– Culture’s Curse –

Every kid knows the impact of a magnifying glass on sidewalk ants. It isn’t until a few years later in science class when studying pheromones that you learn what happens if you take an ant from one colony and place it in another. The ants will immediately recognize this new visitor is not one of their own and attack to defend their colony. This is not unlike what happens everyday in the post-industrial office place where cross-functional teams, consisting of persons from multiple organizations collaborate on worldwide projects (often times virtually).

We are long past the notion that Virtual Knowledge Work Teams (VKWTs) are a novel concept as they have become a part of everyday business. Past the time when many siloed managers said “maybe we should get us some of those.” Yet despite all research and practice, there are still a relatively large number of organizations who do it poorly. With the prevalence for outsourcing, offshoring, and project collaborations, few companies can afford to ignore the necessity of cohesive cross-organizational cultures.

– A Personal Note –

Consider the following story from my own consulting experience. After winning a subcontract to assist a consulting firm with one of their clients, my team was placed on a floor with their top competitor. Not to bore you with too many details, the project was the integration of two ERP systems, with each firm focusing on the implementation of one while an integration team worked on the back end to ensure the systems would talk to one another. Unfortunately, both organizations were to interested in competing with each other and fighting over a larger piece of the whole pie to work together on a sustainable product. This in-fighting not only caused the project to be delayed but prevented one firm from winning additional task orders.

It is interesting to note that neither firm was listed among Forbe’s Best Companies to Work For. Yet one still sits on the Most Admired List (what does that tell us?) Perhaps if these two behemoths had done a better job at accepting and integrating their cultures on a work team level, one would not be replacing their COO and facing delistment while the other would still have a contract with the client.

– Strategy, Culture & Competition –

Care must certainly be taken to balance shared culture and cooperation with corporate strategy. The notion that intellectual property is at stake must not be rationalized, leading to the ‘Not Invented Here’ mentality. As Michael E. Porter, director of Harvard’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, has recently stated, as part of Wharton’s SEI Center Distinguished Lecture Series,

Strategy has to do with what will make you unique,” Porter noted. Companies also make the mistake of confusing strategy with an action, such as a merger or outsourcing. “Is that a strategy? No. It doesn’t tell what unique position you will occupy.” Managers should be asking, “How can you deliver a unique value to meet an important set of needs for an important set of customers?” The worst error is to compete with your competition on the same things.”

Cross-organizational teams, therefore, need to look past fears of of loosing ground to a potential competitor in their ranks and work toward building team and project identity. A post on Organizations and Markets supports this issue,

looking at the role of cross-functional knowledge (or what I later called “trans-specialist understanding”) in product development. Almost everybody who’s looked at product development says that firms with stronger knowledge integration across specialized subgroups perform better with respect to the time, expense, and output quality of their projects.

It is logical to assume that this same principle will apply when the end product is the delivery of a service. An important to note, however, even the implementation of self managed teams, designed to embody multiple departments and ideas, may become wary of outsiders, falling prey to biases such as groupthink.