Saturday, August 1, 2015

210. Teams as communities

Richard Sennett[i] painted a dark picture of team work in present capitalism, in times of ‘downsizing’ of organizations and flexibilization of work.

Managers make themselves immune by profiling themselves as ‘facilitators’ rather than ‘bosses’. They do not give orders but challenge team members to form their own work. Thereby they achieve two things for themselves.

First, they abdicate their responsibility and accountability, since it is not they but the team that decided where to go. The hypocrisy next is that nevertheless teams are evaluated, rewarded or ‘made redundant’ for their performance accordance to standards set by management.

Second, management disarms critical employees. Why complain if it is up to yourself and colleagues to make things work.

According to Sennett, collaboration is professed but no time is allowed to build the mutual dependence and trust needed for collaboration. Team members pretend to collaborate but in fact compete for positions and continuation of employment.

Is Sennett exaggerating? All this certainly happens. But not necessarily. Teams may also take the form of durable relationships of complementarity, trust and mutual support, as shown in the literature on ‘communities of practice’.

There, the underlying principle is that professional practice (of  mechanics, repair engineers, designers, doctors, research teams, …..) is too rich, too complex and variable to be caught in complete and codified protocols. Practice is stronger than theory. This makes the work opaque, hard to monitor and control, for outside managers. Newcomers have to go through a stage of imitation and initiation to ‘grow into’ established practice, absorbing the ‘tacit knowledge’ that cannot be codified.

In fact, this form of work may become too stable. Then, not to lose out in innovation, ties in the team may have to be weakened, or some turnover of participants may be needed not to get caught in rigidity. I discussed this in the preceding item in this blog.

There is in fact a whole range of different forms of community, with different degrees of depth and stability of relationships.[ii] But there is one feature they all share: members need to invest in each other, in mutual understanding and trust, to utilize the opportunities that arise in combining different capabilities.

Such investments are specific to the team, do apply outside it, and will therefore be made only when a sufficient continuity is guaranteed to recoup them. Managers who are ignorant about this, or ignore it, will be competed away by managers or firms that do take the point.

Opacity of team work, with the resulting difficulty of outside control, plus the crafting of high quality from complementary competences, give the team countervailing power. It evokes the need for what earlier, in item 75 of this blog, I called ‘horizontal control’, with a minimum of outside control, in forms that are negotiated between teams and outside controllers. Again, managers or firms that ignore or are ignorant of this will lose out, with higher costs of control

[i] Richard Sennett, The corrosion of character; The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism,W.W. Norton, 1989.
[ii] Bart Nooteboom & Irma Bogenrieder, ‘Learning groups: what types are there?’, Organization Studies,
25 (2004)/2: 287-314.