Bridging Knowledge Gaps:
Learning In Geographically Dispersed Crossfunctional Development Teams

Amy Edmondson
Deborah Sole

Harvard Business School
Boston, MA

Abstract

Organizational learning centrally involves the ability to develop new, innovative products that respond to existing or emerging market needs. Organizations learn and innovate through combining previously unconnected bodies of knowledge or combining existing knowledge in novel ways (Schumpeter 1934; Grant 1996), and various organizational structures have been advocated for achieving this. One such structure is dispersed, cross-functional teams, which are increasingly espoused for enhancing the creation of knowledge and innovation. However, although dispersed, cross-functional teams encompass rich sources of diverse knowledge, empirical studies from distinct research streams have shown that member heterogeneity and geographic separation both hinder the effective sharing and leveraging of knowledge in groups. We explore this paradox through a qualitative study of real-world dispersed, cross-functional teams in a product development setting in a multinational company.

We studied the development process focusing on two projects that had significant investment, risk, and complexity. Both teams comprised key members from at least three physical locations. Our findings suggest that knowledge diversity presents both constructive and constraining influences on teams' ability to learn. Noting that individual members of dispersed, cross-functional teams are simultaneously members of multiple intellectual and social communities, we discovered that team members rely substantially on these different communities to access specialized knowledge. However, team members from different functions and locations often initially lacked the shared 'background knowledge' (Nonaka 1994) that facilitates learning from each other. The challenge for such teams is to establish themselves as a new "mini-community" in addition to being a task-oriented group, to integrate their knowledge effectively.

Our analysis thus suggests theoretical propositions related to learning in dispersed, cross-functional teams. We also discuss implications for managing and leveraging knowledge diversity in these settings.

To appear in "Strategic Management of Intellectual Capital and Organizational Knowledge" edited by Nick Bontis & Chun Wei Choo (Oxford University Press).