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Learning suffers when IT hijacks Knowledge Management


Organisations need to learn fast to succeed. Building new knowledge into the organisational memory and culture is vitally important.

In a new report on the role of learning in teams that cross functional boundaries, Institute of Employment Studies (IES) Director Richard Pearson said, "Cross-functional teams bring together diverse talents, and encourage thinking outside the box. They have enormous potential for increasing the knowledge base of organisations. They can be the very coalface of organisational learning, as well as enhancing the skills and abilities of individuals. They deserve, but do not always receive, solid organisational support, and employee recognition from senior management."

The new report draws on in-depth research among teams in leading UK employers, and concludes that this neglected potential deserves proper recognition.

People learn from people, not systems

Today’s e-aware businesses, with their sophisticated networks and ‘groupware’, are strewn with project teams and special taskforces whose objectives are often misunderstood, misused and unsupported by their colleagues.

As IES Research Fellow and author of the report, Polly Kettley says, "Few of the lessons of even successful teams make it into the “organisational memory”, and new teams repeat many of the mistakes of the past. Organisational learning has 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 the interaction of people with people – especially within networks, groups or teams of people who cross conventional organisational boundaries. Moreover, for the ambitious employee, time spent on a cross-functional team is now one of the most popular, and potentially rewarding, forms of career development – though it is not without risks."

What do cross-functional teams learn, and how?

Until now, little was known about the rationale for using cross-functional teams, what the members of such teams actually learn, and what factors influence how they learn. The IES study is invaluable for senior HR Professionals, for it is their role in supporting the learning in, and from, cross-functional teamwork that is often underdeveloped and unused. Project Directors and Team Leaders will also find it helps them help teams work better and learn better.

What team members learn:
  • learning about self: ie enhanced personal effectiveness
  • learning about the organisation, its interdependencies, processes and complexities, and the part these play in managing change
  • learning about other specialisms: ie the acquisition or appreciation of particular functional or job competencies, the tools and techniques typically used by other specialisms/functions, and others’ working methods, professional standards, or regulatory requirements.
What helps them learn:
  • making learning an explicit and important part of teamworking: for individuals and the organisation before, during, and after the team ‘experience’
  • the positive attitude of individual members’ ‘home functions’, and good interaction across boundaries with the rest of the organisation
  • diversity within the team, and autonomy in organising its own work
  • working together in the same place; continuity and consistency of membership also maintains the team dynamic and levels of trust essential to team learning
  • using team processes for learning, and discussing difficulties honestly.

Corporate HR functions who value the enormous potential contribution of cross-functional teamwork to their knowledge base, will ensure they know whether or not the cross-functional teams scattered around their organisations are as effective as they could be, and are receiving the right organisational support.

The Report was sponsored by the IES Research Club which comprises 26 of the UK’s leading employers. Polly Kettley is a leading consultant and researcher on organisational design and development.

2 Responses

  1. This is even more important as teams become more mobile
    These days, as cross-functional teams become more and more cross-country/cross-global, the importance of effective organizational learning becomes more critical. Ideally, knowledge systems should be designed so that team members in other cities and other countries have the same knowledge advantages as team members sharing a cubicle.


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