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Transform Any Team of Experts Into an Expert Team: Part 1

Thursday, January 18, 2018
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The global and technological nature of markets has caused organizations to increasingly struggle with staying competitive. To achieve this, they need to work more effectively, efficiently, or innovatively in carrying out complex cognitive work.

To accomplish complex work successfully, organizations rely on interdisciplinary and cross-functional high performing teams, explains research in a 2001 Academy of Management Journal article. Examples of such teams can be found in all kinds of industries, such as healthcare, product innovation, or education.

But a team of experts isn’t the same thing as an expert team just as a football team of superstars isn’t necessarily a super team. The question is: What does it take to ensure that a team of experts isn’t just ordinary? As Delise and colleagues point out in their 2010 Performance Improvement Quarterly article, there’s a serious lack of understanding of what the most effective strategy is to support these oh so needed teams in enhancing their performance.

There are many aspects to be considered, and this blog attempts to tease some of them out. Particularly, it discusses the theoretical background of the matter, while a follow-up blog will provide concrete examples that you can use as a just-in-time performance support tool.

Let’s start by discussing what we mean by an “expert team.”

What Is an Expert Team?

According to S. Tancig in Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems , an expert team is a “group of interdependent team members with a high level of task-related expertise and the mastering of team processes.”

The idea of an expert team is that, first the skills or expertise of each individual team member can be leveraged in order to reach a common goal, such as a task or a project, which then typically contributes to a higher-order goal like “staying ahead of the competition.” However, as Burke and co-authors point out in a 2004 article in Quality & Safety Health Care, even when you put the best people together (and usually that’s not even the case as teams generally consist of members with a variety of expertise levels), individual “experts don’t necessarily make an expert team.”

Research from Joe Fransen and colleagues focuses on learning teams. (However, in the light of this blog it’s worthwhile to discuss their research because through their explanation of the differences between learning teams and work teams, we can get some good insights on what constitutes an expert team. The authors explain that work teams are effective when they “successfully use their distributed expertise to effectively and efficiently perform as a team to successfully complete a given task.” Although in work teams, learning may occur as a by-product of collaboration, the quality of the product is the primary goal. They also add that team effectiveness in a workplace context isn’t only expressed by the quality of the product but also by aspects such as “speed, performance, accuracy, and inventiveness, as well as attitudinal and behavioural indicators.” Compared to learning teams, effective (or expert) work teams are thus defined in a broader sense—both in terms of quality of the outcomes in relation to organisational standards as well as satisfaction of individual team members’ needs.
In order to develop as an expert team, you need more than a group of expert individuals. This is often visible in soccer, where team owners buy lots of top players for astronomical salaries, but the side doesn’t function as an effective team.

So, what do you need to support a team of experts to develop into an expert team?

How to Turn Any Team Into an Expert Team

Although individual task-work competencies and skills are the foundation of expert team performance, they aren’t sufficient, explains the Quality & Safety Health Care article. Burke and co-authors add that you also need to look at teamwork competencies and skills. Teams must, first, have the competencies to “enable them to communicate and coordinate with team members and, second, must carry out complex tasks that require smooth integration of each team members’ competencies,” notes Delise and colleagues. In order to achieve this, teams need necessary information about one another’s competencies and need to build mutual trust. This doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes time to develop as an expert team.

Fortunately, research from Fransen, Weinberger, and Kirschner presents various models of team development. The Team Evolution and Maturation (TEAM) model from Morgan, Salas, and Glickman nicely combines various existing theories into a general and useful team development model (see Figure 1). While this model describes a set of developmental stages for teams, teams don’t necessarily need to go through all stages. It depends, for example, on past experiences of the team and its members. The figure also illustrates that the optimum level of performance (hence, when the level of ‘expert team’ has been achieved) is reached when the two paths converge.

Figure I. Essentials of the TEAM Model

Figure I. Essentials of the TEAM Model
Source: Team Effectiveness and Team Development in CSCL, Fransen et. al

Next, when developing teams into expert teams, we also need to take various variables that influence work teams’ effectiveness into account. Fransen and colleagues discuss the Big Five in Teamwork from Salas and colleagues, which is based on a meta-analysis of research on team effectiveness in organizational settings. The table below explains the five factors and their three supporting and coordinating mechanisms briefly.

Table 1: Big Five Factors

Factors

Brief Explanation

Team Orientation

This refers to a preference to work with others and a tendency to enhance individual performance through coordination of one’s actions with other members while performing group tasks. It facilitates decision-making, cooperation, and coordination, which in turns contributes to increases team performance.

Team Leadership

The effects of team leadership depend on the type of team and/or task. Overall, teams prefer democratic leadership. When groups work with distributed leadership, emergent leadership is important. This refers to a shift in leadership depending on the stage that the team is in.

Mutual Performance Monitoring

This factor refers to team members keeping track of one another’s work while carrying out one’s own work to ensure that all is running as expected. The more complex a task, the more important mutual performance monitoring will be. It requires a shared understanding of task and team responsibilities.

Back-Up Behavior

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This is the ability to anticipate other team members’ needs through accurate knowledge of their responsibilities and also to shift the workload mong members to achieve balance during periods of high pressure. It is strongly related to shared mental models and mutual performance monitoring. It can be provided through feedback, assisting a team member, or completing a sub task for a team member.

Adaptability

This refers to the ability of a person or group to adjust strategies through back-up behaviour and reallocation of intrateam resources. It can also refer to change a course of action in response to changing conditions. Adaptability requires both mutual performance monitoring and shared mental models.

Supporting and Coordinating Mechanisms

Shared Mental Models

This refers to both team-related and task-related mental models. The first is about awareness of the team functioning and expected behaviours, the second is about information on the materials and strategies needed to successfully carry out the mutual task. The accuracy of the mental models is more critical than the similarity of the models. High-quality planning in the early stages of the team work is required.

Mutual Trust

This implies the shared perception that each team member will perform particular actions important to all members and will protect the rights and interests of team members. Trust is a multidimensional construct and it seems to develop through stages building upon each other.

Closed-Loop Communication

This is the ability to exchange clear, concise information, acknowledge the receipt of that information, and confirm its correct understanding. This type of communication facilitates teams in updating their shared mental models engaging in activities regarding task execution, monitoring the process, and adapting to changing conditions.

Source: Small Group Research, Salas et al.

It’s obvious that the factors that influence team effectiveness involve very complex constructs, which is something to keep in mind when you’re involved in developing expert teams.

What we’ve learned so far is that in order to develop expert teams, you need to take the development stages into account and also be aware of all the variables that influence team effectiveness. However, this still doesn’t tell us what exactly we need to do to support teams to get to an “expert” level. In other words, what kind of interventions or support do we need to provide?

Delise and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis, comparing 23 studies (which is a small sample size and, therefore, all results need to be interpreted with caution) on the effects of learning and performance interventions on team outcomes. They call it “team training,” which refers to any “planned effort designed to improve team performance by assisting individuals in the acquisition of new information, skills, and attitudes essential to effective performance in a team environment.”

Overall, their findings suggest that well-planned and well-implemented learning experiences are highly associated with team effectiveness and that they’re effective in general for all kinds of teams in all kinds of contexts. In addition, there were no differences in effectiveness across lab and field studies. Results also indicated that these structured learning experiences are as effective for existing teams as for ad hoc teams, which are teams that are put together for a specific, temporary purpose.

Unfortunately, the sample size of this meta study was too small to examine one potentially important moderator variable: the method of the learning intervention (the how).

Because all authors agree that just waiting for something magical to happen in order to achieve expert level in teams won’t do the trick, it’s worthwhile to tease out what type of learning and performance interventions help to develop expert teams. This is exactly what we’ll do in our next blog.

Further Reading

Burke, C.S., Salas, E., Wilson-Donnelly, K., & Priest, H., (2004). How to turn a team of experts into an expert medical team: guidance from the aviation and military communities. Quality & Safety Health Care, 13, i96-i104.

Delise, L.A., Gorman, A., Brooks, A.M., Rentsch, J.R., & Steele-Johnson, D., (2010). The effects of team training on team outcomes: A meta-analysis. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 22, 53-80.

Fransen, J., Weinberger, A., & Kirschner, P.A., (2013). Team effectiveness and team development in CSCL. Educational Psychologist, 48, 9-24.

Lovelace, K., Shapiro, D.L., & Weingart, L.R., (2001). Maximizing cross-functional new product teams’ innovativeness and constraint adherence: A conflict communications perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 779-793.

Morgan, B.B., Salas, E., & Glickman, A.S., (1993). An analysis of team evolution and maturation. The Journal of General Psychology, 120, 277-291.

Salas, E., Sims, D.E., & Burke, C.S., (2005). Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork? Small Group Research, 36, 555-599.

Shibley, I.A., (2006). Interdisciplinary team teaching. Negotiating pedagogical differences. College Teaching, 54, 271-271.

Tancig, S., (2009). Expert team decision-making and problem-solving: development and learning. Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, 7, 106-116.

About the Author
Mirjam Neelen is a learning experience design expert and a learning and development consultant with more than 10 years of industry experience, working at companies such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Google. In her current role at the Learnovate Centre, she leads the learning design processes across various industry segments, such as multinationals, small and medium enterprises, start-ups, and higher education. Mirjam analyses business and performance challenges in close collaboration with her customers, delivers technology-enhanced innovative, effective, and impactful learning strategies and upskills customers to enable them to implement the strategies. She presents about projects regularly; both internally to industry partners and externally at conferences. She has completed an MSc in Learning Sciences and published an article, based on her thesis, in the International Journal of Knowledge and Learning. Prior to working as a learning experience designer, she completed an MA in Psycholinguistics and a BA in Speech Therapy. She started her career as a speech therapist, working with adults with aphasia and children with various neurological disorders.
About the Author
Paul A. Kirschner is university distinguished professor at the Open University of the Netherlands as well as visiting professor of education with a special emphasis on learning and interaction in teacher education at the University of Oulu, Finland. He is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of educational psychology and instructional design. He is research fellow of the American Educational Research Association and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Science. He was president of the International Society for the Learning Sciences (ISLS) in 2010-2011, member of both the ISLS CSCL Board and the Executive Committee of the Society, and he is an AERA Research Fellow (the first European to receive this honor). He is currently a member of the Scientific Technical Council of the Foundation for University Computing Facilities (SURF WTR) in the Netherlands and was a member of the Dutch Educational Council and, as such, was advisor to the Minister of Education (2000-2004). He is chief editor of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, associate editor of Computers in Human Behavior, and has published two very successful books: Ten Steps to Complex Learning (now in its second revised edition and translated/published in Korea and China) and Urban Legends about Learning and Education. He also co-edited two other books ( Visualizing Argumentation and What We Know about CSCL). His areas of expertise include interaction in learning, collaboration for learning (computer supported collaborative learning), and regulation of learning.
1 Comment
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Very interesting read. Highly curious about the second part. Would love to have a talk about learning solutions that were able to build these high performing teams. Have some field experience in this area myself. Let me know if you are interested to exchange thoughts and experiences.
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