Variation in Experience and Team Familiarity: Addressing the Knowledge Acquisition-Application Problem

by Robert S. Huckman & Bradley R. Staats

Overview — Team familiarity helps team members successfully locate knowledge within a group, share the knowledge they possess, and respond to the knowledge of others. While team familiarity may help all teams to better coordinate their actions, it may play a particularly important role for teams with individuals looking to apply knowledge from their varied experience. This possibility leads to the question that provides the foundation for this paper: Does team familiarity moderate the relationship between variation in experience and performance? Prior research attempting to link variation in experience and performance has found effects ranging from positive to neutral to negative. Huckman and Staats explain these differential results by drawing on related work from learning, knowledge management, and social networking. Key concepts include:

  • Managers may benefit from a more detailed understanding of the types of experience that are relevant in their setting (e.g., market, technology).
  • If the most valuable assets of many companies are their employees, then organizations may need to shift from thinking about their project portfolio to their employee-experience portfolio.
  • Conditions that assist in the acquisition of useful knowledge, such as variation in experience, will not guarantee—and may even deter—the eventual application of that knowledge.
  • It is important to separate the processes of knowledge acquisition and knowledge application.

Author Abstract

Prior work in organizational learning has failed to find a consistent effect of variation in experience on performance. While some studies find a positive relationship between these two variables, others find no effect or even a negative relationship. In this paper, we suggest that the differences in prior findings may be due to the failure to separate the processes of knowledge acquisition and knowledge application. While variation in experience may permit the acquisition of valuable knowledge, additional mechanisms may be necessary to enable the subsequent application of that knowledge in a team setting. We hypothesize that team familiarity—prior experience working with team members—may be such a mechanism. We use detailed project- and individual-level data from an Indian software services firm to examine the effects of team familiarity and variation in market experience on multiple measures of performance for over 1,100 software development projects Consistent with prior work, we find mixed results for the effect of variation in experience on performance. We do, however, see evidence of a moderating effect of team familiarity on the relationship between these two variables. Our paper identifies one mechanism for uniting knowledge acquisition and knowledge application and provides insight into how the management of experience accumulation affects the development of organizational capabilities.

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