The ability to work in a team is essential in today’s workplace environment. This is true for many industries and many types of jobs. To be effective, each team member must coordinate their work with that of other team members like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Working together is the responsibility of each team member and team leader. However, working in a team doesn’t come naturally to many scientists. They’ve been trained in undergraduate and graduate school to work independently. That’s a major reason why team-building and training courses are big business in the United States. Since the recession hit, this type of training has been cut back at many firms to reduce costs. Team leaders have become more responsible for coaching team members in how to work together effectively.
How do you train yourself or others to work effectively on teams? “We are developing a new science to show what works and doesn’t work and why,” says Eduardo Salas, an organizational psychologist at the University of Central Florida. His research is in this area and the subject of a paper in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science.
A team is not just a machine for doing things; it is a system of social relations. Teamwork training is about instilling knowledge, skills, and attitudes; all needed competencies to work effectively in teams. Team building helps individuals on a team learn about each other, clarify roles, work through problems, and cooperate towards accomplishing shared goals. Most interventions focus on the latter—”team building is the largest human-resources intervention in the world,” comments Salas. However, according to Salas, much teamwork training is ineffective. He suggests that organizations rarely do the front-end work of figuring out which they need in the way of effective teamwork training but rather deal with team effectiveness problems on an ad hoc basis.
One problem is that teamwork successes get published and talked about while failures just fade away. Yet sometimes one can often learn more from failures better than successes. In terms of training, it’s not difficult to determine if team members liked a training program or absorbed some of the knowledge it imparted. However, it’s much more complicated to evaluate team members who have adopted the behaviors in which they’ve been trained.
Managers are now less willing to take people off the job and to spend money on team training without clear proof that they’ll get what they paid for. This requirement has been invigorating for the science of teamwork, Salas suggests. “Because of the push for results, we are getting better at collecting the data and are making a better case for cause and effect.”
Where can you get teamwork training when corporate training budgets have been reduced? Reading books is a good way to start. References 1 and 2 below are two of the many books available on developing teamwork skills. Some independent consultants offer modestly priced teamwork training. Internet search engines can help you identify some of these individuals. Perhaps your ACS local section could organize a teamwork training short course presented by one of these individuals.
Capturing the information
In the wake of staff reductions, best practices that took years to develop can disappear overnight – without a trace. Why? The people who developed these teamwork skills and their team leaders have lost their jobs. Much of this knowledge is never captured in reports. Because of the need for this information some large companies have developed knowledge retention programs to capture the data. One approach, on which I’ve worked, is to interview highly competent employees leaving their assignments as a result of retirement, job transfers, and promotions. The focus of these interviews is to capture information on teams’, both the successes and failures. The interviewer must be skilled in giving the interview and capturing outstanding performers’ teamwork experiences and opinions in well-written reports, reports understandable to people who aren’t specialists in the field of the team’s efforts.
These efforts work best if one hires outsiders, usually in a consultant capacity, to conduct the interviews and write the reports. Outsiders will not have preconceived notions of individual and team performance.
Methods of knowledge retention have been described (3-7).
1. C.M. Avery, M.A. Walker, and E. O’Toole, Teamwork Is an Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (April 9, 2001).
2. S.J. Stowell and S.S. Mead, The Team Approach: With Teamwork Anything Is Possible, CMOE Press (November 12, 2007).
- J.K. Borchardt, “Retaining Knowledge,” Lab Manager, http://www.labmanager.com/articles.asp?ID=595 (June 2010).
- S. Parise, R. Cross and T.H. Davenport, “Strategies for Preventing a Knowledge-Loss Crisis,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 31-38 (Summer 2008).
- Knowledge Harvesting, Inc. http://www.knowledgeharvesting.com/Clients.html .
- D.W. DeLong, “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce,” Oxford University Press (2004).
- M.T. Hansen and B. von Oetinger, “Introducing T-shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation,” Harvard Business Review Online (March-April 2001), http://hbr.org/2001/03/introducing-t-shaped-managers/ar/1.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.