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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
In many of our online classes, we have weekly discussions on topics such as the definition of a cross-functional team or your experiences as a team member. These questions can show up in a human resources course, a social studies course or a supply chain management course.
When we teach courses in logistics, transportation, supply chain management or reverse logistics, the focus is on the concepts, procedures, and pros and cons of the business model. The courses also include the dos and don’ts of business processes.
Most of my online students are in the military and many of them are in the transportation or warehouse side of logistics. When they’re asked about teamwork, especially when we use a term like “cross-functional team,” their answers are usually the same with few surprises.
Military students usually say that cross-functional teams are how the army gets the job done. The military is all about completing missions. A team is all about bringing together a group of people to solve a problem, complete a goal or a mission in a prescribed amount of time.
In the military, companies, platoons or battalions are all parts of the various cross-functional elements that make up a military organization. There may be cooks, mechanics, drivers and fuelers from one company who work with medics and administrative clerks from another company to complete a mission.
Why Cross-Functional Teams Work
Hidden within the supply chain is a cross-functional team of machinists, manufacturers, managers, procurement specialists, lawyers, accountants and other experts. These hidden teams are at work all around you every day, wherever you are.
What makes these teams work? A process is in place and there is a sense of order.
Also, there is a group dynamic called trust. Team members need to trust each other.
All team members must be able to trust their leader as well. That leader needs to be clear with his or her expectations and directions, so that the team goes in the right direction to solve a problem or complete a task.
Managing Millennials in Teams
Today’s workforce includes people 18 years old into their 70s.
In a previous article, I wrote of a 19-year-old nursing student who said, “We millennials are too self-centered and all about ‘me’ that we do not deserve to have a title like millennial.”
Discussions about teamwork with the younger generation show that when a team leader asks them to do something, they often ask why. That is not a criticism of the millennial generation. It is just one aspect of that age group that is different from other groups.
The Internal Dynamics of Teamwork and the Seventh Team Member
Also, the size of the team seems to matter. The professors in my doctoral program would assign teams of students to solve real-world problems.
These problems would involve a company or organization in the community. A typical problem would be how to redesign the wave tank exhibit for the Virginia Marine Museum or how to properly lay down asphalt on a highway.
In one course, we examined the size of teams and cross-functional teams. The professors deliberately picked the number of team members to be four to six or seven to nine.
During a team project, the instructors watched for members of the larger team to complain about a member. Their theory was that a team with seven or more members would always include one troublemaker, someone who would not do his or her fair share of the work. That person was called number seven.
Many of my military students report that teams of four to six people work better than teams of 20-30 or 40-50 people. There tends to be a slacker in larger teams, too.
How Technology Impacts Teamwork
Technology affects team success. In a previous article that discussed the role of technology in society, I asked these questions:
- Have you tried to live without your iPhone or cell phone for a day? A week? Two weeks?
- Can you imagine leaving your cell phone at home when you go to the coffee shop to meet some friends or to the grocery store?
- How does this make you feel?
Today, we live in a 24/7 world of instant communications. For teams working on a project, instant communication is a great tool to make sure each member knows what is going on and the progress being made toward a mutual goal.
Social Networks Also Affecting Business and Teamwork
Social networking is another term for teams or cross-functional teams, but with the advantage of having constant, instant communications among team members. Dr. Rob Cross, a Babson College professor of Global Business, has conducted research for over 20 years into how social networks affect business.
His research appears to show that workers spend more time these days in team meetings, whether the meeting is conducted face-to-face, by email or through conference calls on computers or smartphones. These meetings occur across many time zones. Dr. Cross reports that in the past 10 years, the number of such collaborative team meetings has risen by over 50 percent.
Moreover, team members today are not on just one team, but many. They are becoming overwhelmed, stressed and burned out.
One result of today’s instant communications workplace is that team members do not know when to say “no.” That seventh member who drops out of the team may not vanish because he or she is lazy or exhausted, but simply to stay healthy and sane.
Dr. Cross and other professors are teaching students how to focus on teamwork and their careers while decreasing their stress.
Cross-Functional Teams Should Focus Less on Technology and More on Human Interaction
The cross-functional team has changed over the past 10 or 20 years, due mainly to the advent of the Internet and ubiquitous computer technology. No longer is a team member problem created only by adding that seventh person. Now, all team members must learn to look at each other across the table and put down the smartphone.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.
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