Horizontal Linkage Devices

Horizontal Information Sharing and Collaboration

Horizontal communication overcomes barriers between departments and provides opportunities for coordination and collaboration among employees to achieve unity of effort and organizational objectives.


Collaboration means a joint effort between people from two or more departments to produce outcomes that meet a common goal or shared purpose and that are typically greater than what any of the individuals or departments could achieve working alone.

To understand the value of collaboration, consider the 2011 U.S. mission to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The raid could not have succeeded without close collaboration between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)Opens in new window and the U.S. militaryOpens in new window.

There has traditionally been little interaction between the nation’s intelligence officers and its military officers, but the war on terrorism has changed that mindset.

During planning for the bin Laden mission, military officers spent every day for months working closely with the CIA team in a remote, secure facility on the CIA campus.

“This is the kind of thing that, in the past, people who watched movies thought was possible, but no one in the government thought was possible,” one official later said of the collaborative mission.

Horizontal Linkage

Horizontal linkage refers to communication and coordination horizontally across organizational departments.

Its importance is articulated by comments made by Lee IacoccaOpens in new window when he took over Chrysler CorporationOpens in new window in the 1980s. The following quote might be three decades old, but it succinctly captures a problem that still occurs in organizations all over the world:

What I found at Chrysler were thirty-five vice presidents, each with his own turf. … I couldn’t believe, for example, that the guy running engineering departments wasn’t in constant touch with his counterpart in manufacturing. But that’s how it was. Everybody worked independently. I took one look at that system and I almost threw up. That’s when I knew I was in really deep trouble. … Nobody at Chrysler seemed to understand that interaction among the different functions in a company is absolutely critical. People in engineering and manufacturing almost have to be sleeping together. These guys weren’t even flirting!

During his tenure at Chrysler, Iacocca pushed horizontal coordination to a high level. All the people working on a specific vehicle project—designers, engineers, and manufacturers, as well as representatives from marketing, finance, purchasing, and even outside suppliers—worked together on a single floor so they could easily communicate.

Horizontal linkage mechanisms often are not drawn on the organization chart, but nevertheless are a vital part of organization structure.

Small organizations usually have a high level of interaction among all employees, but in a large organization such as ChryslerOpens in new window, MicrosoftOpens in new window, or ToyotaOpens in new window, providing mechanisms to ensure horizontal information sharing is critical to effective collaboration, knowledge sharing, and decision making. For example, poor coordination and lack of information sharing has been blamed for delaying management's decisions and response time to quality issues and other problems.

The following devices are structural alternatives that can improve horizontal coordination and information flow. Each enables people to exchange information.

  1. Information Systems

A significant method of providing horizontal linkage in today’s organizations is the use of cross-functional information systems.

Computerized information systems enable managers or frontline workers throughout the organization to routinely exchange information about problems, opportunities, activities, or decisions.

For example, at Veterans Administration (VA) hospitalsOpens in new window around the country, a sophisticated system called VistaOpens in new window enables people all across the organization to access complete patient information and provide better care.

By enabling close coordination and collaboration, technology helped transform the VA into one of the highest-quality, most cost-effective medical providers in the United States.

Some organizations also encourage employees to use the company’s information systems to build relationships all across the organization, aiming to support and enhance ongoing horizontal coordination across projects and geographical boundaries.

CARE InternationalOpens in new window, one of the world’s largest private international relief organizations, enhanced its personnel database to make it easy for people to find others with congruent interests, concerns, or needs. Each person in the database has listed past and current responsibilities, experience, language abilities, knowledge of foreign countries, emergency experiences, skills and competencies, and outside interests.

The database makes it easy for people working across borders to seek each other out, share ideas and information, and build enduring horizontal connections.

  1. Liaison Roles

A higher level of horizontal linkage is direct contact between managers or employees affected by a problem. One way to promote direct contact is to create a special liaison role.

  • A liaison person is located in one department but has the responsibility for communicating and achieving coordination and collaboration with another department.
  • Liaison roles often exist between engineering and manufacturing departments because engineering has to develop and test products to fit the limitations of manufacturing facilities.

An engineer’s office might be located in the manufacturing area so the engineer is readily available for discussions with manufacturing supervisors about engineering problems with the manufactured products. A research and development person might sit in on sales meetings to coordinate new product development with what sales people think customers are wanting.

  1. Task Forces

Liaison roles usually link only two departments. When linkage involves several departments, a more complex device such as a task force is required.

A task force is a temporary committee composed of representatives from each organizational unit affected by a problem.

Each member represents the interest of a department or division and can carry information from the meeting back to that department.

Task forces are an effective horizontal linkage device for temporary issues. They solve problems by direct horizontal collaboration and reduce the information load on the vertical hierarchy. Typically, they are disbanded after their tasks are accomplished.

OrganizationsOpens in new window have used task forces for everything from organizing the annual company picnic to solving expensive and complex manufacturing problems. One example comes from Georgetown Preparatory SchoolOpens in new window in North Bethesda, Maryland, which used a task force made up of teachers, administrators, coaches, support staff, and outside consultants to develop a flu preparedness plan.

When the H1N1 fluOpens in new window threat hit several years ago, Georgetown was much better equipped than most educational institutions to deal with the crisis because they had a plan in place.

Relational Coordination

The highest level of horizontal coordination illustrated in Figure X-4 is relational coordination.

Relational coordination refers to “frequent, timely, problem-solving communication carried out through relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.”

Relational coordination isn’t a device or mechanism like the other elements listed in Figure X-4, but rather is part of the very fabric and culture of the organization.

Figure X-4 Ladder of Mechanisms for Horizontal Linkage and Coordination Figure X-4 Ladder of Mechanisms for Horizontal Linkage and Coordination | Credit — ResearchGate Opens in new window

In an organization with a high level of relational coordination, people share information freely across departmental boundaries, and people interact on a continuous basis to share knowledge and solve problems.

Coordination is carried out through a web of ongoing positive relationships rather than because of formal coordination roles or mechanisms. Employees coordinate and collaborate directly with each other across units.

Building relational coordination into the fabric of the organization requires the active role of managers.

  • Managers invest in training people in the skills needed to interact with one another and resolve cross-functional conflicts,
  • build trust and credibility by showing they care about employees, and
  • intentionally foster relationships based on shared goals rather than emphasizing goals of the separate departments.

People are given freedom from strict work rules so they have the flexibility to interact and contribute wherever they are needed, and rewards are based on team efforts and accomplishments.

Frontline supervisors have small spans of control so they can develop close working relationships with subordinates and coach and mentor employees. Managers also create specific cross-functional roles that promote coordination across boundaries.

Remember This
  • Linking the organization into a coherent whole requires the use of information systems and communication linkage devices in addition to the organizational chart.
  • Organization structure can be designed to provide vertical and horizontal information linkages based on the information processing required to meet the organization’s overall goal.
  • Managers can choose whether to orient toward a traditional organization designed for efficiency, which emphasizes vertical linkages such as hierarchy, rules and plans, and formal information systems (a mechanistic design), or towards a more flexible organization designed for learning and adaptation, which emphasizes horizontal communication and coordination (an organic design).
  • Organizations provide horizontal linkage through cross-functional information systems, liaison roles, temporary task forces, full-time integrators, cross-functional teams, and by creating the conditions to enable relational coordination.
    Research data for this work have been adapted from the manual:
  1. Organization Theory & Design By Richard L. Daft