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Information Technology and Work Groups
The Case of New Product Teams


Deborah G. Ancona
David Caldwell

WP 2095-88

December 1988





Information Technology and Work Groups:
The Case of New Product Teams


Deborah G. Ancona
David Caldwell

WP 2095-88 December 1988

Support for this research was provided by the Center for
Innovation Management Studies, Lehigh University. We
thank Jolene Galegher for her comments on an earlier draft
of this paper.

To appear in J. Galegher, R.E. Kraut, and C. Egido (eds.)
Intellectual Teamwork: Social and Technological Bases of
Cooperative Work . Lawrence Ehrlbaum Associates, Inc., forthcoming,

Information Technology and Work Groips:
The Case of New Product Teams


Advances in ccarputing and conmunications capabilities are becoming
widely available to groii^js to help them to do their work. The develop-
ment of these systems has primarily grcwn out of new technologies and
not from an understanding of the assignments groups are asked to
ccirplete. We believe that an in-d^th understanding of the coirplex
tasks that groij^^s are frequently assigned is necessary to realize the
full capabilities of new technologies. In this chapter, we focus on
groi^js v*iich face the hi^ily interactive and cortplex task of developing
new products and present a description of the activities in vAiich these
teams engage and move from that data to suggest hew information
technology mi^t better be \ased to support the work of those teams.

Information Technology eind Work Groups:
llie Case of New Product Teams

TTie Qianging Role of Gtol^js in Qrganlza±ians

Today, task forces and project teams are performing tasks that
might formerly have been handled throui^ an organization's formal
structure or assigned to individuals. Whether it is the establishment
of product development teams at General Motors or Proctor and Gamble,
quality circles at Lockheed, or groins to irtplement new manufacturing
strategies in the aerospace industry (Kazanjian & Drazin, 1988), the
use of teams is ej^anding rapidly (Goodman, 1986) because they are
believed to increase individual comraitment and performance, thus
shortening the time necessary to bring a new product to market and
thereby increasing cortpetitiveness (Hackman & Walton, 1987; Kanter,
1986) . Groij^js are also formed out of necessity; as products and
technologies became more ccorplex, vAiat once could have been done by an
individual may new require the irput and ej^jerience of a number of
individuals. Similarly because important decisions involve many
constituencies, the use of teams broadens participation in decision
making, thus increasing commitment to the decision (c.f. Coch & French,
1948; Janis & Mann, 1977).

Althoui^ groi^as have always been an inportant tool for acconp-
lishing organizational goals, the form and usage of groups differs from
the past. One area of difference is in the increased amount of
authority and responsibility granted to the team (Galbraith, 1982;
Kanter, 1983) . In response to international conpetition and the


accelerating pace of technologiced eind narket c±;ange, organizations
have attenpted to beccsne more fle>d±)le and adaptcible. One way to do
this is to push decision making dcwn the orgcmizationcil hierartiiy,
assigning the freedcm and responsibility to respond to threats and
opportunities to task forces and project teams. However, when group
projects and goals ctre generated frcjn within rather than assigned from
above, the group hsears a special burden; because it lacks adminis-
trative approval for its actions, it must work to find support for its
ideas within the organization.

A second way the use of grtx^is is changing is in hc^' individuals
are assigned to them. Rather than permanently assigning individuals to
work groups with a fixed task or set of tasks, the norm is often to
assign individuals to work part-time on multiple projects. These
grcujps are often tenporary and have membership that changes over time;
they are made vp of individuals vAio must work closely together for a
short period of time v*iile siitiultaneously carrying on other individual
or group work, and maintaining ccgrardtments and loyalties to other parts
of the organization.

A third factor that differentiates the new form of groi-ps from
others is cross-functional corrposition or orientation. To respond to
competitive challenges, organizational units often have to be more
closely coipled than in the past, sometimes even working in parallel to
corrplete assignments that span traditional organizational units (Clark
& Fujimoto, 1987) . Thus, individucil work grtxp members must interact
extensively with others v*io are not team members. The groip can no
longer be seen as a bounded unit; rather it must be viewed as em open

system interacting with other groips and individuals in the organiza-
tional environment.

At the same time as the lose and form of organizational groins is
changing, advances in ocBrputer science and information technology offer
new techniques that can influence the processes and performance of a
groi:^). In recent years not only have large numbers of eitployees
acquired access to corputers, but the ability to connect ccfftputers to
each other has created the potential for altered patterns of comraunica-
tion and coordination. For instance, teleconferencing allows for
multiple individuals in geograjiiically dispersed locations to hold
meetings, group decision sL5)port systems have been designed to enhance
the decision ma3cing ability of groups throu(^ procedures that structure
the weighting of alternative solutions (Kraemer & King, 1986) , and
CAD/CAM systems can be used to help people display and manipulate
technical information mor« effectively in face-to- face meetings.
Finally, as the other chapters in this volume indicate, "groupware" of
various kinds is continually being developed to support collaborative
work (Abel; Lakin; Landcw; Olson & Atkin, this volume).

These new technologies may significantly affect the way group
members work with each other and with other parts of the organization.
What is less clear is v^ether the nature and role of these new tech-
nologies will depend solely on the intuitions of systems designers or
will be guided by a coherent theory of hew pecple must coordinate their
activities to conplete group tasks (Malone, 1987) .

Eteveloping More Ocrplete llieories of Groups

To keep pace with these changes, conceptual analyses of groips

need to take into accxxmt the specific things groups inust do ard how
grot53 members must interact with individuals outside the group to
conplete their assignments. I^iis contrasts to vAiat is the more typical
approach of relying on sinple models of group tasks eind focusing
exclusively on interactions within the group.

An understanding of the specific task a team must perform can lead
to the development of a fuller model of group process and allow for a
more ccgrplete definition of team performance (Goodman, Ravlin &
Schminke, 1987) than normally used and therefore eliminate many of the
conflicting findings common in group research (c.f. Gresov, 1988). It
is our contention that only group research that begins with a clear
understanding of the team's task can lead to useful theories of how
people must coordinate and thus guide the development of inproved
information technologies.

Since teams and task forces must both draw resources from the
organization and give back to the organization the results of their
efforts, we believe that models of groip activities must include both
the things team memlDers do with one another and those things that are
done with people outside the groLf). This approach contrasts with many
theories of groins with focus almost exclusively on the processes and
activities that occur inside the groip. Ihere is a long history of
luirping the critical activities of a groins into those related to
accoiiplishing the task cind those contributing to the maintenance of the
groi?) (Philip & EXirphy, 1959; Schein, 1988). Research grcwing out of
this tradition has led to a good understanding of individual behavior
in groups (c.f. McGrath, 1984), ccsnmunication among group members


(Putnam, 1986), the phases groups go throui^ (Tuckman, 1965; Gersick,
1988), and hew groi^ss make decisions (c.f. Bettenhausen & Mumi(^ian,
1985) . It has not, hcwever, led to a clear understanding of hew groi^js
deal with others, including hew the groLp obtains the resources
necessary to coraplete its task and gains si^sport for the results of its

Pecently, a number of studies have started to ejq)lore corarnunica-
tions between work groups and the environment in v*iich they exist and
to examine the iirpact of these coramunications on groijp performance.
For exairple, in investigations of research and development labora-
tories, the amount of external comraunication with other parts of the
organization has been positively related to performance (Allen, 1984;
Katz & Tushman, 1981; Tushman, 1977, 1979). Bringing information into
the groi^) is only one way the grotp interacts with other groups. In an
earlier paper (Ancona & Caldwell, 1988) we described a broad model of
the types of activities in vdiich grcaps engage to manage their depen-
dencies with others including hew the grcn^) defines its membership, hew
the groi:?) manipulates the permeability of its boundary, and hew the
groL?) atteirpts to obtain information and resources from its environ-

Ihese observations have led us to conclude that theories of groi:?DS
in organizations be more useful if they incorporate information about
the group's task and consider both internal processes and the way the
group deals with others. Furthermore, we posit that if information
technologies are to be used to iitprove the performance of hii^ily
conplex teams, they must be designed with a clear vinderstanding of the

camnunications and task activities that take place within the group as
well as those between groups members eind outsiders. To provide a part
of that foundation, we describe here p^art of our ctservations of new
product teams, one exeirplar of the type of groL53 that is assuming
increcising inportance in organizations.

These teams are responsible not only for the specific technical
design of a product, but eilso for coordinating the numerous functional
areas and hierarchical levels that have information and resources
necessary to make the new product a success. Team members may be
assigTTed to the team full-time or may be only part-time participants.
Similarly, members may remain on the team from inception to finish, or
may terminate membership after some portion of the task is ccsrpleted.
Given these characteristics the new product team provides an ideal
model of the ad hoc task group, and is therefore a \aseful model for
thin3\ing about hew information technology might be used to assist
teams v*io must nanage dependencies on other organizational entities to
carry out a corplex collaborative task.

In the remainder of this paper, we will describe the task of the
new product team and some of the activities throu;er.
Sane of the team even had to cane in during Christmas time. The
machine just wasn't working eind everybody felt as though we'd
failed, even though we'd done the inpossible. Still we were late
to Manufacturing cind everyone was sccired.

Several rules are in place new, such as minimizing new technology
so that this thing gets out in time. New for every piece of the
product we have a plan and every Monday morning pecple had to
report on where they cire with respect to this plan. I'm in the
middle of two ends of a problem. Fran above I get major direction
and goal setting, like we really don't want to deliver in February
but in December, and then Monday mornings I get reality.

I decided to house us in an isolated building. Ihis was a novel
task, there were lots of new people, and we were going to be going
hard and fast. That kind of intensity has to be isolated.
Besides, if people aren't together the project isn't going to turn
out as good as it could have. People v^o are working have two
things to do. One is they have to do the operating s^'stem for the
project. The other is they have to stay in touch with the rest of
the organization, so they are torn. I want people to make project
optimizations not local ones.

Many of our interviewees described the type of dilemma illustrated
in the final quotation. The develc^snent stage requires that the team
focus much of its effort intemcilly, on technical issues. Hcwever,
team leaders also r^xsrted that substantial efforts were needed to
maintain and build relationships with other groi-^is.

In this phase, the team needs to spend its time on techniccil
develcpnent; therefore, it can not be interrupted constantly. An
inportant dilemma that team leaders talked about is hew much separation
there should be between the team and the rest of the organization.
Specifically, should the team obtain separate facilities or perhaps
even physically isolate itself fron the rest of the organization?
Isolation allows the team to focus on technical innovation and speed

but may make it difficult for the team to carry on transactions with
other functional grotps. Within the groip, this stage requires the
hi(^est need for close coordination among team members and most teams
appear to work out routines and methods for aoccarplishing this.

Isolation allows the groip to shift its activities. During the
development phase, the team must move frcm product definition to
setting goals and schedules for actual development. For this to be
done, irpjts from others regarding their priorities and suggestions for
the product design need to be restricted unless market or conpetitive
information radically changes. Ihis restriction may be difficult to

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Online LibraryDeborah G. (Deborah Gladstein) AnconaInformation technology and work groups : the case of new product teams → online text (page 1 of 3)