Do you know who is on your team? It seems like an easy question for people who work in large corporations to answer. Reviewing Socialtext People recently led me to remember an interesting study I read a few years ago that reported rather surprising findings with significance for Enterprise 2.0, and to the lead-in question above. The study, largely ignored in the social networking literature, pointed to a clear limitation to collaboration in national and global corporations that organize teams geographically distributed.
Mark Mortensen and Pamela Hinds published a chapter titled, “Fuzzy Teams: Disagreement in Distributed and Collocated Teams”, in an edited collection called Distributed Work way back in 2002. The book itself contains an interesting range of studies on the challenges involved in organizing work across members of geographically distributed teams. However, it seems to me that Fuzzy Teams offers a key insight into the way Enterprise 2.0 applications, especially wikis, help to meet challenges in organizing distributed work that are often overlooked.
Mortensen and Hinds surveyed twenty-four product development teams. As part of their survey about the way employees organize distributed work, Mortensen and Hinds provided each respondent with an official, manager-provided list of members of teams on which the employee worked. Each respondent was asked to “correct” the team list for inaccuracies. Mortensen and Hinds noted that most analyses of collocated teams, where members work in proximity to one another, assume that the employees involved agree on the team boundaries. Additionally, they noted that the assumption implies mutual awareness of all employees regarding who is, and is not, a team member. In collocated teams the assumption is a valid one to make. In distributed teams it is not, even with email and threaded discussion lists.
Specifically, Fuzzy Teams reported that,
Of the twenty-four teams surveyed, not a single team was in complete agreement on its boundary: who was and who was not a member of the team. In fact, the average level of agreement within the sample was only 75 percent, such that any given team member was likely to disagree with the rest of his or her team on one-quarter of potential team members.
In their conclusions, Mortensen and Hinds offered the following suggestion:
We believe it is possible to address the issues surrounding team boundaries through the use of social network methods. By collecting team data as social networks, membership can be determined through an analysis of the patterns of interconnection among all potential team members (. p.304)
Those advocating Enterprise 2.0, especially wikis, may consider the benefits described back in 2002 by Mortensen and Hinds obvious. However, I’d be surprised if managers in global organizations using cross-functional teams would agree that, on average, only 75% of the employees on any given distrbuted team agree about who is, and who is not, on their team. The implications for collaboration are significant. At the same time that wiki applications such as Socialtext People provide increased awareness of the boundaries of a team, they also increase the likelihood of finding people outside the team with expertise relevant to team challenges, resulting in more boundary spanning across teams. Overall, information sharing within teams and across teams increases.
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