Highly Effective Technical Personnel Strategies

There are two teams, both tasked with highly technical projects in the aerospace industry and of similar size, composition, and project timeframe. One team was considered highly successful, while the other was not. This article draws lessons from the successes and failures of these two teams with a focus on transfer of tacit knowledge and co-location strategies.

[powerpress http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/spring2010/personnel.mp3]

This article highlights best practices of highly technical, yet productive teams in a development aerospace community from a training and human resource management perspective. One team was considered successful in that it completed all of the milestones and demonstrated superior innovative efforts in doing so, while the other was less than successful in the categories of meeting the objectives in the schedule, budget, and overall end-item deliverables. Transfer of tacit knowledge and co-location strategies are discussed with implications for success for technical teams.

Why Intellectual Capital Matters

Intellectual capital combines the idea of intellectual capacity with the economic concept of capital; it includes the skills and knowledge that a company has developed for the production of goods or services and is an essential component of organizational management. The concept of intellectual property further highlights the importance of intellectual capital and its role in moving competition forward, hence creating the opportunity for the company to advance competitively.[1]

As partnering and outsourcing become more prevalent, customers, suppliers, and distributors of information are sharing data at unprecedented levels. Collaborative efforts between previously disparate knowledge asset groups (for example, customers and vendors) create new synergies that allow for additional insights. For example, a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) propulsion system contract for design and manufacturing may be awarded to one company, but that company most likely does not house all of the leading-edge knowledge and assets that are required to design and build the entire system. The company must hire subcontractors to provide the parts and manufacturing that will be used to operate the overall system. When changes to the propulsion system are handed down from NASA, it creates a ripple effect as the changes are communicated and managed among all of the subcontractors. The only successful means of managing the overall design effectively is to allow information sharing among the subunits.

Tacit knowledge can be defined as intellectual capital possessed by an individual that is difficult to communicate to the rest of the organization. It is the unspoken “know-how” underlying the functions of a person’s job or an organization that is not easily shared but nonetheless critical to an organization. The opposite of tacit knowledge is codified knowledge, for example, the blue prints or drawings used in a design. A company’s unique processes of conducting business are not always captured in its relevant routines, which is why the transfer of tacit knowledge is so critical: it is the differentiating factor for many successful firms. In the aerospace industry, for example, a contract may be awarded to a select team with a partial incentive that is contingent upon keeping specific team members together because only they possess the necessary tacit knowledge to complete the project.

The best organizational structure for the transfer of tacit knowledge is one that facilitates swift decisions, provides incentives, and possesses a low bureaucracy quotient.[2] Projects and programs are time-sensitive and there is often only limited time available to provide value-added insight to projects. If the time allotted for a project is dominated by non-value-added procedures, such as dealing with bureaucratic “red tape,” those tasks will detract from the overall time given for a project. Limiting bureaucracy may aid the transmission of tacit knowledge, but may also entail significant sacrifices.

The issues surrounding the transfer and capture of tacit knowledge are confounded by the frequent practice of documenting work instructions, but not the environment in which they are executed. For example, changing a documented process may require several levels of review and approval, no matter how minor. In reality, however, these changes are often so minor that the time required for such reviews and approval is not feasible and so the change is made without adhering to the codified procedure. Oftentimes, a company will decide to move forward with the project until there are a substantial number of these minor changes that can then be lumped together and, at this point, the review and approval of these changes is nothing more than a formality. In this way, tacit knowledge contrasts with the codified procedures for managing and moving the project forward. Many firms will take a complex task and simply map each step, but this usually ends up being a misrepresentation of the actual process in its proper context, which can result in problems with replicating the process.

A strong analogy of this phenomenon is offered by employee job descriptions. Rarely is a job description all-inclusive, nor does it tell the “how” of completing the job’s required tasks. New employees are provided with these supposed job maps and are then held responsible for achieving the desired results, even though their actual work conditions or environment may differ. This parallels work instructions that attempt to capture practices of learning and innovation. Environments change, rendering previously relevant instructive processes inaccurate for new employees. Unfortunately, the processes are difficult to change, further hindering the employee’s ability to complete the given tasks. The result is that the person completing the task adheres to the process and fails or he or she is prevented from using innovation to complete the task, given the existing environmental conditions. If the employee deviates from the original process, this deviation may be interpreted as a failure because the design instructions require total adherence. This process can thus be a very difficult balancing act for an employee because the dynamic between inflexible practices and innovation is often disruptive.[3] The aforementioned research also shows that even though collaborative work is a team effort, many times, a team’s success is “credited” to one member. This in turn creates a barrier for other team members seeking to share information and collaborate on the project, which affects the team’s synergy and its ultimate success.

Research on Recent Trends

Two teams within the tier-two aerospace industry that shared certain qualities in common, namely their size, composition, project timeframe, and end-item deliverable product, were analyzed in regard to their social networking. The teams were both structured based on a cross-function composition, with the same core team roles, and both projects’ timeframes were approximately three years. One team was considered successful, while the other was deemed less than successful in terms of meeting schedule, budget, and overall end-item deliverable objectives. Before arriving at this conclusion, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews, social network analyses, and statistical analyses of the two teams. The interviews were semi-structured, meaning that they consisted of standard questions as well as open-ended questions that could lead the conversation in different directions, depending on the interviewee. Each team consisted of approximately five to 150 members, depending on the life cycle of the program. These teams were analyzed based on the data collected every month from their time-card practices. The company’s timekeeping practices require each employee to record each hour they expend on a weekly basis. This data is then captured on a monthly report that can be sorted and analyzed for each project conducted within the company. For this study, the data was captured from the first month to the end of the life cycle of the project (approximately 50 months later).

Each team was assigned an end-item deliverable of a propulsion system, similar in structure and innovation. Though these two teams were engaged in the development of the end-item deliverable, based on the company’s definition of the project, they were actually involved in a “production and development” project. This distinction has a profound impact on the procedures that the team must adhere to; resembling those of a full production program. However, in the production phase of major aerospace programs, work instructions are typically the key to a team’s performance. In the development phase, one would expect few if any mandatory work instructions, but rather common practices to help navigate the process. This was not the reality for the team members studied in this article, though, due to how the teams were defined, a process driven by union negotiations within the researched company.

For each company, the core team was identified according to its role, commitment, and formation. There were more than 250 different personnel who supported each team, but the following were deemed critical to the design and manufacturing phase: lead project engineer, systems engineer, mechanical engineer, design engineer, and manufacturing engineer. The majority of the learning and innovation conducted during the system design process was derived from these core team members working together to achieve a leading-edge solution””even as the requirements for the system’s construction and manufacture changed. After the core team members were identified, they were interviewed on a host of different topics related to the above-mentioned projects. The necessary precautionary measures were taken regarding the length of the interviews, potential biases, the structure of the questions, etc., and the main findings were then derived from these interviews.

The results of these interviews revealed that, oftentimes, a team member would interact with another member early on, but later, that relationship would cease to exist. A conservative approach was used to define the relationship that existed after the project ended, that is, after the last interaction between the two team members was captured. A more liberal approach would have been to document the relationship from the first interaction all the way through to the last.

The Findings of the Study

The preliminary findings of the study showed that, based on the in-depth interviews, the organization’s environment played a critical role in the team’s success. Several key success factors included the team’s isolation from the rest of the company, the organization’s political nature, and the level of bureaucracy. The key areas for managers to consider are outlined below.

1. Co-location removes the team from the hindrances found in the rest of the company.

At this company, the in-depth interviews revealed that employees are typically housed based on their function, but when they are assigned to a particular program or project, all of the members of the resulting cross-functional team assemble in a central area for the duration of the project. This process is known as co-location. The successful team co-located to an area that was separate from the company’s engineering team so that they had limited interaction with others, whereas the unsuccessful team did not. The co-location effort seemed to lower and almost eliminate the level of bureaucracy the the team was exposed to. Additionally, it aided the team by facilitating swift decisions and providing new incentives for higher productivity and superior performance. The key difference of co-location, as it is defined within this research, is not only that the team is located together, but also that the team is isolated (in a separate building) from the remainder of the organization. This critical, yet minor, distinction must be made to fully convey the profound effect an organization and its infrastructure can have on a high-performing team.

2. Incentives for higher-level employees are intrinsic.

Most interestingly, the biggest incentives cited by the employees were working with their their fellow team members and the environment in which the program was completed. According to one core team member, “The incentive of working on this team is that I am working with a group that is a cut above and we work so well together.” Further discussion revealed that a key advantage of the successful team was the leaders within the team. “The project engineer had a way of keeping management at arm’s length and letting us be successful. That made the program successful and a pleasure to work on,” said another core team member.

These incentives were entirely focused on the environment in which the team worked, rather than on any monetary compensation. When discussing the particulars with the above-mentioned project engineer, he reiterated that co-location was critical in encouraging communication among team members and that isolation allowed the focus to remain on the program, rather than the organization as a whole.

3. Member integration from the start team facilitates effective communication.

All team members play a critical role, although some may only be needed at certain times within the life cycle of the program. In the successful team, the design and quality engineers were brought in for more than just the one time in which their key functions and roles were seen as most traditionally critical, as the team felt that these engineers needed to be close to the other interactions as well. This helped to foster a direct relationship between the unit’s manufacturing and documentation. Each member that was co-located was seen as an essential component of maintaining the productivity of the team, even though some members were in more supportive roles. This approach varies greatly from the traditional method of only integrating a team member when he or she is needed to actually design, build, or “work” on the project, as revealed by the in-depth interviews.

Conclusions

Managers will look at tangible resources and the bottom line to determine best practices and incentives, as these are easily quantifiable factors. This study illustrates how the intangible aspects of a company, such as the environment and the team members, can also serve as incentives for employees, and in turn, increase productivity. Each company possesses these assets and can exploit them to increase their success, though many times, long-standing traditions and historical norms have paved the foundation of many firms, making the implementation of these changes difficult. In today’s changing environment, new and oftentimes novel approaches to personnel management must be identified and implemented to facilitate the leading-edge efforts that are necessary for a company to remain competitive. Manufacturing and operational excellence can only go so far, as opportunities exist in increasing productivity by increasing communication channels.

[1] Duguid, P., “The Art of Knowing – Social and Tacit Dimensions of Knowledge and the Limits of Communities of Practice,” The Information Society, 21, no. 2 (1985): 109–118.

[2] Teece, David J., “Capturing Value From Knowledge Assets: The New Economy, Markets for Know-How and Intangible Assets,” California Management Review, 40, no. 3 (1998): 55–79.

[3] Brown, S.,Strategic Manufacturing for Competitive Advantage, (London: Prentice Hall, 1996).

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The Trader Joe’s Experience

The success of Trader Joe’s (TJ) markets is the result of unique business model that has built a national chain of neighborhood grocery stores. This apparent paradox requires the organization to be growth-oriented yet perceived by shoppers as customer-focused similar to “mom-and-pop” operations of the past. They have accomplished this by basing their strategy on the alignment of their unique corporate culture with a clearly defined competitive space. The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between organizational culture and business strategy that has propelled TJ to extraordinary success. The article also offers a model for readers to consider in creating a culture within their own organization that provides a defensible competitive position by incorporating value, rareness, inimitability, and non-substitutability.[1]






Photo: johannalg






History/Background

Started in 1967 by Joe Coulombe, Trader Joe’s began as a convenience store but quickly migrated to a more novel design for adventurous food and beverage shoppers. Initially, TJ was comprised of 17 stores in the southern California area. By the early 1980s additional food products were introduced as the number of stores grew to 26. In 1988 they expanded to northern California. The combination of innovative products along with a service-oriented culture has created a loyal customer base that continues to grow nationally. Today, TJ has over 270 stores in 22 states with revenues exceeding $5 billion.

Coulombe sold the business in 1978 to the Albrecht family, owners of a multi-billion dollar retail chain in the EU. However, the company remains private. The Albrechts are passive investors—operating control was left in Joe’s hands who continued as CEO until he retired in 1988. John Shields, whose background includes retail and merchandising, and who provided the operational know-how to expand the business, became CEO, a position he held until 2001. Dan Bane is the current CEO.

TJ offers an array of products that are distinct from those sold in traditional supermarkets. They do not carry national brands, but rather a host of food and beverage products along with a number of healthcare selections. Products include cheese, wine, ready-to-prepare foods, frozen items, produce, and ethnic choices, of which 75 percent carry the TJ label. Most products are offered at low prices (which differentiates TJ from competitors such as Whole Foods and Bristol Farms) but are considered to be of high quality, both in terms of taste and healthfulness. Because their stores are generally in the 15,000 square foot range, TJ offers about five times fewer products than conventional supermarkets, and new products are continuously brought in as others are phased out. To stimulate customer interest, TJ focuses on a constantly changing product mix, which further adds to their uniqueness. This continuous rotation of distinct food and beverage products creates a sense of adventure that appeals to customers, who look forward to new items.

The Mission

The TJ mantra is to offer value and a dedication to quality service through warm, friendly, committed employees along with a pledge to offer quality products. This mission requires a culture that supports loyalty and customer service through personal contact with the consumer. The commitment to the customer is captured on the TJ website, “Our Product Guarantee: We tried it! We liked it! If you don’t, bring it back for a full refund, no questions asked.” The underlying message is that TJ desires to establish a personal relationship with the customer.

Major decisions are carefully scrutinized to determine the extent to which each directly maintains a neighborhood store feel. For example, for a number of years TJ resisted incorporating scanners at their check-out stands. The concern was that customers would consider the technology a move toward becoming a traditional supermarket, and thus risk losing its image. Continuous change in their inventory mix, however, demanded that they scan bar codes at check-out. Eight years ago TJ began experimenting with this shift in technology. Piloting the technology at a few northern California stores, they were careful to be sure the sound of the ping during check-out did not get in the way of cashier/customer conversation. After several weeks of testing, the organization launched the system throughout its store operations.






Photo: Sanja Gjenero






Another example of the determination with which TJ committed to its mission was the decision, over 10 years ago, to construct its check-out kiosks such that customers could push shopping carts through the line rather than having to back the cart out of check out before exiting the store. The former model was aligned with small store, customer oriented operations, but with increasing shoppers became unwieldy. Again, TJ carefully assessed the impact the change would have on customers before implementing the new model. This approach to merchandising provides the customer with an adventure in shopping;[2] is, the TJ model attempts to make grocery shopping an exotic experience rather than an obligatory visit to market for staples.

The success of their model is evidenced by the measure of sales per square foot. TJ believes that the combination of its product line and customer service culture is responsible for revenues that are triple the square foot sales of a typical supermarket.

Growth

The growth of the organization has been achieved without debt; TJ expansion is fully self-financed. The operation remains free of union involvement—salaries and benefits are sufficient to ward off labor unrest. Advertising is limited: modest radio exposure and no television or newspaper ads. TJ does not rely on publicity, coupons, or store cards. A newsletter, the Frequent Flyer, featuring new products and store locations is mailed to customers three times each year and during holiday periods. They do not rely on email advertising.

Expansion is cautiously executed because the challenge associated with migrating its unique culture requires a meticulous selection and training process. Store location is determined by three key factors: density of population, educational level of the consumer, and distribution efficiencies. Market research has revealed a relationship between education and consumer choices: The more highly educated tend to travel more and, hence, are more inclined to be attracted to the unique product lines offered by TJ.

Building the Culture

“Crew members” (the moniker for store employees) are selected, in part, because of their expressed enthusiasm and energy. Training includes skills in communication, teamwork, leadership and product knowledge. Crew members handle a multitude of responsibilities including, cashier, stocker, customer interface, and are evaluated on a quarterly basis. Turnover among full-time crew is 4 percent yearly, substantially below that of traditional supermarkets. Part-time employees comprise 70 percent of the crew members, and those wishing to be promoted to full-time can apply for the position. The managerial structure is relatively flat. Crew members report to the “first mate” (assistant store manager), who, in turn, reports to the “captain” (store manager). The store atmosphere is highlighted by a South Seas motif, crew members often wear Hawaiian shirts and banners throughout the store convey that theme. There is a casual ambiance; new products are identified on chalk boards arranged in key locations.

The first author of this article had the opportunity to study the TJ organizational culture.[3] The purpose was to assess the extent to which the espoused culture as described by management did, indeed, match the in-use culture,[4] that is, the climate as expressed by employees. The study was carried out in the greater Los Angeles area. Using the “Integrated Culture Framework” created by Mallinger and Rossy,[5] surveys and interviews were collected from crew members, first mates, and captains in five stores. The data revealed that for the most part, the espoused and in-use cultures were aligned.

Specifically, as predicted, the ability to influence, the commitment to teamwork, and an elevated level of achievement orientation was reported. Crew members indicated that they felt empowered to make decisions, were collaborative in their relationship with others, and were motivated to high levels of performance. These characteristics were demonstrated in the extent to which they were enthusiastic, hardworking, outgoing, team and customer oriented.

An unexpected finding, however, was the extent to which they were uncomfortable with ambiguity. Given the stated mission of the organization along with the relatively flat organizational design, it was thought that crew members would be encouraged to take risks and be tolerant of uncertainty. However, the relatively thin profit margins associated with the retail grocery business, along with a structured set of customer policies, requires a commitment to the Trader Joe’s way of doing business, and following rules and regulations is emphasized.

In general, the data suggests that, for the most part, the in-use culture is consistent with culture espoused by management and, more critically, with the values of its unique customer base. John Shields, the former CEO, in a conversation with the authors, stated that he would address crew members at the opening of each new store to talk about TJ values and would tell them that if they were not having fun at the end of 30 days to please resign.

Implications for Practice: Competitive Space and Defensible Strategy

To be successful over the long term such a strategy has to be defensible. Jay Barney[6] in describing his resource-based view of the firm identifies four requirements for defensibility: value (in the eyes of the customer), rareness, inimitability, and non-substitutability. In today’s global marketplace with its rapid flow of information, these conditions are increasingly difficult to achieve through the traditional four P’s of marketing—product, place, price, and promotion. What TJ has done is to erect barriers around its competitive space with a unique fifth P—”culture.”
While other retailers have developed internal organization cultures that are unique and support their products, service, and internal management philosophy (e.g. Whole Food’s “highest quality,” “least processed,” naturally preserved,” “self-managed teams”; and Bristol Farm’s “finest assortment,” “freshness,” “assortment”) the TJ culture is one in which customers are integral to creating the shopping experience. By delivering a shopping experience that is “innovative,” “unique,” and “interesting,” and products that are “hard-to-find,” “great tasting” from “around the world,” they have been able to differentiate themselves from their closest competitors.

How they accomplish this is also markedly different from their most obvious competitors, Whole Foods (WF) and Bristol Farms (BF). For their customers TJ provides value not primarily through the quality of its products, as with WF and BF, but rather through their distinct shopping experience. Shopping becomes an adventure that takes them into a store whose characteristics are often in opposition to those of traditional markets: casual, low price, high service with a constantly changing and somewhat unpredictable product mix. Their culture, because it involves the customers in an ongoing sense of discovery and adventure, is both unique and difficult to copy. And because it is aligned to their specific target market rather than broad differentiation built around quality and service, it is more difficult to replicate by those companies that are serving a more expansive competitive space. Finally, at least at this time, there are no substitutes for the combination of attributes provided by the TJ culture and customer experience, because at TJ, customers become part of the culture rather than merely experiencing it.

What Trader Joe’s Success Can Teach Us

As competition in every industry intensifies, being good (or even great) at executing your strategy will no longer be good enough. This is even truer for retailers and service providers that cannot erect patent or other barriers to competition. What Trader Joe’s teaches us is that a unique organization culture that is carefully aligned with both its own competitive business strategy and with the values of the customers, can provide an effective defense against incipient competitors. Such a strong and targeted organization culture takes time to develop and provides customers with a valuable and difficult to copy experience. It is always more complicated for competitors to imitate who you are than what you do. As with Trader Joe’s, you want to make your identity and not just your products your major competitive advantage.

Challenges Facing Trader Joe’s

As TJ continues its growth a number of concerns emerge. Probably most notable is the extent to which they can continue to successfully export their Crew Member culture to other, more geographically dispersed locations. To mitigate this risk, the organization brings in a cadre of experienced crew members to embed the culture in new locations.

The organization may also be limited in its ability to find rental properties at reasonable prices in areas that fit its current customer base. At present their success has minimized this threat because of negotiating strength.

While at present TJ has no plans for international expansion, the pressure to expand domestically may at some time reach an end point. TJ management, however, believes there are sufficient markets that will offer store sites for years to come. Finally, until recently TJ has not experienced any significant direct competition. This advantage, however, may be about to end. Tesco, the UK $90 billion grocery and general merchandise chain, announced plans to open one-hundred, 10,000 square foot stores that will offer products similar to those available at TJ. Openings in February 2008 are planned for Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix[7] and may present the first real threat to TJ markets and could be the initial test of the sustainability of its competitive advantage.

Additional Resources

Edgar H. Schein. The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999).


[1] Jay Barney. “Special Theory Forum The Resource-Based Model of the Firm: Origins, Implications, and Prospects,” Journal of Management, 17, (1991): 97-98.

[2] Len Lewis. The Trader Joe’s Adventure: A Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon, (Chicago: Dearborn Trade Publication, 2005).

[3] Mark Mallinger, Timothy Walter. “Climate versus Culture: Duality in the Consulting Intervention,” presented at the Academy of Management, Denver, August 2001.

[4] Chris Argyris. “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harvard Business Review, (1991) 14.

[5] Mark Mallinger, Gerard Rossy. “Film as a Lens for Studying Culture and Its Implications for Management,” presented at the Western Academy of Management meeting, Redondo Beach, March, 1999.

[6] Barney.

[7] Tim Gaynor. “Tesco Aims for 100 U.S. Stores by February,” Reuters via Yahoo! News, April 25, 2007.

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Improving Research Performance

Managing the research environment involves assessing capability, but don’t let stereotypes unduly affect your decisions.

This spring the world has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of biology’s milestone discoveries – the structure of DNA. On February 28, 1953, Francis Crick boldly announced that he and James Watson of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, had “found the secret of life.” A one-page article describing their discovery was published in the journal Nature in April. The “back story” of collaborations that led to this revolutionary discovery reveals significant contributions of others as well, particularly Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Much of the scientific world remained skeptical for a few years; it was too simple and elegant a solution. However, in 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work.[1]

The work of the research team that generated this discovery not only revolutionized areas of basic science, but it also generated entirely new areas of business. Stories about this discovery provide some provocative suggestions about how effective research and development teams produce results, although one must be careful about generalizing from a single case, no matter how interesting. Only with more data can generalizations be made with any confidence.

Therefore, to complement the DNA story, we offer data from a larger study of the dynamics of business management research teams. Although this study involves a different discipline, the processes of working together in a research and application/publication process are similar. Put together, these insights may be useful to those who want to create environments that encourage creative research processes or who are charged with “managing” research teams.

The Management Research Study

A scientific research project is useful only if it is “consumed” or used by other researchers to further their work, or if the findings lead to some practical application. Proprietary research for commercial development is obviously kept confidential for use by that firm. Most university research, however, and even some that is done in private firms, is published in peer-reviewed journals so that it can be widely shared and the findings can be verified by others.

One way of measuring the impact of a published study is to count how often it is cited by later researchers in their work. Citations provide an “objective” measure that reflects the degree to which researchers perceive the work of others as relevant or useful to their own.[2] Fortunately, with the advent of modern computer technology, this type of tracking information is readily available. The focus of this management research project was on identifying characteristics of research teams that are associated with more significant research results as measured by greater numbers of citations.

Briefly, the project involved selecting all of the articles published in six of the top-rated management journals in one year and then determining how many times each of the articles was cited in other works in the following six years.[3] The larger the number of citations, the greater the assumed impact of that article. The researcher characteristics included whether there was a single author or a team, and if a team, the number of authors; the gender of each author; the composition of the team in terms of gender; and the gender of the lead author on mixed-gender teams.[4] The capability of each author was also noted. As a proxy for capability, we used the number of articles the individual had published in our list of six top-rated journals over the ten years prior to our base year, weighting the results by whether the author was lead, second or third author on the article.

What Do the Results Suggest about Successful Research Teams?

An Individual or a Team?

Is discovery best made by the lone researcher working diligently at his or her lab station or computer, or are there synergies that occur when two or more people work together that enhance the quality of the final product?

As mentioned above, Watson and Crick were the first to discover the structure of DNA. As a team they encouraged one another and challenged each other’s thinking. In Watson’s own words, ” . . . we had each other. It helps to have someone else to take over the thinking when you get frustrated.”[5] They also had significant help from Wilkins, and to some degree from Franklin. Additionally, one of Franklin’s photographs was critical to Watson’s seeing the solution.[6] Crystallographer Jerry Donohue also made important contributions at a crucial time.[7]

Their chief competitor, at least in their eyes, was Linus Pauling. Though he was working alone, Pauling almost figured out the solution ahead of them, but the fact remains that it was the team that won.

Turning to the case of management researchers, it is clear that multiple authorship is increasingly the norm in management publications. Although publication pressures may be a factor in the growing popularity of multiple-author articles by academic researchers, it also appears that synergy develops as researchers pool their expertise and resources, thus enhancing the quality of the final product. Our data show that teams had significantly more citations for their articles than did individual authors and that teams of three did better than teams of two.

We did not include four- and five-author articles in the statistical analysis because there were too few of them, but a review of those we did have showed a trend toward a lower research significance than that of the three-author articles. Given our small numbers, we cannot make any strong inferences here, but we speculate that the challenges of coordinating more than three people’s work may outweigh the benefits received from the additional expertise and resources that they bring to the table.

Capability of the Researchers

The number of minds contributing to a project may impact the significance of the research outcomes, but the ability of team members should also make a difference. We found this definitely to be the case in the management research study. Those who published more during the ten years prior to our study (our proxy measure for capability) produced articles in our sample that were cited significantly more often than articles of those who published less. First, experience may enhance a researcher’s understanding of what it takes to produce high quality work in the field. In addition, and no doubt more important, some people simply are more capable scholars and researchers than others, and that fact is recognized by others as they consider the significance of published works.

The capability of the authors also enhanced the impact of the number of authors on the significance of the research. Assuming that synergies result from the combined efforts of researchers, adding capable individuals to a team does more for the significance of the work than does adding less capable individuals, as would be expected. That is, this feature does not operate independently.

In the example of the DNA researchers, clearly all of those involved were extremely capable, although in the case of Watson and Crick, their expertise has been validated more by their work after the DNA discovery than by what they accomplished prior to it since they were both just beginning their careers at that time.

What about Gender?

Some types of diversity are important in team research. People with different specific skill sets may be required for the project. People who have different intellectual foundations may provide a challenge to conventional thinking that sparks new insights. Some kinds of diversity may be considered for other reasons, even if there is no specific relationship to the team project. Gender is one such aspect of diversity. Although it is not the only social characteristic that may be of interest, it is one that we investigated.

Research has demonstrated that men have generally enjoyed greater recognition for their work than have women. While there has been some change, many stereotypes remain.[8] However, even if this is true for single-person research, the dynamics may shift when dealing with multiple-member teams. Some have suggested that female leaders more naturally integrate the contributions of the group than do men and that this tendency may yield superior outcomes. A growing body of research has demonstrated that women are more likely than are men to have mastered “the patient skills of relationship development, communication, and social sensitivity,”[9] all of which should improve synergy formation within a research team. However, it should be noted that there are others who take issue with the notion that men and women manage differently.[10]

In our project on management research, the gender of the authors involved in the study did affect the significance of the publication effort in one particular way. We found no significant difference in the number of citations for either male and female single-author articles or single-gender teams. However, when the teams were composed of both men and women, female-led teams were more often cited than were male-led teams, thus providing preliminary support for the notion that women may be more effective than men at integrating the contributions of research team members. However, same-gender teams were more frequently cited than were mixed-gender teams.

Although the literature proposes that diversity should enhance creativity and decision making, it also indicates that diversity may also lead to a greater degree of interpersonal conflict and breakdowns in communication.[11] Gender was our only measure of diversity in team membership, although it is not the only type of diversity that matters. However, the finding that single-gender teams were more effective than mixed-gender teams is of interest.

The relationship of Franklin, Wilkins, Watson and Crick would also seem to support the concept that some types of diversity may lead to interpersonal conflict. Franklin is widely reported to have had a “prickly” personality and to have been a difficult person with whom to work. Clearly she was not the model for women having mastered the patient skills of relationship development and social sensitivity. She reportedly threatened to physically assault both Wilkins and Watson (on separate occasions) if they did not leave her laboratory, shared experiences that seemed to have cemented the relationship between the two men. On the other hand, they seemed to treat her as less than a colleague and had difficulty dealing with such a strong woman.[12] Franklin might well have done better work with another woman, but that was not an option at the time.

Final Thoughts

A recent research study on knowledge transfer among research scientists[13] examined the question of what affects the willingness of scientists to share information and how this sharing may affect their work. The results indicate that both the quality of social relationships among individuals and the degree of competition between them affect their willingness to exchange information. Obviously proprietary information should not be, and usually is not, shared. However, more knowledge and experience can often be very helpful to others, especially tacit or nonverbal knowledge that is not readily available in printed form. Three key factors were identified as affecting the willingness to share and the quality of the information shared. One is the strength of the personal relationships between individuals; the others are the degree of competition between their teams or firms and the degree to which there is an expectation of reciprocity.

While our quantitative data cannot address these questions, the DNA discovery does illustrate these findings. Watson and Crick worked separately from Wilkins and Franklin and used different methods to approach the problem. Nevertheless, the three men in particular shared a great deal of information about their work and what they were finding. There was some competition, but also a high level of reciprocity. The nature of the men’s personal relationships with Franklin, including both their chauvinism and her independent streak and personality, resulted in their sharing less with her. However, even with Franklin, there was some informal sharing. When Watson and Crick were officially pulled off of the DNA project and resassigned to other studies (after committing a major research gaffe), they sent their models to Wilkins and Franklin to help them in their work. They wanted to see their friends discover the structure of DNA rather than someone they viewed as a competitor. The informal exchange among the four of them played a critical role in reaching their goal.

With Pauling, on the other hand, the relationship was strictly competitive. Pauling had written to the laboratory for which Franklin worked requesting copies of the DNA photographs. This request was refused. Apparently no expectation of reciprocity existed, and there were no established social bonds upon which to draw.

Implications for Practice

What does all of this suggest for the management of research teams?

  • First, try to recruit the most capable people you can. Previous professional accomplishments are certainly one measure of capability and should be considered. It also is important to learn how to judge and recruit bright, eager newcomers. Neither Watson nor Crick had much of a history of success when they figured out the structure of DNA, but they were broadly knowledgeable, obsessed with the problem at hand, and convinced they could solve it.
  • Next, the data suggest that teams are likely to be more productive than are individuals. However, it is important to remember that it is the interaction of the size and capability of the team that produces the best results. Simply adding more people for the sake of numbers may not help.

    Furthermore, it is likely that teamwork produces a curvilinear relationship. The exact number may vary by type of project, but after some point, the effort to coordinate the work and personalities of more people outweighs their additional contributions.

  • Third, our one measure of diversity was gender. While it cannot be used as a proxy for all forms of diversity, it is an important one. Our research suggests at least a couple of things about gender diversity.
    • First, men and women were equally successful, both as individual authors and as members of single-gender teams.
    • Second, the single-gender teams were more successful, by our measures, than were the mixed-gender teams. While there may be good reasons for creating gender-diverse teams, doing so to improve performance may be questionable.
    • If you have mixed gender teams, don’t assume that the traditional male leadership model always works best. Our data suggest that women may, in fact, be better than men at integrating and organizing the work of other team members.
  • Finally, a culture of sharing across teams may lead to payoffs. Teams within a firm may be competitive in terms of resources and attention, but if this competition carries over to the point that teams are reluctant to share information and tacit knowledge, it can hinder everyone’s work. In fact, sharing non-proprietary knowledge, even with those outside of the firm, may be useful when there is a high expectation of reciprocity in these relationships. However, such sharing should be moderated according to the level of competition and the uniqueness of the information.

[1] At first a collaborator with Maurice Wilkins and then an independent researcher, Rosalind Franklin was a crystallographer whose x-ray photographs of DNA contributed greatly to the solution that Watson and Crick discovered. Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958 at age 37, most likely due to her constant exposure to x-rays. Arguably, she should have shared in the Nobel Prize. Her early death saved the Nobel Committee a difficult decision, since they do not award the prize to more than three people for the same discovery. Because they do not award the prize posthumously either, Franklin did not have to be considered. See Michael D. Lemonick, “The DNA Revolution: A Twist of Fate,” TIME, 48 (February 17, 2003) for a longer account of the collaboration.

[2] It is important to note that citation analysis is not without its flaws, despite its popularity. For example, some writers may cite a work to highlight its shortcomings or to undeservedly showcase their own publications (i.e., engage in self-citation) for the sake of increasing their own recognition. [See J. M. Newman & E. Cooper, “Determinants of Academic Recognition: The Case of the Journal of Applied Psychology,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, (1993), p. 518-526]. However, empirical evidence has already demonstrated that citation volume is strongly correlated with some measures of quality, such as the author’s research productivity in the hard sciences. [L. R. Jauch & W. S. Glueck, “Evaluation of University Professors’ Research Performance,” Management Science, 22, (1975), p. 66-75], or the probability of winning a prestigious award or Nobel Prize [S. Cole & J. Cole, “Scientific Output and Recognition: A Study in the Operation of the Reward System in Science,” American Sociological Review, (1967), p. 377-390; C. R. Myers, “Journal Citations and Scientific Eminence in Contemporary Psychology,” American Psychologist, (1970), p. 1041-1048].

[3] We considered this time frame appropriate since citations increased from the baseline established in the first year of our time frame and returned nearly to that level or below it in the last year for the journals assessed.

[4] The convention in most published research work in the field of management is that the name of the person who has contributed the most to the research is listed first.

[5] Michael Lemonick, “The DNA Revolution/Interview, TIME, (February 17, 2003), p. 52.

[6] Lemonick, “The DNA Revolution: A Twist of Fate.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] R. L. Helmreich, J. T. Spence, W. E. Beane, G. W. Lucker, & K. A. Matthews, “Making It in Academic Psychology: Demographic and Personality Correlates of Attainment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, (1980), p. 896-908; R. C. Rodgers & C. L. Maranto, “Causal Models of Publishing Productivity in Psychology,” Journal of Applied Psychology, (1989), p. 636-649; H. Zuckerman & J. Cole, “Women in American Science,” Minerva, (1975), p. 82-102. P. W. Hamilton, “Running in Place,” D & B Reports, 42, (1993), p. 24; Janet Romaine, “Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work,” (Book Review), Relations Industrielles, 57 (Winter 2002), p. 201-203.

[9] M. Jelinek, & N. J. Adler, N. J.. “Women: World-Class Managers for Global Competition,” Academy of Management Executive, 2 (1988), p. 11-20.

[10] Powell (1990).

[11] Cox (1991).

[12] Lemonick, The DNA Revolution: A Twist of Fate.

[13] Ariff Kachra, Reciprocity and Knowledge Transfer: The Role of Social and Economic Factors, doctoral dissertation, The University of Western Ontario, 2002.

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Teambuilding for Competitive Advantage

Organizations that utilize tacit knowledge can greatly improve productivity.

More and more organizations are focusing on teams as sources of innovation because research and experience have shown that teams are more effective than individuals at generating new answers to difficult or novel problems. Teams generate new knowledge in organizations by combining the explicit and tacit knowledge of individual team members. An understanding of tacit knowledge by team leaders can greatly enhance the effectiveness of individual interactions and improve the synergy of teams. Teambuilding techniques that improve the ability of team members to transfer, capture, and combine tacit knowledge into new knowledge may be a source of sustained competitive advantage for an organization.

The Knowledge Creation Process

In simple terms, explicit knowledge may be described as information that can be codified and communicated from one person to another. On the other hand, tacit knowledge is information that may not be easily identified or expressed. For example, an experienced swimmer’s tacit knowledge of respiration and muscle control allows the swimmer to remain buoyant, even if the swimmer is not consciously aware that she or he possesses or uses such knowledge.

Explicit and tacit knowledge exist at the individual, group, and organizational levels. At the individual level, explicit knowledge includes knowing accounting or remembering sports trivia, while tacit knowledge may include woodworking skills or how to knead bread dough to produce the best flavor. Written organizational policies and organizational charts are examples of explicit organizational knowledge. Organizational tacit knowledge includes the organization’s culture, routines, and other information-based assets.

The Role of Tacit Knowledge in Knowledge Creation

Organizations create knowledge by combining existing knowledge in new ways. Nonaka and Takeuchi describe the knowledge creation process as a cyclical process with four stages: socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization.

Path of Knowledge Creation

Path of Knowledge Creation

Both explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge are necessary to generate innovations. Group members could not speak with each other or interact with the external environment without explicit knowledge. But, if the knowledge creation process depends solely on combinations of explicit knowledge, only incremental innovation is possible. Linear combinations of explicit knowledge also are amenable to reverse engineering by competitors. Creation of novel and difficult-to-imitate innovations using both tacit and explicit knowledge are less open to imitation and more likely to produce sources of sustained competitive advantage.

The Role of Tacit Knowledge in Team Building

One reason suggested for the increased use of teams in the workplace is that teams produce more creative solutions to difficult and novel problems than individuals. Team members create new knowledge and problem solutions by combining their tacit and explicit knowledge in repeated iterations of the socialization-externalization-combination-internalization steps of the knowledge creation process. Therefore, improving how team members transfer tacit and explicit knowledge will increase the efficacy of teams in developing creative problem resolutions.

The value of sharing tacit knowledge within a team has upper and lower boundary conditions. If a team has little or no shared tacit knowledge, the team is little more than a collection of individuals and the resulting level of synergistic problem solving will be minimal. If pressures to conform to the group’s shared tacit knowledge overwhelm individuals’ willingness to express individual differences in skills, knowledge, or feelings, the synergy of the group can be diminished. The role of tacit knowledge in teambuilding can be seen as a “Goldilocks” problem, that is tacit knowledge should play a moderate role, neither too hot or too cold. Improving a team’s ability to transfer tacit knowledge within this limited range will improve a team’s problem-solving capabilities and therefore should be an important part of the teambuilding process.

Improving a Team’s Knowledge Transfer Capabilities

The four elements of the knowledge creation process proposed by Nonaka and Takeuchi offer a framework for discussing how to improve tacit knowledge transfer capabilities within a team. The skills, abilities, and techniques needed to promote the transfer of tacit knowledge vary across the stages of socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization.

Socialization

Socialization is critical to knowledge transfer because tacit knowledge can only be transferred through interpersonal interaction. Additionally, tacit knowledge cannot be proven because it is rooted in experience and experiential learning. The “student” must believe in the “teacher’s” validity and the value of the knowledge being imparted. The need for interpersonal interaction also requires that the teacher be open and trust the student because tacit knowledge is held at a personal level and enmeshed with the teacher’s values and beliefs. As a result, the primary goal of the socialization quadrant of the knowledge creation process is to develop the necessary trust and rapport among team members to promote tacit knowledge transfer.

An important step is the establishment of a common purpose among team members that allows the team to have goals. A sense of purpose or mission impacts how the team manages its processes, resources, and time. However, individual goal attainment must be interdependent or individuals may sub-optimize team goals or other team members’ individual goals and still meet their individual goals. Commitment to both individual and group growth is critical to placing the socialization process within a productive context. Social interactions outside of the frame of a common goal are little more than bantering.

The successful transfer of tacit knowledge also requires that team members have the opportunity for interpersonal interaction. Brown and Duguid documented the social interaction among photocopier service technicians and its role in transferring tacit knowledge. Coffee breaks and horseplay among technicians between assignments were initially viewed as nonproductive, but further examination showed that allowing the technicians the opportunity for such interactions significantly improved the proficiency of the entire technician group. Senior technicians used these interchanges to transfer tacit knowledge to more junior colleagues through storytelling and anecdotes.

Another contextual issue important to promoting tacit knowledge transfer is that team members possess the will or enthusiasm to share tacit knowledge. The experiential nature of learning by doing in the internalization phase means failures and the routine disclosure of failures are important in generating new knowledge. Team members need to trust that discussions of failures are viewed as learning opportunities. Those telling the story need to be secure that disclosing past failures will not negatively impact their standing with other group members. Team members listening to the stories must also have the time to reflect and learn from the stories.

Specific Teambuilding Needs in the Socialization Phase

The socialization phase establishes the “container” necessary for learning. Openness and trust must be encouraged among team members so that they have the opportunity to share and accept tacit knowledge that is highly personal in nature. This requires sufficient time in an environment free from distractions.

Externalization

In the externalization stage, individuals are placed in the container created during the socialization process. Then, tacit knowledge can be externalized and communicated to others. The externalization stage provides a stage for individuals to share knowledge that is not transferred easily.

Key teambuilding elements in the externalization stage center around four important concepts: Share, show, tell, and do. Individual team members need to share ideas and feelings openly. Failing to share by not disclosing information or feelings reduces the team’s ability to develop synergies because non-disclosing team members are only partially present. Team members also need to show their interest in the ideas others are expressing, tell how these ideas and actions impact them, and act (do) based on their personal interpretation and identity.

The lack of any external mechanism to validate expressions of tacit knowledge means that individual evaluations cannot be ratified or denied. Individuals must trust that other members of their team will evaluate the knowledge they share without applying hidden agendas and that they will provide valuable feedback. As a result, mutual regard for the knowledge, skills, and abilities of fellow team members is critical for individual team members. Another equally important point for ensuring trust among members is a need for team members to be authentic in their thoughts, feelings, and wants. The difference between being authentic and being truthful is that truthfulness suggests that an objective reality exists while no such assumption of objective verification exists for individual wants, feelings, and thoughts. This difference between the two concepts becomes more critical, and the need for being authentic becomes more important, when dealing with the sharing of tacit knowledge.

Specific Teambuilding Needs in the Externalization Stage

Individuals need to be comfortable and willing to share tacit knowledge that they may not know they have, and to receive tacit knowledge that is embedded within others’ feelings and thoughts. Trust exercises, interventions that promote mutual respect, and the development of authentic communication skills are critical to improving externalization skills.

Combination

Knowledge creation occurs in the combination stage where tacit and explicit knowledge are combined across individual team members. An important issue for teams in the combination stage is that conflict naturally ensues when individuals exchange closely-held personal ideas. Conflict management becomes a key skill to promote tacit knowledge transfer.

Compromise may initially appear as an effective conflict management technique because both parties have some needs met. However, compromise requires each party to sacrifice some needs whereas collaboration allows all parties to satisfy their needs. However, collaboration is more time consuming and requires recognizing conflicts openly. Effective collaboration requires opening up to others, opening up to one’s self, and possessing self-insight.

Specific Teambuilding Needs in the Combination Stage

Success in the combination stage relies on the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills discussed in the socialization and externalization phases. An important realization at this stage is that the individual team member and their self-insights constitute important instruments in resolving conflicts and team building. The concept of self-as-instrument is not new (Rogers, 1961), but its importance to the sharing of tacit knowledge is critical in the combination phase because of the conflicts inherent in creating new knowledge through combining tacit knowledge that is highly-embedded in the individual persons that comprise a team.

Internalization

Once individuals have combined tacit and explicit knowledge and created new knowledge, the individual team member must then integrate the newly created explicit knowledge with previously existing tacit and explicit knowledge. Learning by doing is critical to the internalization phase because it allows individuals to compile explicit knowledge into tacitly-held automatic routines. Explicit knowledge becomes embedded within the personal and contextual environment and is transformed into tacit knowledge.

Individuals need the time to practice applying new knowledge and to internalize its meaning. They also require the latitude to make the errors and mistakes requisite to mastering new knowledge. Learning how to do something correctly may be best defined as avoiding the multitude ways of doing it incorrectly. Understanding what constitutes incorrect performance is, therefore, an important step in knowing what constitutes correct performance.

Specific Recommendations for Teambuilding in the Internalization Phase

Organizations may need to establish “practice fields” that give individuals and teams opportunities to simulate real world experiences and promote internalization. The practice needs to be as realistic as possible. It is important for team members to feel they are within a safety zone where mistakes are tolerated and that they will not adversely impact organizational objectives or individual careers. Practice fields do not necessarily need to be elaborate. Realistic experiential exercises are all that is required. These should be followed by opportunities for debriefing and individual reflection.

The knowledge creation process builds upon itself as team interactions are repeated and layer upon layer of tacit and explicit knowledge are explored. As the process is repeated, it generates what has been termed a knowledge spiral that can eventually permeate an organization. The presence of a knowledge spiral will likely be reflected by greater productivity, innovation, and ability to solve problems. This can, indeed, be a source of sustained competitive advantage for a firm.

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