The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

Communication Practices in Inter-Organisational Product Development

Maria Paasivaara

Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Science in Technology to be presented with due permission of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering for public examination and debate in Auditorium T2 at Helsinki University of Technology (Espoo, Finland) on the 25th of November, 2005, at 12 noon.

Dissertation in PDF format (ISBN 951-22-7935-5)   [1653 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 951-22-7934-7)


Geographically distributed, inter-organisational product development projects are becoming increasingly common. However, companies face challenges in managing this kind of complicated projects. Most of the challenges are related to communication. This study focused on communication needs, problems and practices in distributed inter-organisational product development projects.

The main objective was to identify and describe successful communication practices. In addition, the study aimed to increase the understanding of the communication needs behind the practices, as well as to identify communication problems and unsuccessful practices. From the methodological point of view, studying daily communication in distributed projects is challenging. In this study we experimented with the usage of social process simulation as a tool to study communication.

Methodologically, the research was a qualitative multiple-case study consisting of 12 case projects. The cases were grouped into two separate studies according to the industry. Study 1 concentrated on distributed inter-organisational projects that developed plastic products, whereas Study 2 examined global software development projects. In Study 1, data was collected using the social process simulation method, which combines several data collection methods, such as semi-structured interviews and simulation sessions. In Study 2, semi-structured interviews were used.

The main contribution of this research is a set of eighteen successful communication practices that were identified in distributed product development projects. The practices include, e.g., frequent deliveries, the creation of role descriptions, problem solving responsible, discussion forums, regular meetings, design and code walkthroughs and giving faces. We also found that most of the case companies had not designed clear organisation-wide communication practices that would have been commonly used in their inter-organisational product development projects. The communication practices encountered were mainly project-specific and created by trial and error. The successful practices were simple, but still they were not broadly used, which easily led to problems. Thus, the state of the practice in companies seemed to be quite low. The suitability of each identified communication practice to different situations and projects needs to be evaluated further.

The research recognized five communication needs of distributed projects: problem solving, informing, monitoring progress and providing transparency, giving feedback, and relationship building. Several communication problems were identified as well. Social process simulation was noticed to be a useful tool in studying communication in distributed projects.

Future research should focus on quantitative studies on the usage of communication practices in distributed projects, the effects of communication practices on project success, the suitability of different communication practices for different project types and phases, accomplishing transparency in distributed projects, and experimenting with the usage of social process simulation in different kinds of research.

Keywords: communication, communication practice, distributed project, product development, global software development

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© 2005 Helsinki University of Technology

Last update 2011-05-26