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Groups and teamwork
Groups and teamwork

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2.3.7 New types of team

In addition to the traditional types of teams or groups outlined above, recent years have seen the growth of interest in two other important types of team: 'self-managed teams' and 'self-organising teams'.

During the 1990s many organisations in the UK became interested in notions of empowerment and, often as a consequence, set up self-managed or empowered teams. An Industrial Society Survey (1995) commented:

the trend is becoming a powerful one, set to take self managed teams from leading edge status to mainstream.

A typical self-managed team may be permanent or only temporary. It operates in an informal and non-hierarchical manner, and has considerable responsibility for the way it carries out its tasks. It is often found in organisations that are developing total quality management and quality assurance approaches. The Industrial Society Survey observed that:

Better customer service, more motivated staff, and better quality of output are the three top motives for moving to [self-managed teams], managers report.

In contrast, organisations that deliberately encourage the formation of self-organising teams are comparatively rare. Teams of this type can be found in highly flexible, innovative organisations that thrive on creativity and informality. These are modern, often very new, organisations that recognise the importance of learning and adaptability in ensuring their success and continued survival. However, self-organising teams exist, unrecognised, in many organisations. For instance, in traditional, bureaucratic organisations, people who need to circumvent the red tape may get together in order to make something happen and, in so doing, spontaneously create a self-organising team. The team will work together, operating outside the formal structures, until its task is done and then it will disband.

Table 2 shows some typical features of self-managed and self-organising teams.

Table 2
Self-managed teamSelf-organising team
Usually part of the formal reporting structureUsually outside the formal reporting structure
Members usually selected by managementMembers usually self-selected volunteers
Informal style of workingInformal style of working
Indirectly controlled by senior managementSenior management influences only the team's boundaries
Usually a permanent leader, but may changeLeadership variable – perhaps one, perhaps changing, perhaps shared
Empowered by senior managementEmpowered by the team members and a supportive culture and environment

With both forms of team, managers need to rethink their traditional approach to teamworking. Equality of team membership is a key feature of modern teams, with every member playing an equally important role in discussions, problem solving and decision making processes.

Managers are no longer expected to control or strongly direct the activities of the team but rather to support and work with the team by acting as coach, facilitator or adviser as needed. This has important implications for the kinds of skills needed to work effectively in this new role. Managers and supervisors need to develop expert interpersonal and communication skills, but above all they need to be prepared to 'let go' and to trust their colleagues and junior members of staff. A 'command and control' approach will not work with these modern forms of teamworking and staff with experience of the traditional models will need to resist the temptation to step in at the first sign of difficulties, and also to refrain from apportioning blame if things do not work well in the early stages. The team members will need encouragement, support and help in learning from any mistakes or difficulties.

Many organisations set up self-managed or empowered teams as an important way of improving performance and they are often used as a way of introducing a continuous improvement approach. These teams tend to meet regularly to discuss and put forward ideas for improved methods of working or customer service in their areas. Some manufacturers have used multi-skilled self-managed teams to improve manufacturing processes, to enhance worker participation and improve morale. Self-managed teams give employees an opportunity to take a more active role in their working lives and to develop new skills and abilities. This may result in reduced staff turnover and less absenteeism.

Self-organising teams are usually formed spontaneously in response to an issue, idea or challenge. This may be the challenge of creating a radically new product, or solving a tough production problem. In Japan, the encouragement of self-organising teams has been used as a way of stimulating discussion and debate about strategic issues so that radical and innovative new strategies emerge. By using a self-organising team approach companies were able to tap into the collective wisdom and energy of interested and motivated employees. In the Open University, several academics may get together informally and form a self-organising team in order to share and develop the initial ideas for a new course. Participants in self-organising teams benefit from the exchange of ideas and viewpoints, and the implicit need to get things done. Self-organising teams provide a fertile learning environment and participants may acquire new knowledge, new ways of thinking and behaving, and enhanced understandings of the organisation and their role in it. Self-organising teams can play a particularly valuable role as part of an innovative organisational change programme.