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What makes high-performance teams excel? A case study demonstrates the importance of community and commitment in managing the human dynamics and technical imperatives of a high-performance R&D team in a highly competitive industry.

Increasing competitive pressure to produce advanced technologies is a feature of the semiconductor industry. Further, like other organizations in high-technology industries with intensely competitive markets, IBM seeks to integrate its capabilities and competencies to achieve technology differentiation that will facilitate successful new product development and achieve market leadership.

In response to this competitive pressure and the concomitant technological challenge, the role of strategic alliances, collaborative ventures, technological outsourcing, and cooperative project development has been well recognized and explored (1-8). However, these theoretical works are of limited benefit to those practitioners coordinating the complex relationships, diverse technical roles, simultaneous goals, and critical task requirements of inter-organizational high-performance R&D teams (HPRDTs) that are often formed to meet that market challenge.

In this article we present insights from an in-depth case study of a successful high-performance R&D team from IBM's Semiconductor Research and Development Center (SRDC) in Fishkill, New York. While previous research on managing HPRDTs has focused on functional relationships and operational factors, this study reveals that although these factors are significant, the key influences on a team's success are likely to be much more humanistic. The case reveals the significance of individual recognition and engagement in the HPRDT. Further, the development of a shared technical agenda clearly facilitated a sense of commitment and community that was both fundamental to success and critically important to the operational success of the day-to-day activities of the line managers and employees.

What Constitutes an HPRDT

HPRDTs are characterized by the collection of highly trained technical and scientific experts from diverse sources to work collectively and simultaneously on complex technological projects where the demands for rapid development create an intensely challenging environment (9,10). HPRDTs provide an integrated knowledge resource to the technical supply chain as highly specific and refined functional units, which can deliver significant competitive advantage to those companies capable of organizing and managing them successfully. The effective management of an HPRDT--to a level where synergistic performance can achieve novel technical development and time-critical product delivery-requires not only procedural insight but also astute recognition of the importance of the tacit interpersonal dimensions of the team.

Every member of a high-performance team possesses unique knowledge that contributes to the development and refinement of the emerging technology. Complex outcomes required in the semiconductor industry, for example, necessitate a multidisciplinary, orchestrated team approach to achieve the project's mission and goals, and to meet the technological challenge. The semiconductor industry is a fiercely competitive business, both technologically and from a time-to-market perspective. It is not uncommon for leading companies to target new product qualification with announcements of new generations of technology offerings and customer solutions every 18-24 months. This high level of technological reiteration and redundancy places huge competitive pressures on industry players to produce the next generation of technological improvement.

How the Study Was Conducted

We used case narrative and iterative interviewing as an exploratory tool to provide evidence for inductive theory-building of success factors for high-performance teams. These techniques allow the investigator to explain how the interactions occurring with events in a specific context contribute to the observable outcomes ("processual interpretivism") (11,12). Interpretive validity is thus achieved through the narrative as the case reflects "the lived experience of the people studied" (13) and provides an opportunity for in-depth exploration of "a process ... bounded by time and activity" (14). The case demonstrates both internal and external validity in that it is both a true reflection of the reality studied (internal validity) and the findings are clearly generalizable (external validity) to other HPRDT's in high technology organizations (13).

The resulting in-depth descriptive narrative led us to conclude that community and commitment were the generative mechanisms for the synergistic coherence of expertise in the HPRDT and the successful delivery of a novel technology. We also learned that current best-practice R&D management techniques require reappraisal where HPRDTs are sought to maximize creative problem solving and optimize R&D performance outcomes (9,10,15). Moreover, this reappraisal is especially critical when different cultures (nationality and business) are involved. We explore this issue here by asking, "What are the important factors in managing an HPRDT in order to achieve excellence and success in the delivery of technological innovations?"

Background to the Case

IBM formed the SRDC in the late 1980s in order to maintain its leadership position in critical and enabling semiconductor technology areas. Its mandate was to develop and manufacture leading-edge semiconductor products and solutions for its internal and external companies. Since then, technological initiatives and new products from the SRDC have helped to revolutionize the semiconductor industry. SRDC has produced such technological firsts as replacing aluminum with copper as the primary interconnecting conductor, silicon-germanium transistors, and silicon-on-insulator devices (10,16).

The SRDC team that was the subject of this research was established in response to a specific product development imperative by IBM, which required the creation of a new-to-market, high-performance technological device.

Novel project development in the semiconductor industry involves complex work tasks with specific focused objectives for advanced technological missions. The fulfillment of these missions requires cohesion, coordination and cooperation among the assembled team members. As a market and technology leader, IBM has cultivated and applied R&D management techniques that enable not only the development of world-class technologies but also an operational environment in which high-performance R&D teams can function with a successful, efficient and effective functional convergence.

Mission and Roadmap

The HPRD team members in this case were assembled from IBM's internal SRDC experts, from external strategic alliances and from partnerships with international independent technology companies, collectively referred to as "Alliance Partners," to form a highly specialized and high-performing R&D team. A well-defined and explicit project mission statement detailing the goal mentioned above was the foundation for identifying the team's operational requirements, technical activities and task/ role delegation. This provided a roadmap for the team to move forward; however, actually developing and discovering the specific details for the novel technological development programs would be the challenge.

The roadmap identified all the key elements and activities that were critical and needed to be acted on in order for program to be a success. From this base (the project's mission and the operational fundamentals), the project manager established the directive for identifying a core set of meaningful and valuable "assignments" for all the team members, based on each one's skills and interests. The assignments were made by examining the experience and interests of key veteran team members in conjunction with the fundamental, technological activities that were required for the program to be successful.


In parallel with the creation of the roadmap, the team members and their technical skills and interests were documented. Once completed, it was a simple exercise to merge the roadmap with the documented skills and interests so that: 1) the best-qualified individual could be matched with a given roadmap activity; and 2) the deficiencies in human resources were identified. This process enabled the diverse members to be clustered as specialist sub-units on the basis of complementary skills, interests and unique expertise (see illustration, below).

Guiding Principles

Two key principles guided the team management process and contributed to the parallel success of the technological development and the coordinated integration of the various tasks and activities as the project evolved. These were:

1. First and foremost was the establishment, communication and understanding of the team's mission as a shared team agenda. The mission statement was a concise and explicit statement of what needed to be accomplished, including the completion date and important intermediate milestones. The statement helped to provide a clear and unambiguous definition of what was expected of the team, technically and logistically, including critical timing requirements.

In addition, the mission statement served as a shared reference point for those members with different opinions about alternative activities, potential solutions or allocation of resources during the project's evolution. Such an unequivocal mission statement allowed the project's specific objectives to be communicated and discussed with all team members--downward, laterally and upward-so that everyone absorbed it as a shared goal.

2. Equally important was the creation of an operational team structure that would enable easy cross-functional inter-relationships. Cooperation and engagement as well as the open and flexible participation of the highly diverse team were recognized as vital to achieving congruent technological development and component integration across specialist team sub-groups.

In establishing such a structure, validation of each individual's unique contributions and skills was recognized as fundamental. This personal acknowledgement reinforced the collective recognition of the unique and valuable contributions of these specialists to their roles and activities. All members of the HPRDT were given specific, important and personally meaningful tasks that matched as closely as possible with their own unique interests, skills and experiences. In this way, commitment was enhanced and engagement with their assigned task strengthened. Finally, because the team consisted of engineers from different companies, it was important that leadership roles and responsibilities be appropriately distributed and not skewed to any single participating organization or group.

The Team and Its Deliverables

This HPRDT was a very diverse group of more than 50 men and women. They came from AMD, Chartered, Sony, Toshiba, and others, and from at least eight different countries (including Japan, U.S., Thailand, China, and Malaysia) and ranged in age from mid-20s to late-50s. All participants had R&D or manufacturing experience; their education levels ranged from a two-year associates degree to Ph.D. The team was predominantly engineers with at least a bachelor's degree in physics, chemistry, materials sciences, or engineering. Over 50 percent had master's or doctorate degrees.

The team was assembled to perform about 30 key integrated activities, with the goal of bringing a complex and novel 90-nanometer semiconductor technology to market within a tight timeframe. The team's basic challenge/technical task can be summarized as follows; to develop and qualify a new process for integrating a low-k inter-level dielectric into the interconnect portion of an advanced semiconductor. There were approximately 24 months from the project's initiation to the demonstration of a successful technological prototype and its technical qualification. However, the team's primary goal was to create and qualify a viable interconnect "process of record" (POR). A POR defines a complex, unique set of processes, tools and conditions that are necessary to meet the chip interconnect technology's performance target. In order for this technology to be market-relevant, the team needed to create and qualify the POR during the third quarter of 2004.

This case reveals the complexity and dynamics inherent in managing an international collection of highly professional technical experts and alliance partners as a high-performance R&D team in the highly competitive semiconductor industry. Although the team delivered the 90 nm technology and successfully met all of IBM's reliability and qualification requirements, its key deliverable was the POR. This record conveyed the details of the intellectual sum of the team's work; it was also an acknowledgement of the efficient and effective operational coordination and integration of that intellectual expertise.

The POR document defined the unique set of materials and requisite resources, and the tools and processes by which they were assembled, and codified the dedicated knowledge, skills, expertise, and coordination involved in fulfilling the technological assignment and completing the teams' mission. The process record delivered the necessary procedures, requirements and conditions that, when followed, could provide the required new technology with the necessary quality and reliability to be transferred into a high-volume manufacturing environment.

Community and Commitment

The two principles described above contributed directly to the development of the generative mechanisms of community and commitment that distinguished this team and its technical success. We have no doubt that the high-performing community that emerged was a direct result of the flexible and open team structure that supported the interactions of its members. Such community engagement was contingent on the recognition of the contribution each individual made to the overall success of the mission.

In addition, the effective and unambiguous presentation of the mission provided a clear platform for the team's associations, negotiations and interactions throughout the technical program. The firm agenda established by the mission provided a foundation for a "community of practice" (17) that recognized a shared ownership as well as dedication and responsibility for the success of the mission's articulated goal. Because of the team members' confidence in their colleagues as a specialist professional group, and with the support of a structure that permitted open communication, members were able to undertake the frequent discussions, debates and extensive communications necessary to resolve many of the technological and functional challenges that arise in the development of new technologies.

The important features in the successful management of the HPRDT which have been detailed here have been previously identified in various academic works (see "The Literature on High-Performance Teams," below). This case has presented a unique example of those features being successfully combined to deliver corporate goals and exemplary team achievement in an industry where the imperative to ensure efficient and effective R&D teams is fundamental to competitive success. In this case, the shared expectations of quality, effective knowledge sharing, and clear, well-communicated understanding of the common goals between functional groups proved essential to meeting this goal.

Clearly, as the marketplace for new applied technologies becomes increasingly competitive, there is little doubt that high technology organizations must adopt superior performance management techniques to ensure rapid and effective R&D processes. The efficacy of HPRDTs is particularly essential given that the nature of emerging technologies is now such that rarely can any one organization provide all the technological skills, intellectual expertise and experiential know-how for new technological product development.

The Literature on High-Performance Teams

Hatzenback and Smith define a team as a group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose and set of performance goals and hold themselves mutually accountable (18). More recently, teams are recognized as groups that share a "community of practice" in which organizational learning is derived from the relations and practices of members, with shared rules and procedures, in a socially embedded process (19). Effective, well-functioning teams have been shown to deliver performance and achievements that exceed the cumulative performance of the collective individuals. The importance and value of teams in the work place has been well documented (15,20-23).

Recently, a special sub-set of teams has been identified, i.e., high-performance R&D teams (10,24). These teams are composed of multiple professionals with diverse experience and specialized knowledge. In the case of HPRDTs associated with new product development, effective performance and the ability to develop constructive solutions to complex problems rely on the establishment of team processes that will facilitate good communication, shared understanding and problem-solving. As HPRDTs become increasingly utilized as a valuable technological resource, the integration of high-performing experts requires R&D managers to develop an operational framework that will guide more than project milestones, budgets and the allocation of tangible resources.

Literature on effective R&D teams reveals a variety of prerequisites and enablers, principles, success factors and conditions, and social capital (10,15,23,24). Wolff reported the importance of clear goals, convincing leadership, group engagement and ownership, as well as empowerment through a functional distribution of task management and responsibilities in the creation of high-performance teams (24). Hoyt and Gerloff, reviewing the effective supervision of technical personnel, observed that an environment supportive of information sharing and communication as well as the opportunity to work on challenging and meaningful projects were significant factors in motivating engineers and technical personnel (9). Grossman suggested an amended approach to best practice for high-performance teams that recognized the importance of interpersonal interactions, relationships and cooperative engagement (10). Costa and McCrae describe "Big 5" personality characteristics that also have a strong influence on team behavior (25).

Collectively these and other authors in the field offer the comprehensive checklist of conditions for HPRDTs presented with their literature references in the Table below.

The emphasis on personal over technical requirements for effective HPRDTs in the referenced papers confirms the proposition that the increasing complexity and diversity of the technical workforce is likely to contribute to increasing workplace tensions for scientists and engineers (15). Harris and Lambert report that a positive working environment requires a team-centered emphasis rather than an outcome-based approach (26).

In summary, it is clear from the literature that the establishment of a collective culture supports shared project goals and the establishment of the social processes critical to the success of high-performance R&D teams (10, 27).--L.D. and R.D.

Conditions, Prerequisites, Enablers, and Principles for the Management of High-Performance R&D Teams.
Clear goals and a shared, common 15, 23, 24, 26, 28
Convincing leadership. 9, 15, 24, 26
Group engagement in development 24, 26
Shared ownership, collective 24, 26, 28
 achievement valued.
Information sharing and communication, 9, 10, 23, 26
 and a strong platform of
 understanding and knowledge.
Challenging tasks and resilience 9, 23, 24
 to setbacks.
Professionally meaningful projects. 9
Interpersonal relationships formed. 9, 10, 24
Constructive interactions that 10, 15
 acknowledge group diversity and
 analytical expertise.
Cooperative engagement, problem 10, 23, 24
 solving and learning from
 individuals' experiences.


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(2.) Gupta, A. K. and D. Wilemon. 1996. Changing Patterns in R&D Management. Journal of Product Innovation Management 13, pp. 497-511.

(3.) Hagedoorn, J. and G. Duysters. 2002. External sources of innovative capabilities: The preference for strategic alliances or mergers and acquisitions. Journal of Management Studies 39(2), pp. 167-188.

(4.) Hellstrom, T., J. Eckerstein and A. Helm. 2001. R&D Management through Network Mapping: Using the Internet to Identify Strategic Network Actors in Cooperative Research Networks. R&D Management 31(3), pp. 257-263.

(5.) Merrifield, D. B. 2000. Changing nature of competitive advantage. Research-Technology Management 43(1), pp. 41-45.

(6.) Silverman, B. S. and J. A. C. Baum. 2002. Alliance-based competitive dynamics. Academy of Management Journal 45(4), pp. 791-806.

(7.) Singh, K. 1997. The impact of technological complexity and interfirm cooperation on business survival. Academy of Management Journal 40(2), pp. 339-367.

(8.) Weisenfeld, U., J. C. Reeves and A. Hunck-Meiswinkel. 2001. Technology management and collaboration profile: Virtual companies and industrial platforms in the high-tech biotechnology industries. R&D Management 31 (1), pp. 91-100.

(9.) Hoyt, J. and E. Gerloff, A. 2000. Organizational environment, changing economic conditions, and the effective supervision of

technical personnel: A management challenge. The Journal of High Technology Management Research 10(2), pp. 275-293.

(10.) Grossman, S. 1997. Turning technical groups into high-performance teams. Research-Technology Management 40(2), pp. 9-11.

(11.) Dawson, P. and D. Buchanan 2005. The way it really happened: Competing narratives in the political process of technological change. Human Relations 58(7), pp. 845-865.

(12.) Crotty, M. 1998. The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. St. Leonards: Allen-Unwin.

(13.) Punch, K. F. 1998. Introduction to Social Research: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. London: Sage Publications.

(14.) Creswell, J. W. 2003. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches', 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

(15.) Farris, G. F. and R. Cordero. 2002. Leading Your Scientists and Engineers 2002. Research-Technology Management. pp. 13-25.

(16.) IBM Internal Document. 2004. Fishkill, NY.

(17.) Seely Brown, J. and P. Duguid. 1991. Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation. Organization Science 2(1), pp. 40-57.

(18.) Hatzenback, J. and D. Smith. 1993. The Wisdom of Team Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

(19.) Capello, R. 1999. Spatial transfer of knowledge in high technology milieux: Learning versus collective learning process. Regional Studies 33(4), pp. 353-365.

(20.) Harris, T. E. 1992. Toward Effective Employee Involvement: An Analysis of Parallel and Self-Managing Teams. Journal of Allied Business Research 9, pp. 25-33.

(21.) Tata, J. and S. Prasad. 2004. Team Self-management, Organizational Structure, and Judgments of Team Effectiveness. Journal of Managerial Issues 16(2), pp. 248-266.

(22.) Human Resource Institute. 1997. Succeeding with Teams. Research-Technology Management 40(4), pp. 56-57.

(23.) Reagans, R. and E. W. Zuckerman. 2001. Networks, diversity and productivity: The social capital of corporate R&D teams. Organization Science 12(4), pp. 502-517.

(24.) Wolff, M. F. 1993. Creating High-performance Teams. ResearchTechnology Management 36(6), pp. 10-11.

(25.) Costa, P. T., Jr. and R. R. McCrae. 1985. The NEO Personality Inventory Manual. Odessa: FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

(26.) Harris, R. C. and J. T. Lambert. 1998. Building effective R&D teams: The senior manager's role. Research-Technology Management 41(5), pp. 28-35.

(27.) Tenkasi, R. 2000. The dynamics of cognitive oversimplification processes in R&D environments: an empirical assessment of some consequences. International Journal of Technology Management 20(5/6/7/8), pp. 782-798.

(28.) D'Andrea-O'Brien, C. and A. F. Buono. 1996. Building effective learning teams: lessons from the field. SAM Advanced Management Journal 61(3), pp. 4-9.

Lisa Daniel is a management lecturer with the University of Adelaide (Australia) Business School. Her research focuses on the activities, relationships and organizational dynamics that support innovation and R&D, technology integration, and R&D teams. She has a Ph.D. in technology and innovation management and a B.S. with a first-class honors in molecular plant pathology.

Charles Davis is a senior technical staff member and manager in IBM's silicon technology organization at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. He has also held adjunct faculty positions at The State University of New York, New Paltz's Department of Chemistry, and Marist College's School of Business. He has over 20 years of technical and management experience in advanced technology organizations. He holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in materials science from the University of Connecticut and a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Virginia at Wise.
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Author:Daniel, Lisa J.; Davis, Charles R.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Case study
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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