Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2002    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 6, Issue 3

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Teaching More Than You Know


Lawrence E. Zeff and Mary A. Higby, University of Detroit Mercy


Lawrence Zeff is Associate Professor of Management.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.  His research interests are leadership and organization theory.


Mary Higby is Associate Professor of Marketing.  She received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University.  Her research interests include marketing strategy and curriculum design.




Both groups and teams offer opportunities for organizations and classrooms.   Class-based groups and teams provide a methodology for improved learning while better preparing students for the world of work.  This paper discusses the implications for implementing group- and team-based activities in a curriculum.  




When Dumaine (1990) asked, “Who needs a boss?” in his Fortune article, he indicated that well designed teams may be the productivity breakthrough of the decade.  This comment culminated systematic interest in groups and their impact on productivity begun with the Hawthorne studies (see, e.g., Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939).  Since that time, through intuitive responses to experience and systematic collection of empirical data, groups played an important role in the study of organization behavior and performance.  Throughout the last half of the 20th century, academicians extolled groups while practitioners used groups more widely than ever before (Brown, 2000).  The 21st century began with an even wider use of groups and concern for teamwork.  We present in this paper a discussion of the differences between groups and teams along with specific environments and implications for an academic setting.


Groups versus Teams


An increasing body of literature distinguishes between groups and teams suggesting that teams are more effective than groups.  There are, therefore, opportunities for performance improvements.  From an educational perspective, creating an environment in which increased learning and development takes place is often the difference between successful and not so successful participant experiences.


Katzenbach and Smith (1993) provide a clear distinction between work groups and teams.  A work group is a collection of people working in the same area or placed together to complete a task.  The group’s performance is the result of people coming together to share information, views and insights.  The focus of groups is individual performance and actions within are geared toward it.  All teams are groups, but teams are a special subset of groups.  They establish a working definition:  “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." (p.112)  Teams require individual and mutual accountability where groups do not.  It is helpful to identify the characteristics of teams and groups, noting which are common to both.  By understanding the differences between these two concepts we can begin to create an appropriate environment for each and determine the conditions in which each is effective.




One common characteristic is accountability.  Based on the definitions above, however, group members are concerned with and are measured by individual accountability.  Team members hold themselves to be mutually accountable.  Likewise, both groups and teams have a sense of shared purpose (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).  The group’s purpose is essentially that of the organization while the team's purpose is jointly determined and planned with management (Zenger & Associates, 1994).   


All groups have formal rules and norms.  Leaders of work groups are most often  managers based on hierarchical positions.  Teams have a leadership role shared by team members (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).   Katz (1997) describes a high performing team as one that is empowered, self-directed, and cross-functional to have complementary skills.  In addition, team members are committed to working together and achieving their agreed upon common goal.  To accomplish this, they work collaboratively by respecting team members.  Such high-powered teams result in on-going learning as team members collaboratively work on agreed upon problems.  Moreover, these teams exude creativity in reaching their goals and producing their joint outputs.  Teams performing at this level resemble communities of practice (Lesser & Storck, 2001; Stewart, 1996; Wenger, 1998).  Teams have collective work products requiring joint contributions of members (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993) while typical work group members produce individual work outputs.


These characteristics suggest that groups are focused to accomplish imposed tasks under the strong management of a supervisor.  Individual performance and evaluation is the basis for determining success.  Thus, groups can be very useful and important to organizations as they can complete critical tasks. Teams are also important and can perform at higher levels than typical work groups.  (See, e.g., Majchrzak & Wang, 1996; Mulvey, Veiga & Elsass, 1996.)  This higher performance level is the result of a greater synergy resulting from collaboration and jointly produced outputs rather than a pooling of individual outputs (Katz, 1997).  The more informal environment within which team members work, and which also allows for communities of practice to develop resulting in on-going learning and creative applications, enhances the vitality of teams. 


Respective Environments


Zenger and Associates (1994) suggest several differences in the environments of typical work groups and teams.  In the typical work environment a manager determines and plans the work of his/her subordinates and the jobs (tasks) are narrowly defined, whereas in the team environment the manager collaborates with subordinates as peers and jointly establishes and plans the work.  Thus, the skill set required is broader, providing for individual growth and development, often accomplished within the context of cross training and working directly with other team members.  Moreover, this learning process is continuous and is part of the culture of the unit.  Because joint accountability exists, people work together, rather than working individually on specific tasks as happens more traditionally.  Rewards are based on individual performance in typical environments where the managers determine the best processes to be used.  In team environments, however, rewards are based on both individual performance and the individual’s contribution to the team’s overall performance while all members are directly involved in continuous improvement.


Classroom Groups


Groups are a staple in classroom learning processes.  Many instructors recognize that students will be spending a large portion of their work lives in groups.  Thus, groups are used to provide an appropriate experience for class members.  Group and team assignments expand the learning environment beyond the classroom and the instructor (Stein & Hurd, 2000).  Groups allow for socialization, broaden student participation, and provide opportunities for students to offer and receive help in an academic environment.  Many instructors acknowledge that students might learn more effectively from other classmates than from the instructor (Adams & Slater, 2002).  Thus, teachers try to establish an environment in which opportunities exist for group members to join forces and gain skills, knowledge and understanding from each other.  Furthermore, groups help to create loyalties that can motivate students to higher performance and provide experience in interpersonal relations for career development.


Groups allow for interaction among diverse students based on demographic, work experience and educational factors.  This planned interaction among students allows them to experience different perspectives, broadening their opportunities to see situations with fresh eyes. The discussions can help individuals develop both problem-solving and critical thinking skills.  Results include identification of new problems, a whole array of new solutions and an understanding that there are different ways to perceive a situation.  In addition, interaction with diverse people can provide societal benefits as we see the actions taken by people with little or no understanding of others from different cultures.  Thus, dialogue among group members can expand comprehension of a topic and further develop reasoning skills while providing knowledge of and experience in group dynamics. 


Many classroom groups are characterized by individual work with shared information and tasks that emphasize individual contributions and responsibility (Brown, 2000).  Often, groups are formed to engage students in a project that could not be accomplished by a single student.  Instructors expect students will use their combined resources to complete an assigned task, such as a case study.  Students might then meet, discuss and agree to divide up the project so each member can work independently, later pooling individual contributions into a finished group assignment.  Even with minimal coordination there is a group learning effect that cannot take place when individual assignments are made.


Groups are also established within classroom settings to provide experiential learning opportunities which enhance the understanding of concepts, increase student satisfaction and promote student retention by allowing students to actually try or have hands-on experience with a particular concept (Stein & Hurd, 2000).  Davis (1993) suggests, "students learn best when they are actively involved in the process." (p. 147)  Students who have been exposed to group activities in college courses are more likely to understand the complex processes of small group performance demanded by organizational environments (Chesser, 2000).


Using groups in class, however, has also resulted in problems.  For example, students may not want to spend time outside of class in meetings or offer little to move the project forward when they do attend.  Mulvey, Veiga and Elsass (1996) describe this behavior as self-limiting and define it as a general tendency for group members to limit their involvement.   Others describe this behavior as "self-censorship" (Janis, 1982), " free-riding" (Stigler, 1974), "social-loafing" (Latane, Williams & Harkins, 1979), and the "Abilene paradox" (Harvey, 1974).  These factors serve to reduce the effectiveness of a group activity as a positive learning experience.


There are other disadvantages to the use of groups in classroom settings.  It often requires more class time and out-of-class coordination by both faculty and students.  The diverse views may lead to destructive conflict among group members.  Social loafing allows not only for a group member to “coast” but to distort the grades given to students, as they perceive grades to no longer reflect accurately their individual accomplishments.  Finally, group activities may result in limited commitment to the efforts of the group as a whole or to other group members, since individual grades and accountability, even with “group” grades for the project, are the end result.


Classroom Teams             


Developing teams in a class requires more active course design.  Katzenbach and Smith (1993) state that a team is committed to working with each other to achieve the team's purpose and hold each other fully and jointly accountable for the team's results.  The use of class teams requires students to go beyond just being a group.  Teams are characterized as having shared leadership, interdependence, specific roles and functions for members, awareness of who is a member and who is not, a limited life span, individual and group accountability and meetings that are open-ended and devoted to problem solving (Brown, 2000).  According to Meyers and Jones (1993), several factors are necessary to have effective learning in class teams: a sense of interdependence among team members, accountability of individual students to both team and instructor, frequent face-to-face interaction to promote team goals, development of social skills needed for collaboration, and critical analysis of group processes.


Creating or developing class/program-based teams suggests assignments follow intensive formats or span semesters, both requiring dedicated efforts.  At the University of Pittsburgh, engineering and business students come together as a team to both develop and market new products in New Product Realization (Manula, 2001).  Engineering students must woo business students to work for their new products and business students frequently join new product projects based on the passion of product developers. 


Students in a Master of Product Development Program at the University of Detroit Mercy (a joint program of the Colleges of Engineering and Business) are required to complete a team-based thesis.  These teams are self-selected based on experiences of class members throughout the program and joint commitment to a specific cross-functional issue, thereby forming a community of practice (Wenger, 1998).  The final project looks at a business area problem with engineering implications or an engineering concept, including a new engineering-based product, with functional business contributions.  Each team organizes around cross-functional perspectives and, over a two semester span, are encouraged to grow into a full-fledged community of practice (see, e.g., Stewart, 1996).


Implications for Groups and Teams in the Classroom


Groups and teams provide a methodology for engaging students in positive learning experiences.  The differences between groups and teams can help faculty focus on the classroom experiences they strive to create.  Assignments for which groups are effective (perhaps even more so than for teams) include short assignments less than one semester, for example, discussions of real situations, cases, problems or videos. 

Tasks requiring pooling of individuals' knowledge bases or tasks where students can work relatively independently are also appropriate for group assignments.  In addition, short-term tasks for initial group activities (e.g., ice breakers) or when you want transitory membership, perhaps as an opportunity to gain experience before team creation, are also assignments better made to groups. 


Teams are more effective when assignments require long-term (i.e., outcomes that require more than one semester) projects.  The product development project at the University of Detroit Mercy is an example of this type of assignment.  Other assignments better given to teams are those that directly fulfill student goals or career aspirations, for example, the new product realization course at the University of Pittsburgh where they create actual products, companies and careers.  Projects requiring joint efforts and outputs, what Katzenbach and Smith (1993) called collective work products, rather than pooled efforts are better given to teams.  Because of the pooled nature of group outputs, groups provide opportunities to complete larger tasks than individuals could on their own.  But the synergy created in teams results in greater learning from team outputs, necessary cross training, continuous learning, freely shared information and team methods improvement (Zenger & Associates, 1994).  In addition, assignments in intense, time-compressed formats requiring the need for immediacy are more appropriate for teams rather than groups.  Finally, program-wide projects are effectively assigned to teams.  The use of on-line technologies may provide for easier team collaboration, which may be critical in commuter-based academic programs.


To create the necessary environments, faculty need to be trained in creating and enhancing groups and teams within curricula.  We, as faculty, have to be open and willing to be part of this learning environment since synergy develops not only between students but also between students and faculty.  The use of teams in these environments and the encouragement to create communities of practice allow for greater learning than is accomplished through the resources of the instructor alone, further supporting our title. 


In group environments, assignments are determined and defined by the instructor while in team environments project parameters are delineated by the instructor but specific assignments are defined by the team.  A group culture creates specific roles and establishes the assignment completion as the target.  Since students often work independently with their outputs pooled, risk taking is minimized and rewards are based on the totality of individual performance.  The team environment, however, reflects a culture in which roles continually evolve; students integrate efforts into collective outputs, requiring on-going redefinition and continuous learning for students.  Risk, therefore, with respect to delving into new areas (cross-skills training) emerges from both synergistic relationships (student-student and student-faculty).  Grades and other rewards are derived from both individual and overall team performance.  "People who feel collectively responsible are willing to work especially hard to avoid letting the team down.” (Majchrzak & Wang, 1996, p. 95)


Teachers and trainers can enhance learning through the use of groups and teams.  Matching the assignments with the appropriate environments takes advantage of positive aspects of each. 




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