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Social learning in design teams: The importance of direct and indirect communications

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 April 2013

Vishal Singh
School of Engineering, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland
Andy Dong
University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
John S. Gero
Krasnow Institute of Advanced Study, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA
E-mail address:


This paper discusses the effects of direct and indirect communications on social learning and task coordination in design teams. The findings reported in this paper are based on a computational model that simulates the formation of transactive memory (TM) through social learning from direct and indirect communications. Direct communications are explicit information exchanged between team members whereas indirect communication may be opportunistic and coincidental, resulting in learning and information gained through observations of the actions of others. However, team structure mediates opportunities for communication. Three types of team structures are studied, which are differentiated on the basis of their constraints on and opportunities for direct and indirect communications across the team. The differences across the team structures are investigated through a series of simulations in which team member retention, cognitive busyness of team members, and task complexity are additional moderating variables, and task coordination and formation of TM are the dependent variables. Fewer communications to coordinate the same tasks are taken as the measure of efficient task coordination. Findings suggest that reduction in communication and learning opportunities are more detrimental to the task coordination in flat teams as compared to functional teams. Indirect communications contribute more to the formation of TM than to task coordination. Flat teams facilitate the formation of TM, whereas functional teams are more appropriate for efficient task coordination, indicating that the role of TM in mediating task coordination varies with team structure.

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