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Team knowledge structures: matching task to information environment.

Businesses increasingly use teams as tools for successfully negotiating their knowledge-based environments (Guzzo and Dickson, 1996). Such teams perform tasks ranging from localized assignments (e.g., developing a new packaging design) to those with organization-wide impact (e.g., new product development, strategic decision malting). An increased understanding of knowledge processing in teams could improve their ability to meet a wide variety of organizational demands (Cohen and Bailey, 1997). Until recently, attention to knowledge management in teams has chiefly focused on information management (e.g., Denison et al, 1996; Stasser and Titus, 1987) and information technology (e.g., Boland et at., 1994), rather than broader knowledge processing. Newer models imply that the knowledge structure of the team--how knowledge is distributed among members--significantly influences the team's knowledge-processing ability (e.g. Hinsz et at., 1997; Hollenbeck et al., 1995; Stasser et al., 1995). Knowledge structures can affect the team's ability to perform specific types of knowledge processing. In this article, we identify knowledge processes in teams, define aspects of a team's knowledge distribution, and then match team knowledge structures to the tasks to which they are most suited.


The knowledge possessed by an organization and its members can be classified as explicit or tacit (Polyani, 1966). Explicit knowledge can be codified and communicated without much difficulty. Tacit knowledge--such as the manner of operating sensitive equipment, decision-making judgment in the absence of data, or interpersonal skills--is not so easily articulated. Logically, this division applies to knowledge in teams as well as to larger collectives.

Within an organization, knowledge is distributed among employees--there is rarely any one individual who possesses all that is known to that collective entity. In addition, this knowledge is dynamic--it loses its relevance over time when environmental conditions change, or it may just be forgotten. Given these characteristics, teams performing key organizational tasks must perform three basic knowledge-processing activities: knowledge acquisition, knowledge integration, and knowledge creation. These activities involve either knowledge that is held by individual team members (knowledge integration and creation) or knowledge acquired from external sources (knowledge acquisition) (Huber, 1991).

Teams acquire knowledge from external sources when members recognize that they are deficient in a particular area and when at least one member acts to fill the gap from outside the team. Using such external knowledge typically improves team performance (Ancona, 1990; Denison et al., 1996). Acquiring such external knowledge requires that one or more team members interact with the team's environment. However, mere desire to obtain specific knowledge is not sufficient to ensure acquisition. The team, through at least one of its members, must possess an adequate amount of prior knowledge to understand the relevance and key elements of the desired knowledge--the 'absorptive capacity'--to acquire the new knowledge (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990).

In addition to acquiring external sources of knowledge, teams generate knowledge internally through integration and creation. Knowledge integration occurs when complementary knowledge separately held by members is combined to form new knowledge (Grant, 1996). Complex knowledge integration tasks are generally performed through the use of cross-functional teams (Denison et al., 1996). For example, when developing a new product, a design engineer's knowledge of how the product should function can be integrated with a manufacturing technician's knowledge of how to actually produce it. In many cases, knowledge integration may not just be an important activity; it may be the very reason to form the team.

Finally, teams are one of the most common and efficient means to create knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) argue that work teams are one of the most common and efficient ways of creating knowledge. Knowledge creation occurs in three stages. First, team members possessing different stocks of tacit knowledge share and become aware of each other's expertise. This may come about in a variety of ways. Team members of a product development group, for instance, might learn one another's expertise through some combination of formal study, related knowledge held prior to becoming a member, and informal interaction. Second, as sources of tacit knowledge interact, there is constant re-interpretation of each other's perspectives until new ideas emerge. In due course the team members come to collectively share these new ideas and perspectives (and thus new knowledge). Third, team members test the validity of the new knowledge that they have created. For example, a product development team mi ght test new concepts by building prototypes and subjecting them to performance tests and consumer focus group ratings. If successful, the testing of the new ideas leads to the formal embodiment of the new knowledge as an end product, such as in a new type of a product, a revised production procedure, or a strategic decision on how to market it. Once the new knowledge has been validated, it is the responsibility of the team members to make the new knowledge available to other parts of the organization.


There are two key dimensions to teams' knowledge structures: knowledge differentiation and knowledge externalization.

Knowledge Differentiation

Differentiation is the extent to which team members possess different types of knowledge (Wegner, 1986). The members of a highly differentiated team possess knowledge in different domains, based on several factors. One likely factor is the functional background of team members. For instance, a cross-functional product-development team is highly differentiated because members possess knowledge about diverse business specialties. The different backgrounds not only create differences in the knowledge bases of team members, they also create differences in their world views and their motivations (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1986). Another factor likely to affect differentiation is team lifecycle. Teams early in their lifecycle are likely to have more differentiated knowledge structures than more seasoned teams. Members of newly-formed teams are likely to be unfamiliar with each other and may not understand the knowledge currently held by each person (Stasser et al., 1995; Wegner, 1986). Through interaction over time, kno wledge is used and revealed. However, over time differentiation is likely to decrease as teams develop enduring collective routines (Gersick and Hackman, 1990).

Differentiation and Knowledge Acquisition. Members of teams with highly differentiated knowledge specialize in specific domains of expertise. They are likely to possess high levels of knowledge about their particular domains, and the team as a whole will have high knowledge-absorptive capacity in many domains. Consequently, the ability of the team to acquire new knowledge will be high. In undifferentiated teams, however, all members are knowledgeable about the same domains. This provides the team with a very high absorptive capacity in this specific domain, but very low in other areas, limiting the team's ability to acquire knowledge in multiple domains.

Differentiation and Knowledge Integration. Teams whose members know different things must combine them to create a complete knowledge set. Knowledge integration is especially important in complex tasks that require the application of knowledge emanating from multiple domains and knowledge areas. Successful knowledge integration requires that members not only have a deep knowledge of their own fields, but also an appreciation for the relevance and importance of other members' knowledge. This allows the team to accept a knowledge assembly with all of the relevant components. As knowledge differentiation increases, performance is more dependent on knowledge integration. Successful knowledge integration by differentiated teams is also affected by the temporal coordination of activities within the team. Such coordination entails the adjustment of activities within a team, often drawn out over time, to be coordinated in pace and cycle with each other (Ancona and Chong, 1996). Teams vary in the degree to which their pace and activity cycles are internally coordinated; those with low levels of internal entrainment may have difficulty integrating knowledge. While integration is possible and occurs at all levels of differentiation, it is less important in undifferentiated knowledge distributions.

Differentiation and Knowledge Creation. Knowledge creation is essential for teams that focus on tasks such as research and design (R&D) and new product development (NPD). Differentiation is a common way through which an organization attempts to deal with an uncertain future environment. Following Ashby's (1968) perspective, differentiation may be the best way to develop novel solutions as the variety of knowledge bases helps the team develop solutions for an unpredictable environment. Teams with undifferentiated knowledge are less likely to create knowledge. For instance, Moorman and Miner (1997) found that Product Development teams, whose members had similar knowledge limited themselves to changing existing products and rarely introduced revolutionary concepts. On the other hand, Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) pointed Out that a certain amount of overlap in the knowledge of team members allows them to understand each other's expertise and draw links between their knowledge stocks. Thus, excessive differentiation suppresses a team's ability to create knowledge. Therefore, it appears that moderate levels of differentiation are most conducive to knowledge creation.


In addition to differentiation, team knowledge structures are characterized by externalization. A team's knowledge is externalized when it uses knowledge held by non-team members. The use of external knowledge differs from acquisition, where team members personally learn and possess knowledge that was once held by outsiders (Anand et al., 1998). Utilizing externalized knowledge means that members may never personally possess the knowledge. Rather, they use a variety of techniques that allow external knowledge to be used in task completion. For instance, a team may delegate a task to a non-member, or it may invite outsiders to specific team meetings to work on designated aspects of the team's task.

Teams differ in the amount of external knowledge that they use because they may develop different norms about knowledge sources. Some teams value the use of external knowledge, while other teams mistrust external knowledge and do not use it even when it would be advantageous. Additionally, the team's task may preclude use of external knowledge. For instance, a personnel committee evaluating performance of key executives may be unable to use external knowledge due to confidentiality requirements.

The utility of externalization also depends on how well the team is synchronized with the pace of the rest of the organization. Teams are nested within larger organizational systems that do not always follow the same pace or cycles of activity (Ancona and Chong, 1996; McGrath and Rotchford, 1983) and may thus have different perceptions of the urgency of an activity. For example, timelines for R&D teams may be much longer than for production teams. if a production team externalizes particular knowledge to R&D, it may be difficult to obtain that knowledge to meet urgent deadlines.

Externalization and Knowledge Acquisition. While externalization would appear to ensure that the team is acquiring knowledge, the reverse may well be true. Members of teams that outsource knowledge components may not learn those particular elements of information. For instance, a team studying productivity might call in an expert to track physiological responses to various "break" configurations. Although they use the final results of the study to inform their final reports, the team may fail to acquire the knowledge relating to how to measure such responses. This is especially relevant when the team is seeking tacit knowledge because it is far more easy and convenient to use a result obtained from the application of an outsider's tacit knowledge, than to actually acquire that tacit knowledge (Anand et at., 2002).

While the previous example holds some truth, externalization does not mean that team members do not ever need to acquire knowledge for themselves. For externalization to be successful, members must be aware of what kind of external knowledge is relevant to them (i.e., they must know about the knowledge without actually knowing it) and who are the experts with respect to that area. They must develop their social networks so that such experts are willing to share relevant knowledge (Anand et at., 1998). In addition, externalization is justified when team members depend on outsiders for some aspects of required knowledge, so that they may acquire deeper knowledge in their primary areas of expertise (Quinn, 1993).

Externalization and Knowledge Integration. Once team members seek external knowledge, it must be integrated into team responses. Teams vary in their choice of integrating mechanisms depending on the amount and type of knowledge involved--explicit or tacit. For instance, consider an HR team that asks an expert to provide performance assessment measures to be used in an appraisal system. In this case, the team integrates little external tacit knowledge--the expert's underlying knowledge was not acquired into the team--but does integrate the explicit results from the application of the expert's tacit knowledge to inform their report.

The amount of external knowledge being integrated is another factor that influences the choice of integrating mechanism (Anand et at., 2002). A team needing large amounts of explicit consumer data on a regular basis might use an automated system to match the external source to the team output. For instance, a team of loan brokers might match applicant data to external credit service reports through electronic data inter-changes. Large amounts of tacit knowledge, on the other hand, require more intense interaction with the sources (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). For instance, a product development team might choose to involve an extra-organizational supplier or consumer group representative for specific meetings where issues related to that individual's area of expertise are to be discussed.

Externalization and Knowledge Creation. The tacit knowledge of each individual team member must be exchanged for knowledge creation to occur (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). Hence, externalized knowledge is unlikely to be directly involved in creating new knowledge within teams. However, when a team applies external knowledge, this may create a discontinuity in the general operations of team task performance, leading to creation of knowledge. This is illustrated in the following example:

Lucy was concerned. Her team had worked for months to develop a strategy for shifting their wadget production to a proposed manufacturing plant in China. Some of her team members had personal experience in that country, and had conducted extensive research to develop the perfect strategy. Before getting the go-ahead, her boss had suggested that she send the proposal to Jack Lynch and Marsha Woo. Both had worked on Asian projects for decades and had developed judgments of what would work for China in particular. They both provided rather adverse comments on her team's plan and believed that it would not work!

In this example, Lucy tried to ensure that externally stored knowledge (Jack and Marsha's expertise) is applied to the proposal and that the results are available to the team. However, the input from these reliable sources is likely to spur team members to re-think their plan. Hence, the adverse external knowledge creates discontinuity that often triggers a "cognitive switch" that stimulates the team to reconsider their interpretations (cf. Kiesler and Sproull, 1982; Louis and Sutton, 1991), creating new knowledge. This reasoning depends in part on how often and how regularly external knowledge is invoked. If often and regular, it may have little effect on knowledge creation because the external contact itself becomes routine. However, if the need for externalization is more sporadic, it may prompt an explosion of knowledge creation within the team.

In addition to discontinuity, external knowledge can provide validation. For instance, consider a marketing group that develops packing specifications for a product being introduced into a new market and sends them to an expert about conditions in that market. The expert provides an assessment of whether the packaging is appropriate or not. This process helps in validating the new knowledge created by the team and this is an essential aspect of knowledge creation (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995).

Limitations of Externalization. While externalization is often beneficial when operating in complex and dynamic environments, there are several downsides to it that must be recognized. First, when team members need to contact an external source, they may choose a source from one of their social contacts. It is possible that the chosen source may no longer be an expert in the designated area; however, the team members may be unaware of this and continue to depend on outdated knowledge (Saxenian, 1994). Additionally, involving outsiders in the team task can often result in key information leaking prematurely (Anand et al, In Press).

Where confidentiality issues are important, externalization must be carefully handled. Finally, if the team makes a habit of continually seeking information from external experts its members may use externalization as a substitute for learning (Quinn, 1993). This can have long-term negative consequences for the firm and the team.


The two knowledge structure dimensions--differentiation and externalization--combine to describe four types of team knowledge distributions (see Figure I). We discuss each type in detail below with general propositions concerning the match of a team's knowledge distribution type to appropriate tasks (summarized in Table 1), as characterized by dimensions of routinization, standardization, complexity, and uncertainty. Routinization and standardization are similar concepts that refer to whether the task has an understandable and stable sequence of steps. Routine, standardized tasks require teams to perform the same job in the same way most of the time. Complex tasks have more unique acts required to complete them, require many sources of information and high levels of coordination among team members, and often involve changing process or output criteria (Wood, 1986). Finally, uncertain tasks are characterized by unclear goals, frequently changing requirements, varying workload, lack of clear methods to accompli sh work, and difficulty in predicting what will be required of the team (Weingart, 1992).

Knowledge Structure and Task Type

Type I: Uniform In-House. Type I team members have undifferentiated knowledge and the team relies little on externalized knowledge to accomplish its tasks. This configuration is typical of a project task force or unitary project group (e.g., a simple assembly task). In the former case, members focus on a specific problem within a single work-unit for a specified, relatively short period of time. The latter case reflects collective efforts such as in a product manufacturing group. All members perform similar, often low-skilled tasks toward the outcome.

Since Uniform In-House teams are characterized by similar stores of knowledge, little of which is externalized, they are most appropriate for tasks with low levels of uncertainty, high levels of routinization and standardization, and low complexity. These teams will not have the variety of knowledge required to accomplish more complex, non-routine tasks (Ashby, 1968). Similarly, high levels of task-uncertainty increase the team's need for unexpected stores of knowledge. These unexpected requirements are best met through externalization, and Type I teams have not identified these external sources or developed the social networks to tap them.

Such teams generally focus on localized problems within their own organization. For instance, the finishing house of a paper mill used a departmental team (all members with similar knowledge) to improve the turnaround time for trucks used to transport paper--a local task. Also, due to their shared base of proximal knowledge, Type I teams may be better suited for sharing tacit knowledge among their members than would teams with more differentiated or externalized knowledge. However, while procedures such as organizational routines may be passed on in this way, such exchanges generate only limited amounts of new knowledge due to the lack of differentiated knowledge bases. This discussion leads us to propose:

Proposition 1: Type I teams are better suited to less complex tasks characterized by high routinization and low uncertainty.

Type II: Uniform Spanner. Uniform Spanner teams have high levels of externalized knowledge and relatively low differentiation of knowledge. An example of a Type II team is a board of directors' audit committee, largely composed of members who have similar knowledge about the organization, that utilizes external sources (e.g., tax accountants) to judge the organization's financial outputs. Uniform Spanners may be most appropriate for tasks with low-to mid-level complexity, mid- to high-level uncertainty, and standardized elements combined with non-routine demands. Like Uniform In-House teams, these have a core of undifferentiated members, implying that repeatable elements of their tasks should be less complex and more routine as members exchange both tacit and explicit knowledge. However, these teams also have high levels of externalized knowledge and the corresponding social networks required to take advantage of them. Therefore, these teams can handle tasks with uncertain elements because they can readily ac cess external knowledge. Likewise, the flexibility provided by their external connections allows them to react to non-routine demands of the task. The integration of existing information and the creation of new knowledge that makes it possible to deal with these uncertain, non-routine elements is both facilitated and limited by the overlap in the domains of internal and external knowledge. Both explicit and tacit knowledge exchange is possible within the bounds of this overlap. Considering this, we propose:

Proposition 2: Type II teams are better suited to tasks of moderate complexity characterized by non-routine demands and mid-to-high levels of uncertainty.

Type III: Differentiated In-House. Type III teams have low levels of externalized knowledge and highly differentiated knowledge. An example of a Type III team is a cross functional team working on a project where confidentiality requirements preclude them from seeking information from external sources. Such teams comprise members with in-depth knowledge about specialized domains that can help in addressing complex multifunctional problems. Tacit knowledge exchange and resultant knowledge creation may occur to the extent that the differentiated domains overlap. As a result, Differentiated In-House teams are most appropriate for highly complex tasks with relatively low uncertainty and mid-levels of routinization. These teams are ideal for complex tasks where some knowledge creation is desired, because they have multiple stores of unique knowledge within the team; however, they are less appropriate for highly uncertain tasks because they may not have quick access to unanticipated demands for particular types of knowledge. High levels of routinization are not necessary because the team has differentiated knowledge stores to draw upon to develop unique responses to non-routine demands. These teams are well suited for tasks requiring creativity and innovation because of the multiple perspectives available within the team. Additionally, since such teams do not regularly interact with outsiders they are ideally suited for performing tasks of a confidential nature.

Proposition 3: Type III Teams are better suited for highly complex tasks with relatively low uncertainty and some routinization.

Type IV: Differentiated Spanner. Differentiated Spanner teams have high levels of externalized knowledge and highly differentiated knowledge structures. At its extreme, a team in this configuration would be less a collaborative effort than a collection of separate special interests. Examples of such may include an electoral college, a board of directors with proxy ownership (each representing a separate constituent group), or the governing board of a multi-entity organization like the AFL-CIO. Differentiated Spanners are appropriate for the most extreme of task demands-- highly complex, uncertain and non-routine. They are capable of pulling together necessary resources to address these complicated tasks, and to recreate themselves when the next challenge appears. They are well suited to make unique, non-recurring decisions based on integration of explicit knowledge stores. However, such teams may have difficulty processing tacit knowledge due to their distinctive knowledge domains and lack of organizational p roximity. Therefore, tacit knowledge exchange and subsequent knowledge creation would be improbable except in longer-term or recurring groups.

Examples of Type IV teams may be seen in recurring task forces that coordinate disaster relief or special military operations that must deal with novel situations and changing tactics. In corporate environments we see such teams used in response to unexpected adverse events (for instance, the announcement of a hostile takeover bid) A more permanent team fitting this type would be the board of directors of a company operating in a volatile market.

Proposition 4: Type IV Teams are most appropriate for highly complex, uncertain, and non-routine tasks.

Managerial Implications of Task-Typology Match

While the alignment of team tasks with the appropriate knowledge structure may be generally conducive to performance, managerial attention is necessary to ensure that benefits are realized and potential problems are avoided. In some cases, a knowledge structure that may best suit a given task type may not be optimal for knowledge management over time or across organizational levels. In other cases the task-knowledge structure match may require additional managerial intervention to ensure success. We explore these issues in the following sections and propose a set of general managerial implications.

Type I: Uniform In-House. As discussed, the tasks best suited for Uniform In-House teams are likely to require little knowledge acquisition, integration, and creation. It is nonetheless beneficial for these knowledge processes to take place. For example, even highly standardized tasks may benefit from "day-to-day innovations" in operational methods that come from experienced team members sharing their tacit knowledge (Bikson and Cohen, 1997), such as when modest modifications on the "shop floor" result in major cost reductions. As noted above, Type I teams are very capable of creating such incremental advances through exchange of routines, processes, and other forms of tacit knowledge. If a team is to continuously improve, it should engage in knowledge-management activities. Therefore, it would be beneficial to manage Uniform In-House teams such that the team occasionally re-examines its stores of knowledge and subsequently engages in acquisition, integration or creation activities. It must be noted that whil e this is often a positive strategy for long-term and organization-wide gains, it will likely complicate the day-to-day operation of the team and may impair operational efficiency.

Proposition 5: Use of Type I teams may hinder organizational knowledge management unless managers promote knowledge pro cesses within the teams.

Type II: Uniform Spanner. The reliance of Uniform Spanner teams on external knowledge creates coordination and communication challenges. These teams will likely place less emphasis on knowledge acquisition and greater emphasis on integration through the exchange of explicit knowledge. Because Uniform Spanners have high externalization, organizations can enhance their ongong performance by investing in networking capabilities, groupware, multimedia and other communication-facilitating technology. These teams regularly utilize external knowledge, and it is likely that knowledge may be distributed to the far reaches of the team's organization as well as outside the organization. Enhancing the ease and speed with which these teams communicate with external knowledge sources is likely to enhance their performance (Anand et aL, 1998). As a result, we propose the following.

Proposition 6: Use of Type II teams will hinder organizational knowledge management unless managers implement communication technology to enable external knowledge acquisition.

It may also be helpful for managers to promote the development of trusting relationships among Uniform Spanner members and between the team and its sources of external knowledge. If core member composition remains stable over time, it is more likely to become a cohesive, trusting unit and members are likely to identify strongly with one another. However, they also must seek out and receive knowledge from their external sources. These teams have the challenge of reducing the chances of an "us-versus-them" mentality between core members and external knowledge sources. Research suggests that teams low in familiarity and trust often suffer in performance because people tend to withhold their unique knowledge from the team (Dennis, 1996; Larkey, 1996). This occurs because individuals who lack familiarity and trust are likely to carefully assess the norms of the group and are unlikely to present information that may be unusual, competing, or different from what they presume the core knowledge of the group to be. Un der such circumstances, the benefits of external knowledge may never be fully realized.

Proposition 7: Effective management of trust among team members and between teams and external knowledge sources will increase the ability of Uniform Spanners to integrate external knowledge and create new knowledge.

Type III: Differentiated In-House. Type III teams are likely to need different interventions at different points in their life cycles. When first formed, they are likely to have more differentiated knowledge stores than undifferentiated teams (Types I and II). However, at this early stage, they will also have the most difficulty tapping into these stores. Research suggests that team members who know different facts often have difficulty integrating them (Stasser and Titus, 1987). Early in their life cycles, Differentiated In-House teams face the additional challenge that they are likely to be unfamiliar with one another and may not trust each other. Teams whose members are less familiar with one another are likely to have higher levels of social uncertainty, and therefore may resist expressing potentially contrary knowledge. These members may not share their unique knowledge because they are uncertain about prevailing norms and tend to share knowledge that they perceive to be close to the knowledge held by othe r members. Furthermore, team members tend to overemphasize common knowledge and underemphasize unique knowledge (Gruenfeld et al., 1996).

Proposition 8: Type III Teams are more likely to take longer to reach their optimal level of performance than undifferentiated teams.

Early in the life cycle of Differentiated In-House teams, interventions should be aimed at building cohesion and trust among the members so they become comfortable sharing their unique knowledge (Young and Parker, 1999). Thus, emphasis should be placed on techniques that uncover unique perspectives. One example of this is to combine nominal with interactive group activities. In nominal activities, team members individually (and often anonymously) generate ideas to be shared with the group. The protection of anonymity encourages members to express their unique knowledge without fear of reprisal from the other group members if that knowledge is controversial or contrary to prevailing perceived norms. These nominal activities can then be combined with face-to-face interactions aimed at developing greater cohesion and trust. Computer-based can be used to facilitate these interactions.

Later in die lives of Differentiated In-House teams, challenges are likely to swing toward keeping levels of differentiation high. As noted earlier, over time, groups are likely to develop routines of action and a collective mind, and their knowledge stores are likely to converge. They also can develop high cohesiveness as they work together and are highly susceptible to phenomena such as "groupthink." As a result, over time together, the strength of the Differentiated In-House team--its diversity in knowledge--may begin to erode if interventions are not made. In many cases, these teams will not be permanent. More enduring teams of this type may require interventions such as periodic rotation of members.

Proposition 9: Managerial interventions for. Type III teams should balance the need for acquiring one another's differentialed knowledge with the ben fit of maintaining diverse knowledge stores.

Type lV: Differentiated Spanner.

Differentiated Spanners face their greatest challenges in coordinating disparate and highly differentiated knowledge. Members may not have worked together on an ongoing basis, and thus do not have the opportunity to develop interpersonal action routines. These teams face difficulty integrating knowledge because the team members are not likely to be aware of the knowledge held by individual members. Additionally, the team members often have mutually exclusive social networks. These teams will manifest a less refined "collective mind" than groups with greater tenure together or interdependence (Klimoski and Mohammed, 1994). Even so, Differentiated Spanners are well suited for knowledge integration and creation because of the multiple stores of unique knowledge available to them. However, the major challenge with these teams is enhancing the likelihood that integration and creation actually occurs. Differentiated Spanners can benefit from the same interventions discussed for Uniform Spanners with respect to exte rnalization. Differentiated Spanners will also have difficulty acquiring knowledge and exchanging tacit knowledge because they likely lack absorptive capacity and ongoing, stable relationships with one another.

Some further positive characteristics are unique to these teams. Often, they are constituted or used in response to unexpected events for which immediate action is required. For instance, in 1987 the Dart Group launched a hostile takeover bid for Dayton Hudson Corporation (DHC). DHC used a differentiated, highly externalized task force to shape its response. The team was comprised of members with knowledge in political, social, financial, strategic, and legal bases. They developed a course of action in less than two hectic weeks. Interventions may not be as feasible in such teams when they are short-lived and under high pressure. Organizations might encourage success through pre-planning and practiced scenarios for such teams, developing a core of members who can assemble for an event when needed or provide a pool of fluid membership for diverse situations.

Proposition 10: Managers should expose the shifting membership of Type IV teams to varied simulations and scenario analysis in order to encourage the development of operating procedures.


Although a great deal of research has been aimed at revealing the operation of teams, one relatively unexplored area is the specific information-processing tasks of knowledge acquisition, integration, and creation. This article contributes to theory by linking the group task literature with the knowledge management literature and explicitly identifying ways in which these literatures combine to produce predictions about team performance. Given the important role teams play in organizational learning and knowledge management (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995), identifying the mechanisms through which team knowledge management enhances or hinders performance is a valuable contribution to this literature. The knowledge structure typology described can also stimulate further research and offer insight for working managers.

Future Research

Our typology illuminates several paths for future research. The first and most obvious path is for empirical examination of our typology/ task propositions. The matches we proposed are empirical questions and a next step would be to examine the degree to which teams performing given task types actually display the knowledge structures we propose, and then examine the extent to which a match between task type and knowledge structure influences team performance. Future research should also explore the possibility for exceptions to our match propositions. For example, will it always be the case that Type I teams are best suited for highly routine and certain tasks? Under what circumstances, if any, would it be appropriate to use a different team knowledge structure for this type of task? Similar questions apply to all the knowledge structure/team task matches.

Furthermore, we began the process of identifying some managerial and organizational implications of the typology; however, many open quesdons remain. For example, how and when should managers intervene with Type I teams to encourage knowledge acquisition, integration, or creation? What are the important "tipping points" to know when Type I teams may negatively impact organizational learning, when the enhanced efficiency captured by these teams will lead to reduced learning? At what point in the team lifecycle should managers encourage intra-team knowledge acquisition versus maintenance of distinct knowledge stores in Type m teams?

Managerial Implications

This typology may be useful to working managers by both describing a set of idealized types as well as prescribing structures best suited for future tasks. Increased awareness of the dimensions along which these knowledge structures vary--externalization and differentiation--and their suitability for the processing tasks of acquisition, integration, and creation may assist managers to appropriately assign teams to organizational tasks. As oudined above, each team "type" has specific areas in which managerial intervention would be beneficial.

More generally, managers have the ability to enhance organizational effectiveness through the deployment of their human capital, turning "knowledge into action" (Pfeffer and Sutton, 1999). Managers should allocate their resources carefully by assigning team members with a sufficient, but not excessive, base of knowledge or expertise in each functional area required by the team task. For instance, local organizational problems can often be addressed by relatively undifferentiated teams. Even teams whose primary purpose is to create knowledge from disparate sources need an intermediate level of differentiation to enable tacit exchange. Overstocking a team's knowledge resource should be done only for strategic purposes, such as training newer members or creating a transactional memory system to be used in future projects, and only when sufficient time is available. As differentiation increases, team members are more likely to require processing time and communication tools to facilitate performance.

Similarly, the use of externalized knowledge must be balanced with "shop-floor" realities. When relying on external sources of information, managers must be certain that their own members have a base sufficient to acquire or integrate the outsourced knowledge. Further, it might be prudent to manage the relationship with external knowledge contractors through formal partnerships or boundary-spanning team-building efforts, allowing for the potential cost of committing to a limited supplier network. Finally, managers should seek to synchronize the pace and work cycles of the team with the externalized knowledge source.
Table 1

Team Knowledge Structures and Their Associated Tasks

Team Knowledge Structure Associated Tasks

Type I: Uniform In-House Routine, specified tasks of
(undifferentiated, non- low complexity. May involve
externalized knowledge) transfer of both explicit and
 tacit knowledge; knowledge
 created will be incremental

Type II: Uniform Spanner Moderately complex tasks of
(undifferentiated, externalized non-routine demands; some
knowledge) degree of uncertainty.
 Transfer between team &
 external knowledge will be

Type III: Differentiated In-House Complex tasks of local scope;
(differentiated, non-externalized some level of routinization
knowledge) and fairly low uncertainty.
 Explicit knowledge exchange
 across functions; tacit tasks
 will take more time to
 complete, but may result in
 significant knowledge

Type IV: Differentiated Spanner Highly complex, uncertain,
(highly differentiated, innovative task requiring
externalized knowledge) exposure to outside knowledge
 sources. Useful for
 integrating diverse sources of
 explicit knowledge, tacit
 exchange improbable except in
 long-term teams.

Team Knowledge Structure Associated Tasks

Type I: Uniform In-House Paper mill department task
(undifferentiated, non- force solving a simple, local
externalized knowledge) problem (mostly explicit);
 Production line procedure

Type II: Uniform Spanner Audit committee of a board
(undifferentiated, externalized of directors; seeks outside
knowledge) expertise to complete audit
 (integration of explicit

Type III: Differentiated In-House Cross-functional product
(differentiated, non-externalized development team (acquisition,
knowledge) integration, and knowledge

Type IV: Differentiated Spanner AFL-CIO board of directors
(highly differentiated, dealing with multiple entities
externalized knowledge) (integration of explicit

Figure I

Typology of Team Knowledge Distribution

 High Low

EXTERNALIZATION Uniform Spanner Uniform In-House
 Differentiated Spanner Differentiated In-House
DIFFERENTIATION Differentiated Spanner Uniform Spanner
 Differentiated In-House Uniform In-House


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Author:Anand, Vikas; Clark, Mark A.; Zellmer-Bruhn, Mary
Publication:Journal of Managerial Issues
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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