Something that you might conclude from the ubiquitous and somewhat fetishized presence of teams and teamwork narratives in contemporary organisations is that teams are a shiny new phenomenon. So, it feels as though teams and teamwork have enjoyed a breakout arrival into the management zeitgeist. I argue that modern teams have been developing along four separate dimensions, which were all progressing more or less independently. Ultimately, they have coalesced to create a sense of overnight success. But, as they say, overnight success takes years to achieve.
In reality, modern teamwork has been gathering momentum for about a century. As Devine et al. (1999:679), put it: “it would be fallacious to assume that greater visibility coincides with a general increase in the use of teams.” There are four strands within the development of teamwork that can be considered together. The four strands are:
- Macro-level history
- The Human Relations School
- The emergent discourse of teamwork
- The team as a unit of organisational control
1. Macro-level history
Teamwork has not gone through a steady trend of growth over the past 100 years. Accordingly, it is evident that societal and political trends have an impact on our interest in and the diffusion of teamwork as a concept in society. Weiss and Högl (2015) found that the societal diffusion of teamwork has peaked and troughed at different points in history. For example, during the two world wars, there was a significant spike in the attention paid to the importance of teamwork. Thus, when exogenous circumstances force us to confront the fact that some challenges can only be met through coordinated interdependence, teamwork comes to the fore.
Furthermore, Weiss and Högl (2015) note that during the war there was a generalised displacement of professions and activities. So, this displacement meant that teamwork and cooperation were forced to compensate for a relative lack of expertise. Similarly, history will probably reflect the same trend when we take stock of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and one can only hope that the same will be said for our response to climate change. After the World Wars, the societal diffusion of teamwork plateaued and even dipped through the mid-20th century, followed by a further uplift from the early 1990s onwards. This uplift is likely connected to the exponential development and reliance upon digital technology (Adler, 2003), which created new and more complex ways of working that inherently demand teamwork.
2. The Human Relations School
Mary Parker Follett was arguably one of the earliest proponents of the value of the relational and interdependent dynamics of teams. Follett’s (1924: 3) work, Creative Experience, speaks of coactive power being a force that leads to “the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.” Correspondingly, this is seen as a precursor to the Human Relations School (or HRS), which is often characterised as being the academic counterpoint to the Scientific Management school. Where Scientific Management (or Taylorism) otherwise sought to categorise, index and break down labour into measurable and optimisable units of productivity, the Human Relations School humanised labour, it focused on the people, not the productivity.
That is to say that the concept of labour within the HRS accommodated the irrationality of humans and the need for belonging and fulfilment beyond simply accounting for measured instrumental outputs (Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). And although the history of the HRS is complex in its own right and is widely critiqued, improved levels of organisational commitment and industrial relations were considered to result from this approach and laid the foundations for teamwork as an organisational idea by seeing human interaction and the social dynamics therein as part of the substance of working life.
3. The Emergent Discourse of Teamwork
The discourse on teamwork represents an evolution that begins with Human Relations era research talking about workgroups, moving on to the framing of groups that are formed around the interdependent pursuit of commonly agreed goals as teams; then onto categorical distinctions of team types, such as High Performance Teams (HPTs, [Parker et al., 1994]), Virtuoso Teams (Boynton & Fischer, 2009), and X-teams (Ancona et al., 2002).
There are also distinctions such as that made by Finn (2008) of teamwork (representing the linguistic dynamics of teams) and teamwork (representing the material practice that teams engage in). So, as teamwork has been utilised, tested, researched and understood, it has become a distinctive concept and an accepted feature of the theoretical and material substance of organisational life. This has embedded it within assumptions and expectations for contemporary work, making it feel more significant and powerful – for example, the idea of wanting to pursue a goal or take on a project alone would arguably feel anathema to modern organisational discourse.
4. The Team as a Unit of Organisational Control
The final strand presents a more critical view of the breakout of teamwork. But, it also ties the other three strands together. The themes of belonging and commitment that emerged from the Human Relations School set two dynamic elements into play. One was to wed participation in work to social identity (defined as one’s sense of belonging to a group). Secondly, people’s relationship with work was built more and more in reference to their co-workers. This shrunk the importance of the direct relationship between individual employees and the organisation.
So, as organisations grew in size and complexity, cultivating workers’ sense of identity directly within their team was easier than grasping for a generalised sense of corporate identity. Such group-level identity then fosters commitment, efficiency and all the other values that we associate with people management. Further, conflict and other issues can be framed as dysfunctions of the team and its members rather than missteps by the organisation. So, as Townley (1993) and Procter and Mueller (2000) note, by making one’s work intermeshed with their emotional and cognitive relationships within their team, a subtle yet efficient means of controlling and directing workers is achieved. Thus, an essential strand in our understanding of the emergence of teamwork is its value to management agendas. Teams create the ability to assert control whilst retaining a sense of agency among team members (Bruce & Nyland, 2011).
Panacea or State of Convenience?
Considering the strands of its heritage together, it becomes evident that teamwork is not necessarily an objective panacea for 21st century organisational effectiveness. To sum up, this has all been brewing over time until the external context, the preferences of workers and the agendas of management have been united in their demand for complex interactions and interdependence. Perhaps the history of teamwork shows it more as a fragile means of maintaining stability among these powerful forces, lacquered with a fashionable discourse that embellishes it as an innately transformative phenomenon that we can’t live without. Either way, teamwork remains an under-valued, under-resourced, and underappreciated force in modern organisations, despite its newfound prominence.
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Ancona, D., Bresman, H., & Kaeufer, K. (2002). The comparative advantage of X-teams. MIT Sloan Management Review, 43(3), 33-40.
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Devine, D. J., Clayton, L. D., Philips, J. L., Dunford, B. B., & Melner, S. B. (1999). Teams in organizations: Prevalence, characteristics, and effectiveness. Small Group Research, 30(6), 678-711.
Follett, M. P. (1924). Creative Experience. London: Longmans, Green and company.
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Weiss, M., & Högl, M. (2015). The History of Teamwork’s Societal Diffusion. Small Group Research, 46(6), 589-622.
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