Magazine article Talent Development

How Teams Learn: Research Uncovers the Disconnect between How We Think Teams Learn and How They Actually Do. (Passport)

Magazine article Talent Development

How Teams Learn: Research Uncovers the Disconnect between How We Think Teams Learn and How They Actually Do. (Passport)

Article excerpt

The question arose during a workshop discussion with a group of training professionals: What do we know about how teams manage their learning? The group assumed there'd be lots of information available: We were wrong. Two initial literature searches conducted by postgraduates at Sheffield Hallam University and by Lisa Matthewman at University of London's Birkbeck College uncovered few references. Most of the literature dealt with how teams tackle tasks; very little dealt with how teams manage learning. So, Clutterbuck Associates obtained funding from the European Community to explore how different types of teams manage learning.

Managers and academics view the learning team as the critical link between the learning organization and the learning individual. Yet, literature is scarce that distinguishes between team types or investigates whether different team purposes and structure lead to different behaviors within teams. To combat that dearth of information, we talked with U.K. and Irish company managers. Our research has identified these basic team types.

Stable teams. These teams perform the same task, or variations of it, with relatively stable membership. Participants fall into routines easily and rarely question how work is done. Only under crisis, normally externally generated, do they put great effort into learning--sometimes not even then.

Hit teams. These teams exist for such short periods of time that before they've gone through the maturing stages (forming, storming, norming, and performing), they're disbanded and the learning acquired is scattered.

Evolutionary teams. Unlike hit teams, evolutionary teams reach maturity. But that creates an ancillary issue: how to deal with newcomers. Original members coalesce into a functioning team by shared experience and understanding of values, principles, and reasoning behind the way they run their project. Newcomers to the team lack that shared experience and, thus, find it difficult to join the club, which results in two teams: insiders and outsiders.

Virtual teams. This informal team relies on intuitive systems to ensure that learning takes place. Knowledge is its currency; so people with low levels of influence and experience may not be invited. That could explain why our research uncovered so few lower-level employees with virtual team experience.

Development alliances. Because learning is their focus, these teams have fewer inherent learning problems. They're more concerned with what people learn. The attitudes, habits, and behaviors of the more experienced partner rub off--and not all of those qualities are helpful.

Cabin crew teams. These teams have a stable task but an ever-changing membership. Like airline crews, team members who haven't worked together for months are expected to coordinate and manage tasks as if they work together daily. Here, the potential to create learning partnerships is limited. Learning happens in small snatches, if at all.

All six team types experience the same problem: Job demands focus attention primarily on task achievement. The leaner the team, the less opportunity for learning, particularly away from work. Reflective time, when and if it's available, is used to solve today's urgent issues, rather than learning for tomorrow's.

Many teams found practical ways to redress the balance. In doing so, they've shown that some of our strongly held assumptions about learning in the workplace are ill founded.

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