Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cross-Functional Teams and Collaborative Cultures

Cross-functional teams are an excellent way to maximize the skills to be found across the organization for project work. Cross-functional teams can also be defined to oversee and manage organizational needs that require diverse skills thus improving administrative and customer service efficiencies. The surge in product launches for internal social network tools has captured the interest of some of the larger technical vendors as we see frequent purchases of applications to help round out the current offerings of these vendors.

Team effectiveness has been the topic and focus of many management interventions prior to and during the Knowledge Era, much of it based on research with some innovation applied when introduced to an organization. Bruce Tuckman (1965) became known for his “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing” theory of how teams form and manage, which is still a reasonable framework to start with. There are several other similar team related formulas and we need to move beyond theory and into application. For the Digital Era, collaboration becomes a more critical skill, as the concept of ‘social’ business encompasses not only the integration of social tools but better supports multi-generational workforces.

In order to understand why some skills, such as those related to collaboration, require a fresh look in the Digital Era we need to first consider the difference between a team that collaborates and a collaborative culture.

First, consider ‘branding’ as it used to relate to the organization but not the people that work for the organization. Now, in the Digital Era with the proliferation of social networks being used for job and candidate searches, a gradual shift from employee to free agent and the change from considering one or two workplaces for an entire career to multiple workplace changes frequently throughout a career, branding is now something that we are asked to do on a very personal level. Our brand is something we take with us from employer to employer or throughout multiple contracts. This change in workplace norms has in conjunction with the growing use of social network tools also started a shift in organizational cultures. A business, such as Zappos that has been in business for less than fifteen (15) years will likely already have a culture that is suited to the concept of social business and have a collaborative culture. Organizations that have been in business for longer than that may find that more attention needs to be paid to how ready they are for this. Now we have an organization populated by a myriad of people with personal brands that all must work together to achieve the overall goals of the organization.

Team members can learn to work collaboratively on any given project in which the outcome is shared and each member is responsible for the success of the project. When the project is completed they may join another project team or return to a specific position in the organization. These days we want the skills used in those project teams to be continuously employed when the project is over.
The skills used in this context are key to establishing a collaborative culture within an organization though they do require that members of the organization develop a higher level of these skills than may be required for relatively independent teams. We are used to seeing in management literature that the organization’s leader must create the vision and communication shared goals to the rest of the people in the organization. A collaborative culture will have shared goals as well but accountability for reaching those goals will be more widely distributed that in a siloed organization.

It is also important to define when collaboration is the best approach to problem solving or project management and when collaboration needs to be set aside. A failure to be clear on this in an organization can lead to a sluggish response when a quick action is required.

The key skills for collaborative success:

• Accountability
• 360 Communications
• Emotional Intelligence
• Change Resilient
• (Servant) Leadership
• Self-motivated
• Problem solving/critical thinking
• Continuous learning and knowledge sharing

With these skills in place and continuously upgraded an organization can benefit from the experience and knowledge of multiple generations, efficiently co-ordinate the skills of cross-functional teams and maximize the value of social tools. This will create a customer experience that sets the organization apart from others in the market.

When should collaboration be set aside? How clear is that in your organization and how quick is the response when needed? Can you think of other skills that are important to collaboration?


  1. Collaboration set aside? It shouldn't. We all need each other. When team members are brought in to provide specific information and the rest of the team negates the information provided, nothing is gained by the exercise. Specialists should be allowed by leaders to present their findings and conclusions in ways that allow for an educated "buy in" for team members, including an opportunity for question and answer sessions. Where the effectiveness of cross-functional teams fail is when this connectivity is denied, either by dysfunctional silo prejudice, by lack of meeting format or by preordained results by leaders.

    (Feel free to delete if this is inappropriate)

    1. Good point Rand-we don't want to undo the benefits of collaboration!

      I am curious about situations such as a threat to the business of some kind-a hostile takeover, an emergency situation created by a disaster etc. In what ways will a collaborative culture help in those situations and in what ways might a decision need to be made without additional input?