Experimenting with osmotic communication – advantages & pitfalls

06 Apr 2017, Posted by addkraft in Technology Marketing

Employees get a sense of the happenings in their work spaces through the words, sentences, queries, suggestions, conversations and discussions that are perpetually transpiring around them. It is hence important to take in what is needed, discard the unimportant bits and respond to the right ones. This idea forms the core of Osmotic Communication.

A term coined by Alistair Cockburn, osmotic communication is the means by which information flows into the background hearing of members of the team, so they pick up relevant information similar to osmosis. This mode of effective communication is accomplished by seating all team members in the same room. Then, when one person asks a question, others in the room can either tune in or tune out, contribute to the discussion or continue with their work.

Consider a situation where a user detects an issue with a feature under development and decides to approach a programmer to discuss it. In an Agile environment with osmotic communication, he would walk into the war room during the designated time and talk with the programmer, with the rest of the team tuning in, actively discussing, or tuning out of the conversation. This is faster and much more effective than in a traditional environment where the user would seek out the project manager, who would then identify the right programmer and bring the issue to him or her with the rest of the team left in the dark.

In an osmotic communication channel, the entire team is informed about the situation and they can participate in the discussion without extensive documentation, meetings, or formal updates.


• Osmotic communication keeps the cost of communications low while keeping the feedback rate high, which, in turn, helps keep the overall cost low

• Team members will be able to focus on their own work while processing information from the environment

• Increased communication effectiveness

• Less time on documentation, meetings, or formal updates

• By having the team co-located and by having all of the communication out in the open, a greater overall participation and awareness emerges

• Osmotic communication further lowers the cost of idea transfer


• This type of communication magnifies the effects of seating arrangements in offices. People who sit close by each other benefit while people who sit in separate locations suffer.

• Osmotic communication might not really work in a virtual environment or across geographically distributed teams. In such cases it will require a PM with really good facilitation skills at making virtual communications run smooth and effectively among remotely located team members.

• Too many discussions or too much noise in the team space might distract the workers.

• The teams should be compatible and gel well with each other for the osmotic absorption of information to effectively work. They should be open to shared work spaces.

Osmotic communication aids in quick correction of errors and faster dissemination of knowledge resulting in an immediate boost in productivity at absolutely no extra cost. Communication is the backbone of any successful management strategy, especially Agile. Osmotic communications ensures that every member of the team maintain a certain level of awareness about problems and developments with a minimum amount of expense, burden and formality.