Teams flying blind

People who work together in teams don’t always know to whom they should send important information. This causes the team to perform poorly, according to a doctoral study.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Virtual teams

How can we best utilise each other's knowledge in a team? How do we divide tasks between ourselves? How do we know when and with whom to share what information?

These are questions Dominique Kost wanted to answer in her doctoral project at BI Norwegian Business School.

Read also: Better decisions when crisis hits

Terrorist attack against the Norwegian coast
Imagine that your assignment is to eliminate a terrorist who headed to the Norwegian coast by sea. You are on frigate and must solve the assignment along with one person in a patrol vessel and one person on an Orion plane.

You don't know who the terrorist is or where he will strike. You learn that he is approaching the coast on board a fishing vessel, but there are many such vessels at sea. You haven't necessarily worked together previously.

In order to solve the assignment, the team members must develop a sound understanding of the task assigned to them. They must send critically important information to those who need it, with e-mail as the only form of communication.

This is a concrete and practical example of an assignment in which multiple people must work together to succeed in achieving a good result.

Dominique Kost recruited students to solve this assignment in teams of three participants. The experiments were conducted as a simulation game in a research laboratory at BI Norwegian Business School.

Analysed e-mail
In the first part of the study, the BI researcher combed through the content of all e-mails sent between the three team members in eight of the teams participating in the experiments.

Kost analysed the many e-mails to find out what type of information was shared with which people on the team.

The study shows that team members struggled to understand how their own role and tasks are connected to the tasks and roles of the other members of the team. The teams also had trouble keeping up with changes and adapting to new job requirements along the way. This caused team members to not send critically important information to those who needed it. Sub-groups also formed within teams with their own understanding of the assignment.

"The team as a whole developed a poor understanding of the assignment they were tasked with solving," says Dominique Kost. This makes it more difficult for the team to succeed with the task they were given to solve.

Communication for better performance
It is also not necessarily a good idea to send all information to everyone to ensure that no-one misses information that is critically important to them.

If too much information is sent between team members with tasks that are relatively independent of each other, this will result in poorer team performance.

The result is different when the team members' tasks are more coherent. Then extensive communication will better enable the team to solve their tasks.

Teams that developed routines for communication and what was to be done, performed better than the teams that did not establish such routines. By following the routines over time, the team members developed a better understanding of each other's roles and how their tasks are connected.

Five tips to make virtual teams work
Based on her doctoral study, Dominique Kost has developed five practical tips to make virtual teams function to their fullest extent:

  1. When the team is established, it is important to create an overview of the roles of the individual team members and how the tasks they must solve are connected. This is particularly important when the team members have not worked together previously.
  2. The team leader has a special responsibility to remind the team members of how their tasks are connected.
  3. Establish routines for communication in the team. This will help the team members understand how the roles and responsibilities are connected.
  4. Make sure that sub-groups do not develop within the team. This may result in the development of different understandings of how to solve the tasks.
  5. Find the right balance between informing everyone on the team and individual team members. Think about who is dependent on a certain type of information at any given time. This means that the individual members of the team must have a sound understanding of how roles and tasks are connected, and must be aware of how this changes over time.

Dominique Kost. Understanding Transactive Memory Systems in Virtual Teams: The role of integration and differentiation, task dependencies and routines. Series of Dissertation - 01/2016. BI Norwegian Business School.

This article is published in the online news service ScienceNordic on March 2, 2016.
Link: http://sciencenordic.com/five-tips-improve-your-team

Published 3. March 2016

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