Report summary: Learning from Cross-functional Teamwork

Organisations, in both the private and public sector, are increasingly team based. Programmes, projects, taskforces and working groups are how things get done. At a strategic level, organisations are concerned to position themselves in the knowledge economy and turn their employees’ know-how into a managed asset. But organisational learning has largely been hijacked by IT, in the guise of ‘knowledge management’, and employers are struggling to address the human issues associated with knowledge creation and exchange.

The reality is that the majority of knowledge sharing and innovation within organisations occurs through people interacting with people - especially within networks, groups or teams that cross conventional organisational boundaries. Cross-functional teams can represent the ‘coalface’ of organisational learning.

Figure 1 shows in diagrammatic form the relationships between the different variables, of both context and process, that this study explores.

Figure 1: Influence of context and process

Influence of context and process diagram

Source: IES

What’s different about cross- functional teams?

Cross-functional teams typically comprise individuals with a functional home base (eg engineering, personnel, marketing) but who work collaboratively on issues or processes requiring diverse resources. There are four key areas that distinguish cross-functional teamwork from more conventional teams:

  • functional diversity
  • competing identities
  • integration in the organisational structure
  • performance expectation.

Cross-functional team value

The ten teams in the IES study had been introduced for one of the following reasons:

  • innovation and new product/service development
  • problem-solving across traditional organisational/ functional boundaries
  • integration of systems typically via process re-design/re-engineering
  • co-ordination into a ‘one stop shop’ or a single point of contact or delivery.

Team types

The business rationale for cross-functional working operates on two dimensions: type of synergy, and integration with the organisations‘ structure.

Some teams are primarily concerned with cross-functional collaboration that in some way shapes future organisational strategy and development of the business. These require the building of a critical mass of people who can generate new knowledge or synergistic learning and commit around an emerging consensus.

Other teams are responsible for largely operational business processes, eg the implementation and/or delivery of new integration or co-ordination methods. Here the emphasis is upon the application and delivery of shared knowledge.

Along the other dimension, teams differ in the extent to which they are integrated into the organisation’s structure and business processes as a semi-permanent structure, or organised as a parallel and largely separate project.

How learning takes place

Members of cross-functional teams seldom have explicit expectations of what they might learn, nor are they always conscious of what they have learnt. Measuring both learning methods and outcomes is therefore difficult. The IES study does, however, illustrate how team members learn via four particular routes:

  1. direct knowledge/skills transfer from other experts
  2. observing diverse others in action
  3. collective problem-solving and experimentation
  4. consolidating prior experience and re-framing new insights.

The majority of our survey respondents (43 per cent) felt they had learnt most from working closely with others within the team. An appropriate mix of expertise in the team, and the capability of individual members to share and otherwise impart their knowledge, is a critical success factor in team learning.

What is learnt

Cross-functional team experience is a powerful opportunity for self-development, even for those employees who join with little or no learning intent. There are at least three definable categories or types of learning distinguishable from one another in terms of the knowledge and skills acquired by cross-functional team members. They are:

Learning about self: ie enhanced personal effectiveness via generic interpersonal, interactive and communication competencies, such as influencing others, handling conflict, listening, and feedback. In addition, people spoke of their team membership enabling them to quite fundamentally re-think themselves and their own motivations, work preferences, learning styles etc.

Learning about the organisation: ie a better under-standing of the interdependencies of different parts of the organisation and related processes (systems thinking); appreciation of the complexity of managing change and its implications for problem-solving and decision making; skills in identifying improvement opportunities and building shared vision; collaborative enquiry — clarifying (internal and external) customer requirements, etc.

Learning about other specialisms: ie the acquisition or appreciation of particular functional or job competencies, and tools and techniques typically used by other specialisms/functions. Individuals spoke of becoming familiar with the requirements of others‘ working methods, professional standards, regulatory requirements etc.

‘Softer’ skills around their self-awareness and personal effectiveness were consistently reported as being developed most.

Key influences on learning

The IES study illustrates the impact of the organisational culture and systems in which teams exist (organisational context); the operating principles and dynamic of the team (team context), and their impact on the team experience, ie the learning process and learning outcomes. The context for cross-functional teams is complex and differs from that of conventional teams in that it includes hierarchical, lateral and inter-team dependencies that require continuous negotiation.

Some of the key contextual factors that directly impact upon the learning of a cross-functional team include:

  • Explicit consideration of learning for the individual and the organisation before, during, and after the team ‘experience’.
  • The positive attitude of an individual member’s ‘home function’ and the level of interaction across boundaries with the rest of the organisation.
  • Diversity within the team and autonomy to organise its own work. Team members should not be appointed and allocated responsibilities solely on the basis of their functional expertise.
  • The degree of close working and interaction. Cross-functional teams benefit enormously from being co-located. Continuity and consistency of membership also maintains the team dynamic and levels of trust essential to team learning.
  • Using team processes for learning and honest discussion of difficulties.

Realising the potential

This report offers practical guidelines for employers to maximise the learning potential of cross-functional teamwork for individuals and their organisations. There are roles for HR, team leaders, senior sponsors and line managers:

  1. the resourcing or allocation of talent and skills to teams and their re-entry (and re-motivation) to the ‘mainstream’ organisation
  2. coaching and learning support to team members
  3. facilitating relevant team development and training in, for example, team dynamics, group problem-solving techniques etc.
  4. realigning HR systems, eg reward, performance appraisal, skills frameworks and career management
  5. developing the team as a ‘learning community’, capturing and transferring knowledge gained to the rest of the organisation.

Prioritising where support is needed most requires a pragmatic evaluation of existing practices and experiences. Corporate HR functions who value the enormous potential contribution of cross-functional teamwork to their knowledge base, ensure they know whether or not the cross-functional teams scattered around the organisation are as effective as they could be, and are receiving the right organisational support. IES works with leading employers to conduct effectiveness audits of this type.

About the IES HR Network.