How Can You Improve Internal Information Flows?

Communications within large organizations is interesting to theorize about, but hard to measure and promote.  Rich information flows of critical data, learnings etc is akin to having healthy blood circulation in your body.  Without regular and nutrient-rich blood circulation, a body will quickly lose vitality.  For many companies, having timely information is the lifeblood of customer service, operations, and financial management. 

I was recently asked by a client: “What can we do to improve the flow of information between individuals and groups?”  This firm had been challenged to sustain regular information flows.  Some of their issues included: 

  • Lack of ownership around who collects and disseminates information
  • Ambiguous data access rights, which hinders sharing
  • Competing data types and integrity, which reduces the value of the information

A comprehensive organizational redesign was recommended.  However, the CEO wanted some relatively simple, inexpensive and easily implementable measures that could have an immediate impact.  To uncover these, I used a study of information flows at Google.  The  authors, Justin Wolfers, Eric Zitzewitz and Bo Cowgil used prediction markets (a speculative, market-based tool used for forecasting) made up of Google employees to understand how information circulated within the company.   

The study concluded that physical proximity, as opposed to other factors like IT-based communication tools, played the primary role in facilitating information transfer.  Below are some of the study’s findings about what helps foster rich communication between people: 

Factors that play an important role

  1. Having colleagues situated very close (i.e. right beside) to each other
  2. Maintaining close organizational proximity, such as working for the same manager
  3. Sharing professional or social relationship including common backgrounds, friendships and roles. Importantly, previous sharing relationships tend to overcome changes in proximity and physical distance. 

 Factors that play a minor role

  1. Locating colleagues farther away from each other, even if on the same floor
  2. Being assigned to the same cross-departmental project
  3. Having similar demographics except where two workers shared a native non-English language
  4. Deploying IT-based communication and social networking tools such as instant messaging, Twitter, chat rooms and portals

The above conclusions will seem like old hat to many dynamic, knowledge-based companies.  However, these findings still have important implications for more traditional types of organizations.  For example:

  • Regularly rotating employee seating could cultivate professional and social relationships
  • Dense, open plan seating schemes may encourage the cross pollination of information
  • Old fashion community areas like kitchens and cafeterias can stimulate the sharing of information and relationship-building
  • Despite conventional wisdom, using cross functional teams or matrix structures do not necessarily increase information flows
  • Electronic communications are a tool not a catalyst of  rich communications

 For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.


3 comments so far

  1. Claire on

    Very succinct and makes me pause to reflect on how and what I can do more. Thanks Mitchell.

    • mitchellosak on

      Thank you for your generous and pithy comments.

  2. […] Bell Labs, management used a variety of organizational strategies to encourage a busy exchange of ideas and to create a culture of collaboration.   For example, satellite labs were set up in the phone manufacturing plants to improve the odds […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: