Quite simply, Osmotic Communication is the accidental overhearing of background information that may later end up being important. The term was coined by Alistair Cockburn, one of the signers of the Agile Manifesto.
“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)
I have examined osmotic communication before and was fairly critical of it (Osmotic Communication: Flawed Communication Practices). I still have a negative opinion of it, but I wanted to take a less critical look and just explain what it is.
You cannot fully understand what osmotic communication is without first gaining an understanding of osmosis or communication.
What is Osmosis?
Time to go back to science class. Osmosis has nothing at all to do with project management, the working world, or communication.
Merriam-Webster gives two definitions:
1: movement of a solvent (such as water) through a semipermeable membrane (as of a living cell) into a solution of higher solute concentration that tends to equalize the concentrations of solute on the two sides of the membrane
2: a process of absorption or diffusion suggestive of the flow of osmotic action especially : a usually effortless often unconscious assimilation
The second definition is more important for our purposes. If you want a much larger explanation, I have included a video from the Khan Academy below on osmosis. It is a pretty important topic and very interesting. We wouldn’t be able to live without osmosis.
With osmosis, we are effortlessly and unconsciously radiating something out or absorbing something in. It doesn’t have to be water, the first definition just gives us that as an example. Our blood cells do it with oxygen, allowing us to breathe. We breathe in, oxygen is absorbed into our blood cells osmotically. The cells flow through the body and radiate out oxygen to parts of the body through the osmotic process.
What is Communication?
I assume most of you know what communication is. It usually requires some action. It isn’t something that can be done passively or unconsciously. We may not always think very well before we speak, but we still decided to speak.
You need to actively listen, you need to actively speak. If you are engaged in a conversation and not actively listening, you may miss some things. This puts it into an opposing position when you include the “effortless and unconscious” nature of osmosis.
Merriam-Webster has a lot of definitions for communication, I will just include one here, one that can work with osmosis:
a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior
What is Osmotic Communication?
Imagine you are sitting in public at a coffee shop. You are enjoying your coffee while reading a newspaper. No one reads a newspaper anymore so you look very 20th century; which is retro and cool right now, but that doesn’t matter.
In the background is someone talking on their cell phone. You aren’t paying attention, you are too busy trying to turn the pages of your newspaper. You are reading an article about Donald Trump’s latest tweet. Reading a tweet in a newspaper, what a world we live in. You groan or cheer silently to yourself over the tweet, I don’t care what your political beliefs are.
Later that day someone asks you a question about a movie coming out on Netflix. You tell them it should be released next week and then you wonder how you know that. You had no interest in that movie. You don’t even have Netflix, you still use VHS for all your movies. How do you know this?
You think back and recall just a tiny bit of conversation that the person on the cell phone was having at the coffee shop. They were having a conversation about that very same movie and you overheard them saying into the phone that the movie would be out on Netflix next week.
You have just experienced osmotic communication, or as I like to call it, accidental information exchange. It is about the effortless flow of information from one person talking to another and other people overhearing that information. In a sense, they are effortlessly absorbing communication from their surroundings much like the air in the lungs gets absorbed into the blood cells.
*Learn more about Osmotic Events
The idea of osmotic communication is used as one justification for the dreaded open office and colocation of teams in the workplace. As I said I won’t get too critical of osmotic communication here, so I will point you to other posts where I tell you how much I hate open offices and osmotic communication – Open Offices Suck and Osmotic Communication is a Symptom of a Flawed Process. Those links open in new tabs so feel free to click them both and read them when you are done here.
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)
Khan Academy (2018). Osmosis. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/science/high-school-biology/hs-energy-and-transport/hs-osmosis-and-tonicity/v/osmosis
Merriam-Webster. Osmosis. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/osmosis
Merriam-Webster. Communication. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/osmosis
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