Three Perspectives on Team Learning: Outcome Improvement, Task Mastery, and Group Process

by Amy C. Edmondson, James R. Dillon & Kathryn S. Roloff

Overview — Organizations increasingly rely on teams to carry out critical strategies and operational tasks. How do teams learn, and what factors are most important to team learning? This paper reports on current perspectives and findings that address these questions, looking at empirical studies on team learning from three areas of research: outcome improvement, task mastery, and group process. Overall, Edmondson and coauthors characterize the nature of research to date and assemble what is known and unknown about the theoretically and practically important topic of team learning. Key concepts include:

  • Team learning has value for organizations; learning in teams is seen as a key mechanism through which learning organizations become strategically and operationally adaptive and responsive.
  • Research on team learning is at a crossroads.
  • How the learning of individual work teams translates into organizational learning is not well understood, and management literature to date offers few insights.
  • One avenue for future research is the durability and utility of team-based networks for the organization as a whole.
  • Learning in teams almost necessarily plays a role in developing the knowledge and skills of individuals who compose the team. Another avenue for future research is how individuals benefit from their team learning experiences in terms of intellectual, career, and personal development goals.
  • Organizations stand to benefit when ideas are cross-fertilized and diverse individuals learn to work together. "Outsiders" can introduce valuable ideas.
  • Learning and execution are often at odds: Learning by its nature involves uncertainty, false starts, and occasional dead ends. Team learning in organizations must be recognized as a strategy for tolerating forays into the unknown.

Author Abstract

The emergence of a research literature on team learning has been driven by at least two factors. First, longstanding interest in what makes organizational work teams effective leads naturally to questions of how members of newly formed teams learn to work together and how existing teams improve or adapt. Second, some have argued that teams play a crucial role in organizational learning. These interests have produced a growing and heterogeneous literature. Empirical studies of learning by small groups or teams present a variety of terms, concepts, and methods. This heterogeneity is both generative and occasionally confusing. We identify three distinct areas of research that provide insight into how teams learn to stimulate cross-area discussion and future research. We find that scholars have made progress in understanding how teams in general learn, and propose that future work should develop more precise and context-specific theories to help guide research and practice in disparate task and industry domains.

Paper Information