In all communication, certain frameworks control the conversation. Annika Odland views the frames as a form of game rules. One problem is that this game is governed by rules we’re not conscious of. Illustration photo: Colourbox

The stalker who reveals hidden patterns

What really happens in meeting rooms? Why does communication sometimes just flow and other times get totally stuck?

The stalker in question researches communication between different industry working groups. She embeds herself in meetings and work arenas, in guest rooms and at the industrial machines – and at the coffee maker. She’s a fly on the wall, and observation is her MO.

“When we communicate, there are hidden patterns, and that’s what I’m looking for,” says Annika Odland, a PhD candidate at NTNU’s Department of Industrial Economics and Technology Management. She was also a participant in the Researchers’ Grand Prix 2017.

Important communication doesn’t just happen in meetings. It also takes place in informal meeting places. Illustration photo: Colourbox

Odland’s research arena includes manufacturing companies that have a production department and R&D departments in Norway, and that manufacture their products for an international market.

When different professional groups meet

The researcher provides a real communication example:

Jens says, “I have a new idea. I want to test a new type of coupling and I’ve already ordered the materials to do it!”

Ola responds, slightly frustrated: “Oh no, not another a solo act! More power to you and your efficiency, but industrial workers are getting short circuited when you do that. You’ve got to remember that!”

Annika Odland, one of the participants in the Researchers’ Grand Prix 2017. Photo: Julie G. Solem / NTNU

Jens sits in his office and does theoretical calculations. Ola works in the factory’s production hall somewhere else in the building. He has a controlling position, translating the engineers’ theories into practice, sometimes to the thousandth of a millimetre.

They are each expert in their respective areas. Their educational backgrounds and experience differ, and they’re creative in different ways. But they need to work together towards the same goal. No wonder they sometimes collide.

Studying language games

In all communication, certain frameworks control the conversation. Odland views the frames as a form of game rules. One problem is that this game is governed by rules we’re not aware of.

“There are lots of language games where Ola and Jens work,” she says, and gives some examples:

A department meeting where coworkers exchange information is a language game. A creative meeting where they develop ideas and have professional discussions is another.

“When I’m going to investigate how Ola and Jens – or any coworkers – move their communication forward in the language game, I look at where the meeting is taking place, who is actively participating, and what the purpose of the meeting is. I also look at the history of the language game. What’s happened at previous meetings? Interactions in one meeting affect other meetings,” says Odland.

And she also takes note of who is taking the initiative to speak. What kinds of responses do questions or assessments get?

“If someone says, ‘But this isn’t a topic for the meeting,’ this kind of dismissive tone can shut the industry workers right up.

Odland has completed her observations and now she is analysing her findings. She will be sharing her results with the participating companies.

The goal is better products

“The goal of my research is to uncover what’s happening when communication grinds to a halt and what happens when things go well – so that Jens and Ola are able to communicate even better with each other. And so the company can make even better products,” says Odland.

Why is it so important to make even better products?

“Norwegian industry creates huge value ​​for society, more than 21 billion Euros a year. But international competition is fierce, so companies have to renew themselves all the time. For this to happen, it’s critical for professional groups, like engineers and industrial workers, to work well together,” Odland says.

Her project is part of a larger project on future industrial workers that is being led by SINTEF.

Odland’s presentation (in Norwegian) as a participant in the Researchers’ Grand Prix 2017 can be read here.