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Go Teams! Firms Can't Do Without Them

The sports teams on which people focus tend to change with the season—baseball, football, hockey, basketball. On the corporate playing field, however, there's a critical need for a more consistent, year-long focus on teams.

Oddly enough, there has not been a lot of recent research data to support that contention. At the Institute for Corporate Productivity, we wondered if the rah-rah "There's No 'I' in Team" mantra had outlived its usefulness. But we weren't ready to brush "teams" off as yesterday's news. After all, today's emphasis on collaboration, both within and external to organizations, suggests teamwork is more important than ever. The Institute's 2008 "Taking the Pulse: Teams" survey showed that there is steady use of both on-site teams and virtual teams, and for the future as well.

Finding 1: Virtual teams are a growing part of the business landscape

Virtual teams are made possible by modern communication technologies. Team members may be geographically dispersed, with little face-to-face time, and they often work across organizational boundaries. Among organizations of 5,000 employees or more, 8 in 10 respondents said their firm's reliance on virtual teams will grow in importance over the next three years. Nearly half of large firms said the same of on-site teams.

Finding 2: Teams are entrusted with strategic responsibilities as well as day-to-day business

Over half (53%) of all surveyed organizations use teams to a high or very high extent to conduct day-to-day business, but even more organizations are strong users of teams when it comes to one-time projects (77%) and ongoing project management (67%). And nearly half use teams (to a high or very high extent) for critical processes such as planning, the execution of plans, and problem-solving.

Finding 3: Organizations admit to a broad array of stumbling blocks

Using teams to get things done is not without its challenges. Topping the list of challenges is the idea that virtual teams are just too difficult to manage, with more than one-third of overall respondents indicating this is a problem to a high or very high extent. Coordinating schedules is nearly as challenging. And 31% noted that their technology tools are inadequate for team meetings. Some respondents pointed to problems with team dynamics, with one noting "egos... competition, bullying, [and] disrespect" as factors.

Finding 4: But the advantages far outweigh the challenges

So why, exactly, are companies not only clinging to the use of teams but also planning to expand their use? Because there are enormous potential benefits. More than three-quarters of respondents said teams facilitate information-sharing to a high or very high extent, 70% said they encourage diverse thinking, and 62% feel that teams boost productivity. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other benefits, including the facilitation of cross-training, the ability to reach organizational consensus, the capacity to gather the best global talent and improved retention. Any vehicle that promises to positively influence such topics as productivity, talent management, knowledge transfer, and employee retention has got to be highly attractive to managers.

Finding 5: Effective teams require a whole host of skills

We also asked about the elements that are most critical for team performance. Highest marks went to listening skills, trust, the ability to establish actionable items, group facilitation skills, consensus-seeking skills, cultural awareness and a sense of humor; in all cases, more than two-thirds of respondents reported that these elements are critical to a high or very high extent. Given that teams may be a standard fixture on the organizational front for some time, learning experts should be able to make the case that these are investment-worthy development issues.

Finding 6: Learning to operate as a team requires time and attention

Effective teams don't just happen. There are methods for developing good team members. The approaches that scored highest in this study were setting the rules of engagement up front, providing formal training for leaders in skills such as group facilitation and conflict resolution, "seeding" a team with members of a successful past team and simply providing employees with multiple team experiences.

Observations and Recommendations

The survey, conducted in conjunction with HR.com, had 278 responses. It revealed two especially interesting areas of concern. First, with so many organizations expecting their usage of virtual teams to increase over the next three years, the reported problem of inadequate technology could become a growing and even urgent problem—one that's compounded by tough economic times. Second, while diversity of thinking was touted as one of the strongest benefits of using teams, "brainstorming for fresh ideas" was the least commonly cited team activity. This trend could be inhibiting the potential innovation of some workforces.

Managers should consider whether these red flags represent problems in their organizations. Given the potential benefits of teams, it makes sense to ensure that the right team technologies are available and that team diversity is being leveraged in ways that maximize creativity and innovation.