Co-location and Osmotic Communication

by Sampath Prahalad

We all know that Agile and its various flavors (Scrum, XP, etc) place huge emphasis on face to face (F2F) communication. In fact, this is one of the key principles of the Agile Manifesto.

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

For F2F communication to be effective, it is absolutely necessary that the delivery team is co-located.

Which among the below would qualify for a co-located team?

  1. Team members seated in various offices in the same city
  2. Team members seated in different floors of the same building
  3. Team members on the same floor with Dev in one zone and QA in the other
  4. The entire team seated in a room or within a single bus (the one that we travel in) length.

While all the above fare much better in comparison with a team that is split across different time zones, it is definitely the Option 4 which is TRULY a co-located team. The team in Option 4 can easily get together for a discussion, celebration, argument or a huddle. Once such a collaboration exists, the functional boundaries of Dev and QA break down and the team moves towards the target as a whole mass.

It it in this type of an environment that communication also becomes ‘truly Osmotic’. Excerpt from Alistair Cockburn‘s ‘Humans and Technology’ below:

Osmotic communication means that information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so that they pick up relevant information as though by osmosis. This is normally accomplished by seating them in the same room. Then, when one person asks a question, others in the room can either tune in or tune out, contributing to the discussion or continuing with their work.

Osmotic communication makes the cost of communications low and the feedback rate high, so that errors are corrected extremely quickly and knowledge is disseminated quickly. People learn the project priorities and who holds what information. They pick up new programming, design, testing, and tool handling tricks. They catch and correct small errors before they grow into larger ones.

For Example: One team member mentions to another that he will be taking the test setup down for a minor upgrade. Another team member over hears this, comes over and requests that the activity be postponed because he is in the middle of an important test. A developer hears this and says that he will give an image file to be applied on the test setup so that it can be quickly tested once the setup has been restarted.

The above is an example of Co-location causing Osmotic communication resulting in an immediate productivity boost with no extra cost. In fact, there were no emails, no overheads and no technology cost.

So, if you have a relatively small delivery team and are looking at a way to improve productivity, just re-arrange the team positions so that they are comfortably co-located and start reaping the benefits.


5 Responses to “Co-location and Osmotic Communication”

  1. I’d say there are two sides to every coin;

    1) F2F being “better” is simply a theory; I don’t believe it is true in practice; I think a mix of communication types is overall best

    2) Osmotic communication is adhoc and fragmented versus more orderly communication

    3) If they can “decide or not” whether to listen, they had to be interrupted to make this decision. So much for concentration. I believe studies have been done that shows being interupted is equivalent to a 10-15 point drop in IQ.

    4) This then creates bugs, which the whole team needs to “swarm over” to correct, whereas if they had concentration, maybe the bug would not be there. This creates a feedback loop of much codependence and unnecassary bugs, which leads to more unnecessary meetings to deal with the bugs, all of which time is swept under the rug because they are “working as a team”


  2. It’s the first time I hear about osmotic communication, it’s probably the best form of communication thought…


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