Why Joomla! Fails at Communication
This post is largely an academic analysis that relies heavily on research that is not my own. All sources are listed at the end of this post.
It’s no secret that one of the perennial frustrations in our community is the siloing of information; the lack of broad, easily accessible communication channels.
Some efforts have been made to improve this. The Joomla! Volunteers Portal was implemented to centralize a directory of teams, contributors, and roles. The Joomla Project also moved all team communications (or almost all) to Glip, making it easier to have a single place to find, access, and participate in any team.
While these efforts have arguably improved the availability of communication, it’s hard to say there has been much progress in actual communication itself. I’d like to take a look at some insights from existing research that I think gives some clues as to why this is, and how we can fix it – primarily focused on three causes, and what I think are their solutions specific to the Joomla community.
Poor Communication Creates Cycles of Distrust
Reduced communication within a team due to it’s remote location creates distrust. (L. Hemphill, 2011) When we are not aware of what each of our other team members is doing, why they are doing it, and what their general availability is, we tend to assume they are not doing what it is we think they should be doing.
Obviously other factors can exacerbate distrust, but this underlying factor is the foundation for a culture that is allowed to grow where team members assume that their colleagues are not acting in the best interest of the team or the organization.
This is magnified in the process of bringing new members into the organization. New members are already met with communications challenges, and lack of access to other team members leads to an “invisibility” both on the part of the new team member, and on the part of the existing team. New recruits aren’t able to assimilate into the organization as they need to, and their skills aren’t utilized efficiently, since existing team members, even team leaders, don’t have the easy, passive communication channels available to a centralized team.
This is a cyclical problem, with distrust compounding each time. It’s crucial to recognize this as we work with our colleagues, understanding that our communications processes have led to tension and distrust, instead of assuming poor morals, or ill intent on the part of those we work with.
Remote Teams Need More Structures and Processes, not Less
Joomla! can’t avoid the fact that we all work remotely. We don’t have the ability to centralize in an office environment. Instead, we must react to the realities of working entirely remotely, and adapt our structures and processes to re-create necessary team interaction.
Regular socialization that happens within geographically centralized teams allows information and communication to happen passively, without thinking about it. (Poile, 2009) Team members are informed of what their colleagues are working on over lunch; cross-team communication can happen next to the proverbial “water cooler”, and physical, personal relationships strengthen communication between teams.
Without those benefits, remote organizations like Joomla! must recreate those structures intentionally.
We have to get a bit creative with this.
First we have to identify why we’re communicating. What communication patterns are we trying to recreate? What information are we trying to pass around that is currently hampered by our remote locations?
In my opinion, the primary objective of this is enhancing awareness of what each team is up to. Doing this lets public feedback begin to trickle in, allows collaborators to join teams that are working on projects they want to be a part of, and ensures that each part of the organization is more aware of what is happening in the other parts.
This has to be done deliberately, though. Asking teams to publish regular reports in the Joomla! Volunteers Portal was a start. Other communication methods like Google Hangouts On Air, and newsletters begin to deliberately recreate the communication channels needed to compensate for the lack of passive, in person communication.
Social Information Propagation Patterns Inhibit Effective Communication
Joomla relies largely on social mediums to propagate information. Our primary communications strategies involve blog posts and twitter. Unfortunately there is a significant body of research demonstrating that relying on social mediums to propagate information within an organization is inefficient at best, and usually highly detrimental.
If you’re interested, here’s a solid formula (Agrawal, 2011) representing the likelihood that each member of an organization will receive the same version of information that relies on word of mouth and social channels to reach them.
The important thing to note here, is that the quality of the information received, along with the likelihood that a specific participant receives a version of that information at all, degrades very quickly when left to social means.
Deliberate, direct communication channels are needed throughout our entire organization.
This isn’t just a means to increase promotion of the organization, this is a critical function to ensuring that all teams and team members are aware of what is happening in the organization, and can contribute effectively.
Joomla! has a lot of work to do on communication. This is a problem we’ve collectively brainstormed time and again over the years, trying one solution or another - sometimes with moderate success, sometimes not. But we have a lot of improvements that need to happen. Hopefully this (somewhat) brief analysis will help us understand what the underlying causes of poor communication are in remote organizations, and help us in finding a path forward to resolving them.
R. Agrawal, M. Potamias, E. Terzi, Learning the nature of information in social networks, Microsoft Research, 2011
J. Jain, C. Courage, Global Design Teams: Best Practices for Maximizing Effectiveness, Google Research, 2013
L. Hemphill, A. Begel, Not Seen and Not Heard: Onboarding Challenges in Newly Virtual Teams, Microsoft Research, 2011
P. Hinds, C. McGrath, Structures that work: social structure, work structure and coordination ease in geographically distributed teams, Proceedings of CSCW (p. 343– 352), 2006
C. Poile, A. Begel, N. Nagappan, L. Layman, Coordination in Large-Scale Software Development: Helpful and Unhelpful Behaviors, Microsoft Research, 2009