How useful is teamwork as a method of doing work?
The question about the use of teamwork is not merely a question about its general advantages and disadvantages. The answer requires an analysis about the effectiveness and efficiency of that method. The effectiveness of teams has been discussed broadly in the literature. Yet, the question about the efficiency has rarely been addressed. I will therefore examine the efforts that have to be invested in teamwork and point out that it is a highly inefficient method. Thus, the use of teamwork seems to be restricted, despite its high effectiveness, and the area of application is smaller than most of the literature suggests.
In some literature there is a distinction between the terms “teamwork” and “teams” in a sense that teamwork is not essentially connected with teams (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993a). I will not follow this distinction but treat teamwork as the general way teams achieve their goals. Moreover, I will not distinguish between different types of teams like Hackman (1990) or Parker (2003) do. Katzenbach and Smith (1993a: 45) give a broadly accepted definition of a team saying that “a team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”. Five crucial characteristics of a team can be deduced from that: it has to be composed of complementary skills, it needs a common purpose as well as a common approach, performance goals have to be defined and in addition to the individual accountability the team members must hold themselves mutually accountable. In contrast to teams, one can define working groups that do not share any of the characteristics mentioned above but simply represent several individuals gathered together, each of them with individual goals.
The advantages and disadvantages of teamwork have been discussed widely. Basically, one can say that the results of teams exceed those of working groups since they add a certain bit to the individual’s work that can only be reached through teamwork. But teams do not only contribute more to the business but also provide psychological advantages for the team members that working groups cannot provide. Members of a team gain experience both in their profession and in working with other people. Interpersonal skills can be developed which help them coping future working situations. Furthermore, Katzenbach and Smith (1993b) talk about the team experience as being energising and motivating. Thus, a certain motivational aspect can be added to the benefits of teamwork.
But there are also some considerable disadvantages of teamwork. Janis (1972) identified the notion of groupthink as a reason for wrong decisions made in a team. He says that team decisions can be biased by the ambition of forming a consistent team, which blocks the team members’ ability to think rationally. Further disadvantages mentioned by Boddy (2005) are the idea that teams could become too independent from their organisation by developing their own dynamics and the fact that teamwork takes too much time since decisions are mainly made by time consuming discussions
However, the actual use of teamwork as a method of doing work is not merely a question about the advantages and disadvantages of teamwork. In fact, it should be examined in two different dimensions – the effectiveness and the efficiency of teamwork. The initial question should therefore be divided into two parts: is teamwork effective in a way that the team achieves the goals that were set? And how many resources have to be spent to achieve these goals?
The first question has already been answered. Teams are highly effective. All team members bring in different values, skills and experiences. The results of teams are therefore based on a much broader background compared to those of working groups, which essentially means that team results are more effective. There may be situations where working groups deliver results of almost the same quality but those are rare. Boddy (2005) mentions, in this context, small technical problems, that could be resolved by independently working people. Katzenbach and Smith (1993a) believe that teams outperform working groups especially when the task requires both multiple skills and experience.
The second question is not as easy to answer. The literature on teamwork has deeply analysed the notion of effectiveness of teams. But the question about their efficiency has found little attention. In order to assess the efficiency of teamwork I want to have a more detailed look on the problems arising from it. At this point, I need to point out that all the assertions about the advantages of teamwork and its effectiveness are based on the assumptions that the team members work perfectly or at least well together, i.e. that they are implemented correctly. Non-functioning teams can cause serious damage to both the team members and the organisation they belong to. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that the problems that can arise from teamwork are solved promptly. A problem that no one takes care of can delete all benefits of teamwork.
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