Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Team Knowledge Structures: Matching Task to Information Environment

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Team Knowledge Structures: Matching Task to Information Environment

Article excerpt

Businesses increasingly use teams as tools for successfully negotiating their knowledge-based environments (Guzzo and Dickson, 1996). Such teams perform tasks ranging from localized assignments (e.g., developing a new packaging design) to those with organization-wide impact (e.g., new product development, strategic decision malting). An increased understanding of knowledge processing in teams could improve their ability to meet a wide variety of organizational demands (Cohen and Bailey, 1997). Until recently, attention to knowledge management in teams has chiefly focused on information management (e.g., Denison et al, 1996; Stasser and Titus, 1987) and information technology (e.g., Boland et at., 1994), rather than broader knowledge processing. Newer models imply that the knowledge structure of the team--how knowledge is distributed among members--significantly influences the team's knowledge-processing ability (e.g. Hinsz et at., 1997; Hollenbeck et al., 1995; Stasser et al., 1995). Knowledge structures can affect the team's ability to perform specific types of knowledge processing. In this article, we identify knowledge processes in teams, define aspects of a team's knowledge distribution, and then match team knowledge structures to the tasks to which they are most suited.


The knowledge possessed by an organization and its members can be classified as explicit or tacit (Polyani, 1966). Explicit knowledge can be codified and communicated without much difficulty. Tacit knowledge--such as the manner of operating sensitive equipment, decision-making judgment in the absence of data, or interpersonal skills--is not so easily articulated. Logically, this division applies to knowledge in teams as well as to larger collectives.

Within an organization, knowledge is distributed among employees--there is rarely any one individual who possesses all that is known to that collective entity. In addition, this knowledge is dynamic--it loses its relevance over time when environmental conditions change, or it may just be forgotten. Given these characteristics, teams performing key organizational tasks must perform three basic knowledge-processing activities: knowledge acquisition, knowledge integration, and knowledge creation. These activities involve either knowledge that is held by individual team members (knowledge integration and creation) or knowledge acquired from external sources (knowledge acquisition) (Huber, 1991).

Teams acquire knowledge from external sources when members recognize that they are deficient in a particular area and when at least one member acts to fill the gap from outside the team. Using such external knowledge typically improves team performance (Ancona, 1990; Denison et al., 1996). Acquiring such external knowledge requires that one or more team members interact with the team's environment. However, mere desire to obtain specific knowledge is not sufficient to ensure acquisition. The team, through at least one of its members, must possess an adequate amount of prior knowledge to understand the relevance and key elements of the desired knowledge--the 'absorptive capacity'--to acquire the new knowledge (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990).

In addition to acquiring external sources of knowledge, teams generate knowledge internally through integration and creation. Knowledge integration occurs when complementary knowledge separately held by members is combined to form new knowledge (Grant, 1996). Complex knowledge integration tasks are generally performed through the use of cross-functional teams (Denison et al., 1996). For example, when developing a new product, a design engineer's knowledge of how the product should function can be integrated with a manufacturing technician's knowledge of how to actually produce it. In many cases, knowledge integration may not just be an important activity; it may be the very reason to form the team.

Finally, teams are one of the most common and efficient means to create knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). …

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