Virtual Teams

Multiple Team Membership and Productivity

For this week’s ‘Matrix Monday’ post, Kevan Hall  reviewed “Multiple Team Membership:a theoretical model of its effect on productivity and learning for individuals and teams” (at 5 a.m, in the Emirates Lounge in Dubai (on his way to Jakarta).

The paper starts with a statement that 65-95% of knowledge workers in USA and Europe are members of more than one team at a time. This accords with our own experience, and our virtual teams benchmarking survey shows that, on average, people are members of 5 teams.

Organizations use multiple team membership to leverage productivity from scarce resources, but the paper argues that systems put in place to enhance productivity can hinder learning.

It explores two aspects of multiple team membership, the number of teams and the variety of those teams, and the impact on productivity and learning.

It makes an interesting connection with multitasking as individuals in multiple teams need to switch attention regularly from one set of tasks to another. This may impact performance, but create opportunities for new learning and network building.

Being a member of more teams encourages individuals to seek out more efficient ways of working but reduces the attention they can pay to each team and to learning. The more focused we become on narrow measures of productivity, the less we look around and learn.

It seems that initially multiple team membership leads to an increase in productivity as people need to become more effective but that this effect tapers out when we are on too many teams – makes sense. A bit of stress helps, too much hinders.

Being on a higher variety or teams and tasks means we need to process more information and have higher switching costs between different ways of working, tasks and technologies. This can negatively impact productivity but may lead to more learning.

The research does not go on to draw parallels with multiple bosses and multiple reporting lines, though I would anticipate some similar effects as the multiple reporting lines connect people to a greater number and variety of perspectives and sets of colleagues.

Practical applications? We enhance learning by offering greater variety of tasks and contexts  but this can negatively impact productivity at a certain level. We can mitigate this by developing consistent work practices and ways of working across teams to minimise the complexity of switching between teams and by carefully scheduling blocks of time to avoid too frequent task switching.

Source:  MULTIPLE TEAM MEMBERSHIP: A THEORETICAL MODEL OF ITS EFFECTS ON PRODUCTIVITY AND LEARNING FOR INDIVIDUALS AND TEAMS. Authors:  MICHAEL BOYER O’LEARY, Georgetown University, MARK MORTENSEN, INSEAD and ANITA WILLIAMS WOOLLEY, Carnegie Mellon University. Academy of Management Review 2011, Vol. 36, No. 3, 461–478.

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