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Teaching Teamwork = Tacit Knowledge

Collective improvisation is most satisfying.

In Erden and Nonaka’s paper “Quality of Group Tacit Knowledge” they introduce the idea that business value derives from tacit knowledge — that is, the knowledge that can only be gained through experience. Tacit knowledge cannot be codified, explicated, or completely documented. It is expensive to create and difficult to share. Therefore, a firm that has a high quality of shared tacit knowledge will be able to stay ahead of competitors that cannot acquire that knowledge.

As teams develop higher levels of group tacit knowledge, they are able to work in more creative, innovative, and adaptive ways.

At the lowest level (Fig. 1, left) teams have such a low level of communication, self-awareness, and collective knowledge that they can’t even follow instructions. We probably all have examples in our own experience in which the instructions were clear, and the people were motivated, but nobody knew who was supposed to do what… so nothing got done. The old excuse in such situations is that they didn’t know it was their job. And they’re right, because nobody in such an organization knows anybody well enough to be able to assign jobs. These organizations are incapable for working in teams.

The next level up is where the team members have practiced well enough to understand their roles and responsibilities. At this level, they are able to coordinate their activities to accomplish tasks without duplicating effort, or working at cross-purposes.

At a level higher up, the team members understand the intent of the instructions. They do not need specific and explicit, or step-by-step instructions, because they all have an understanding of the values, culture, and vision of the organization. They have the capacity for collective judgment, and they are capable of making modifications to the instructions to fulfill the intent. (Most university classrooms do not teach this level of teamwork, and it is one of the chief complaints among employers of engineering grads that their new hires out of university are deficient in these skills).

The highest level of teamwork is collective improvisation. At this level, the shared tacit knowledge of people in their group is of the highest quality, which allows them to just make it up as they go. Here is where you find the people who can finish each other’s sentences. It seems to outsiders like the team is capable of reading minds and that might be the case, because they are so familiar with one another that they just know what their teammates are going to do — even in the absence of communication about it. Working in a team that is able to improvise together is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had, because that kind of teamwork creates a strong feeling of trust, connection, and belonging.

The difficulty with teamwork is that shared experiences (like a company retreat) are expensive to create. One of the best ways to create these shared experiences in to play together, which is why the typical company retreat activities seem frivolous and difficult to justify — because no one is getting any work done!

There are a number of personality assessments that are intended to help us accelerate knowledge of our teammates, so we can get to know one another faster. DISC, Myers-Briggs, Strength Finders, and my favorite The Kolbe A are all instruments that make tacit knowledge of your teammates more explicit. These can help us build productive teams, but only after we take the time to learn about personalities, build trust, and understand the requirements of effective teamwork.

This is why I often admonish my engineering students with:

Your group is never going to get anything done until you start wasting time together.