Osmotic Communication is a Symptom of a Flawed Process


A communication plan, you should have one in place anyway. Whether your team is all in one building, room, or distributed; a plan to deal with how everyone communicates is critical to the success of your activities. We need rules in place that say your IT server administrator should be alerting people who rely on the server when it will go down for maintenance. We shouldn’t have to expect to accidentally overhear the administrator telling someone about it.

Accidental Information Reliance

Osmotic communication is pretty much just that, we accidentally overhear something and can act based on that accidentally acquired knowledge. A more official definition is given by Allistair Cockburn and it states:

“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.” (Cockburn, 2005)

Osmotic communication is often touted as one of the benefits of colocated teams. I have to disagree. If you think about it, is it really a good business plan to rely on the possible and accidental overhearing of relevant or important information? I don’t think so, but I prefer not to rely on random luck. If random luck worked for me, I would probably be a lot richer, having won the lottery.

When I hear about bad situations that were averted thanks to the accidental overhearing of information, I can’t help but wonder what we could do to make that communication more purposeful and less random. If you have to rely on osmotic communication for your success, there is a flaw in your process somewhere.

Tips to Solve Accidental Information Reliance (AKA Osmotic Communication):

  • Create a plan for purposeful communication
  • Train on and enforce that purposeful communication plan
  • Improve information radiators
  • Identify occurrences of accidental information reliance and treat it as you would any quality issue and work to prevent its reoccurrence

Having a solid and ENFORCED communication plan would prevent a lot of the need or reliance on osmotic communication. We cannot expect employees to accidentally overhear information vital to their job and be okay with that. What are we going to do when that accidental information exchange does not occur? (As it frequently does not occur)

The Environment

OfficeWorkerAnother problem I have with the whole scenario of osmotic communication is the environment which is required for it to take place. It requires at least two people talking and a third to accidentally overhear. I assume that the third person is not just sitting there; I could be wrong.

Have you ever worked on some particularly difficult coding logic while the people around you are engaged in conversation? I have, and the conversations are not always relevant and not always work related – and they certainly aren’t very helpful. The result can actually be a loss of productivity, offsetting any potential gains from the occasional overhearing of relevant information.

Of course, you can wear earplugs or headphones, eliminating any osmotic communication in the process and one of the claimed benefits of being colocated or in an open office environment. At that point, you might as well be a telecommuter, you’ll get more work done.

I won’t dive deep into the studies on open office plans or colocation as that isn’t the point of this post, but I have provided a list of additional reading and references below on this topic. The conclusion is generally not very positive of open offices or colocation, but I tried to provide a mixture of studies in the additional reading at the end of this post.

Education or Training

Another claimed benefit of osmotic communication is that by hearing the others around you talk, you learn about their job, the organization, and maybe advance your own knowledge.

First, re-read the above section titled “The Environment” and then answer this question: Have you ever worked in an open office before?

You may hear bits and pieces, but if the organization is concerned with this, a purposeful approach would probably work better. A business analyst spending a half hour a week job shadowing a programmer would be more effective than putting 20 programmers and a business analyst in a room for a week to work.

You are expecting someone to become accidentally educated or trained in something while they are working on something else. They may pick some things up, that I cannot argue, but was it effective and efficient? In most cases, probably not. Osmotic communication, when used like this, is what lazy managers rely on when they want things to happen but don’t want to put in any effort or thought towards how to accomplish it.


You aren’t ever going to eliminate all flaws in communication, but if an osmotic communication incident occurs, it should be viewed more as an opportunity for improvement than an element of success. You cannot always rely on luck to be there when you need it and you should work towards limiting the reliance on it.

The accidental exchange of information is not the only problem, the environment in which it thrives is another problem, a problem that can negate any claimed benefits. Just forget about using that environment and expecting much in the way of cross-training. People will do what they can to weed out the background noise to concentrate on their own work.  Without a dedicated time and purposeful effort, you can’t expect a lot of education to occur.





Cockburn, Alistair  (2005) “Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams” Pearson Education, Inc. (“Osmotic Communication” can be retrieved from http://alistair.cockburn.us/Osmotic+communication/v/slim)

Images from Pixabay.com


Additional Reading

James G. (2016) “9 Reasons That Open-Space Offices are Insanely Stupid” Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/why-your-company-will-benefit-from-getting-rid-of-open-office-spaces-first-90.html

Journal of Environmental Psychology (2013) “Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices” Volume 36, December 2013, pp 18-26 (Available from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000340)

Melo, C. O. (2013) “Interpretative case studies on agile team productivity and management” Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0950584912001875

Eccles, M. (2010) “The Impact of Collocation on the Effectiveness of Agile is Development Teams” Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9634/dc7b41fd7bebed28e7c64a0e346be2d199f7.pdf

Pejterson, J. et al (2011) “Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices–a national cross-sectional questionnaire survey.” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21528171

Categories: Agile, Human-Centered Management, Leadership, Technology, Telecommute

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies


  1. Open Offices Suck – Agile-Mercurial
  2. Face-2-Face Communication May Not Be Needed – Agile-Mercurial

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