,
…we extend existing theory on team development by demonstrating that devoting time to laying a foundation for both teamwork (i.e., team charters) and taskwork (performance strategies) can pay dividends in terms of more effective team performance over time…Teams that developed either high-quality team charters or high-quality performance strategies exhibited less effective performance trajectories than did those teams that developed both high-quality charters and strategies (p. 99). 
Certainly, this is not meant to somehow downplay or undervalue the role of the charter in a team’s success – or lack thereof. Indeed, Robinson (2005) submits that, “Whether a team’s charter is…contingency planning for the entire organization or…limited in scope to problems that face its own members, taking the time to think through what happens during a crisis makes an enormous impact…” (p. 26).

In any case, there is no doubt that the inefficiencies brought on by these miscommunications can cost companies in major ways. Content (2012), in an interview he conducted with Johnson Controls CEO Steve Roell, noted that the company at one point, “…fell behind in its attempt to quickly launch new seating and interior components programs for multiple automakers simultaneously. Managers…going to go launch a new line were still dealing with operational challenges and last-minute changes sought by carmakers on another line…” (8D). In both cases, that of the group this team is analyzing and Johnson Controls, there appears to be a need for greater horizontal communication, a form of communication that, “…flows among coworkers and between different work units…its main purpose…coordination” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2010, p. 418). “During this sideways communication,” Kreitner & Kinicki (2010) go on to state, “employees share information and best practices, coordinate work activities and schedules, solve problems, offer advice and coaching, and resolve conflicts” (p. 418).


Content, T. (2012, April 29). Johnson controls ceo takes long-term view. Milwaukee journal sentinel, pp. 1D, 8D.

Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2010). Organizational behavior (9th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw- Hill/Irwin.

Mathieu, J. E., & Rapp, T. L. (2009). Laying the foundation for successful team performance trajectories: The roles of team charters and performance strategies. Journal of applied psychology, 94(1), 90-103.

Pentland, A. (2012). The new science of building great teams. Harvard business review, 90(4), 60-70.

Robinson, C. (2005). Prepared for the unexpected: Teamwork for troubled times. Journal for quality & participation, 28(1), 26-29.

Scholtes, P. R., Joiner, B. L., & Streibel, B. J. (2003). The team handbook (3rd ed.). Madison, WI: Oriel.

Wagstrom, P., Herbsleb, J. D., & Carley, K. M. (2010). Communication, team performance, and the individual: Bridging technical dependencies. Academy of management annual meeting proceedings, 1-7. doi:10.5465/AMBPP.2010.54500789

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