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Transcript: Teamwork isn't what it used to be

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, talking management for The Globe and Mail. Today, I am delighted to speak to Mark Mortensen [an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at international business school] INSEAD.

You have been studying, for a number of years now, collaboration and looking at how it has evolved and changed. What is some of your latest thinking?

MARK MORTENSEN – Actually we have been thinking a lot about teams; we have been studying teams, we have been thinking about teams, we have been using teams for quite a long time now.

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There is a solid 50 years-plus of very good, rigorous research done in labs, done in the field, talking to people in the management practice, understanding everything we think we need to know about teams. The nice thing is that we have learned a tremendous amount. The problem is that the teams that we have been studying in the past don't exactly match the teams that people are really using in practice. This is what started coming up over and over. I would go into go into teaching [executive education] and I would have discussions with the executives there, I would talk to some of our MBA students and ask them about some of their experiences, and they all said, "Well, it's all well and good the stuff you guys talk about in theory but it's not really what happens."

Basically, we have been seeing three big trends – the first trend is global work. Not a big surprise, but it is very hard to find a traditional team where everybody sits around a table, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, having these conversations. What happens much more frequently is that I am having a conversation but you aren't there – your video screen is there, but you are actually some thousands of miles or kilometres away in some other part of the world. So the global piece throws a wrench into the way that we think about teams.

Also, people don't work on one team. There is this anachronistic model of "Here is your team, what is your team and tell me about your team." Nobody works on one team; they work on five or six [teams]. I often play a game with my students and ask them, "Raise your hand if you have had four or more teams, or four or more managers, at the same time." Then I say, "Okay, keep it up if it has been five or more, six or more, seven or more, eight or more." I got to 16 once. So people are more and more working in an environment where they don't work on one team, one project, one task, they work on a whole bunch and they are constantly switching back and forward from one to the next. Obviously, that is not same as the teams we had in days past.

The third piece, not only are they globally dispersed, not only are they overlapping, but they are not stable – this idea that I start in my company and I work on a team and I work with the same people for the next 10 or 20 years over my career. That clearly doesn't happen, either. What happens now is that it's not 10 years, it's not five years, in many cases it's not one year – it's not even six months. I may be working with you on a project for the next three weeks and then they say, "Karl, thank you very much for all your expertise and your contributions, we are going to phase you out and bring in Sue over here who has got new expertise in a different domain. We finished product design, now we are getting into marketing. We finished marketing, now we are getting into operations and production."

These kinds of changes mean that the membership of the team is constantly changing. So we go from this model where all of our thinking, and not just our academic thinking but the way that people think about teams [differs] in practice. People are used to putting together a team with, whether they are conscious or not, a model in their head of a stable group of people working in the same location on one thing and that just doesn't happen any more.

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