Exploring Team Communication

By Alison Schroeder and Dr. Sara McComb

Over the past twenty years there has been an explosion of communication technologies, ranging from e-mail to voice-over-IP (e.g. Skype) to virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life), and many more.  These technologies have enabled easier and faster communication among team members; however, it has also led to increased time spent communicating, confusion among team members, and a general lack of coordination.  Throughout the past ten years, we have been working to better understand how effective teams communicate.  Our insights into the who, what, where, when, and why of team communication were recently published in Industrial Management [1].  Below, we summarize the importance of knowing what information should be communicated.

Our research suggests that team communication follows an inverse, curvilinear pattern.   At first glance, it may seem like a good idea to send all information to every team member so that each individual has the information they need when it is appropriate.  However, this barrage of information can lead to huge delays in information processing as well as cause information to get lost in the shuffle.  Conversely, team members that do not communicate any information to anyone also inhibit the system of team communication.  This leads to redundant work and a general confusion regarding the project’s status.  Our research results follow this logic.  Specifically, the ideal amount of team communication lies somewhere in the middle of the potential spectrum.  These facts highlight the need to carefully consider exactly what information should be shared among team members.

Two other important insights delve deeper into the question of what information to communicate.  First, it is much more detrimental to a team’s overall performance level to communicate too much information than it is to communicate too little information.  We found that teams have the ability to overcome small amounts of missing information, while dealing with an excess of information appears to overload the system causing massive decreases in performance.  Second, team size drives what information individual team members must share.  In other words, individuals on large teams must communicate less information than those on small teams.  For example, our findings show that when a team of 18 communicates half as much as a team of three, the two teams can achieve equivalent levels of performance.

For additional information regarding what should be shared among team members, see our full paper in Industrial Management.  The article also provides insights into who is responsible for ensuring efficient team communication, where team communication can most effectively take place, when team members should engage in communication activities, and finally, why communication is such an important system to understand.

References

  1. McComb S., Schroeder A., Kennedy D, and Vozdolska R. The Five W’s of Team Communication.  Industrial Management. 3(5):10-13, 2012.
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