Communication across Boundaries: Work, Structure, and Use of Communication Technologies in a Large Organization
Recent popular and theoretical literature emphasizes the significance of communication technology for collaboration and information sharing across organizational boundaries. We hypothesize that due to the collaborative nature of their work and the way they are organized in work groups, technical employees, as compared with administrative employees, will communicate laterally, and will use the telephone and email for this purpose. We studied technical and administrative employees in seven departments of a large telecommunications firm. From logs of communication over two days, we examined vertical and lateral communication inside and outside the chain of command and department, and the use of telephone, email, and voice mail for this communication. Technical employees did have more lateral communication than administrators did, but all lateral communication (not just that of technical employees) tended to be by telephone. Over 50% of employees’ communication was extradepartmental; extradepartmental communication, like lateral communication, tended to be by telephone. When employees used asynchronous technology, technical employees used email whereas administrators, especially those at high levels, used voice. Differential boundary-crossing by technical and administrative employees could be explained in part by the flatter structure of the technical work groups. Our results are consistent with Powell (Powell, W. W. 1990. Neither market nor hierarchy: Network forms of organization. Res. Organ. Behavior 12 295–336.), Barley (Barley, S. 1994. The turn to a horizontal division of labor: On the occupationalization of firms and the technization of work. National Center for the Educational Quality of the Workforce, University of Pennsylvania, available from author.) and others who have argued that the rise of technical work and the horizontal organization of technical workers increases collaboration and nonhierarchical communication. Organizations can encourage communication flows across organizational boundaries by strengthening horizontal structures (for technical workers, especially) and supporting old and new technology use by all employees.