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Teaching the Team to Learn


Goals for Using Skills Increase Learning Transfer

I confess to owning one video game, not including those associated with my 1982 Atari 2600 sitting boxed in a closet. It’s a civilization-building game set in the Middle Ages. Recently I played an especially difficult episode, changing interim goals and tactics several times. After a few hours over a couple of days, I was thrilled to spy my final objective, an enemy cathedral. I gleefully set upon it with siege weapons, raised my arms in triumph as it fell, and then was mortified to see the words, “You are defeated.”

Defeated? But I destroyed the cathedral! I restarted the game and checked the objective. Turns out I was supposed to convert the cathedral. Oops.

A paper in the Journal of General Management on learning transfer—“the application of skills and knowledge from the programme back to the workplace”—says I had the right idea: Have measurable goals, and don’t focus on the Big Goal. If you want a promotion to the next level of management, that’s perfectly fine. But if you use that as your only goal when taking a management course, you’re probably going to hurt your chances. Just make sure the interim and final goals align, I will add, based on both science and my gaming failure.

Travor Brown, director of the Employment Relations Program at Memorial Univ. (Canada), and Martin McCracken, a lecturer in organisational behaviour at the Univ. of Ulster (N. Ireland), looked over dozens of studies from the past 20 years about the types of goals classes use and whether they increase learning transfer. Four types emerged. One covered “distal outcome goals,” what you might call the “end goal” like that promotion or winning the game. “Learning goals” are “specific strategies to accomplish” the end goal, like converting the cathedral. Think of outcome goals as the “what” and learning goals as the “how.” A third type is a combination of these two. The fourth is focused on doing well on a test at the end of the class.

Another approach is to not set any specific goals. The authors call this, “the strategy of urging a person to ‘do your best’… to use programme material back at work.” They say this is “a typical fallback position” in many leadership programs. Most training programs I have attended or observed set no goals for using the skills on the job and provide zero follow-up to ensure they are. As Brown and McCracken point out, without follow-up the learning usually disappears quickly.

I asked Laura Paramoure, who has a doctorate in education, about this. “It has been our experience that there is a marked decline in the retention of skills within the first two weeks after training if the skills are not reinforced by coaching,” she said. “If however the student is aware they will be measured on the skill in the near future, the retention increases.” Paramoure was President and CEO of Strategic Training, LLC, which showed companies how to tie learning to measurable performance changes.

Not surprisingly, Brown and McCracken found that “do your best” is not an effective strategy. Perhaps more surprising, focusing on end goals didn’t work, either. The problem seems to relate to the learner’s sense of whether they can attain the goal. If all you have is what has been called a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG), you question whether you can achieve it. This can be demotivating. After all, why practice new skills if you don’t think you can succeed?

Compared to the other goal types, Brown and McCracken said setting goals for applying the skills:

  • “appear to have the highest impact on participant’s satisfaction with an education programme,”
  • improve learning transfer, and
  • raise the learner’s confidence in their new skills.

The authors suggest that at the end of a class, a trainer should have students set a goal for putting each skill to use. Paramoure said “this goal must be specific and… reflected in behavior changes.”

For example, Brown and McCracken say, a performance feedback trainer could ask students to “set a goal to identify three strategies that will enable you to provide feedback to employees.”

Another learning goal they use helps students see mistakes as normal. Quoting another study they suggest, “‘when you make a mistake, set a goal of seeing what you need to do differently the next time.’” They also say students could plan for situations in which they might revert to their old habits, as with Brown’s “Negative Neutral Positive” (NNP) strategy. “When participants make negative (N) self-statements (e.g. ‘I will never be able to learn this skill’), they are trained to ask themselves a neutral (N) question (e.g. ‘What can I do to improve the situation?’).” The answer becomes a self-reinforcing positive (P) statement like, “I can improve the situation by…”

So have long-term goals, but use smaller goals to get there. The classic example comes from substance abuse programs. You don’t set a goal to never have another drink, though that’s the outcome you want. You set of goal of not having a drink today.

I had been playing for years with ways to ensure learning transfer when I’m only providing a one-shot class for a client, without follow-up coaching as I prefer. I always tie my exercises directly to a student’s real-world work. My teamwork development book, I’m relieved to say, already had learning-goal exercises. After writing this topic as a blog post, I added them to all of my trainings. If you’re a trainer, I hope you will do the same. If not, create some for yourself the next time you need to conquer a medieval kingdom—or, you know, learn something useful.


  • Brown, T., and M. McCracken (2010), “Which Goals Should Participants Set to Enhance the Transfer of Learning from Management Development Programmes?” Journal of General Management 35(4):27.
  • (For BHAGs) Collins, J., and J. Porras (1996), “Building Your Company’s Vision.” Harvard Business Review, 9-10/96.

Learning When Your Time is Short

When my mother was dying in a hospital in 2013, her admitting physician complicated my family’s grief by being an arrogant jerk. He insisted some of her recent symptoms were the result of drug combinations she had been on for many months, and pushed medical procedures that were just stupid for a 90-year-old woman clearly on her way out. We had no idea when we would see him again, yet he ignored repeated messages passed through nursing supervisors that we wanted him off the case. Meanwhile he continued issuing orders regarding Mother. It stopped when I went to the hospital ombuds office and told them I would physically prevent him from entering her room if he showed up.

Once they gain a measure of authority, some people refuse to listen to anyone who questions their expertise. This has been true for a long time. A scholar visited a Zen master supposedly to ask questions. But the scholar kept talking about himself and his own ideas. When tea arrived, the master poured for the scholar—and kept pouring as the cup overflowed. “Stop,” the scholar said. “Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master responded, “You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

Managers like this scholar harm team productivity because teams that learn outperform those that don’t. The situation is worse when the teams don’t exist for long. These “action teams” are formed for very short projects and then break apart. Members go on to form new action teams, usually from different combinations of people, as needed. A great example is surgical teams, drawn together from available specialists at the time a surgery is needed. Can an expert-led team like this possibly learn anything from such a short time together that would help a later surgery?

Some Israeli researchers guessed it might be possible if you focused on learning by individuals across multiple team experiences, rather than within a single longer-lived team as in prior studies. University researchers Dana Vashdi, Peter Bamberger, and Miriam Erez created an ambitious field experiment funded by the Israel National Institute for Health Policy Research. They studied 362 short-term surgical teams in a large public hospital over six months. Only 5% of these were repeats of previous teams. The researchers worked with hospital administrators to design two procedures: a pre-surgery briefing and, for learning purposes, a post-surgery debriefing. Their journal article explains:

“The briefing protocol covered (a) the indications leading to an operation, (b) the procedure to be performed, (c) the kind of anesthetic to be used, (d) special equipment needed, (e) possible complications, and (f) protocols to be followed in the event such complications arose. The debriefing protocol included a review and analysis of (a) what happened during the surgery, (b) any problems or complications that arose, (c) the degree to which surgical goals were met, (d) what prevented the achievement of specific goals, and (e) what might be done in the future to avoid such complications and to better assure the meeting of objectives.”

Three surgical wards received training on the protocols, and six others were observed for comparison. Similar surgeries on patients in similar general health were compared for both length and problems that occurred. Written medical records in Israel—that is, after-reports by the people involved—indicated only 3% of surgeries have a single life-threatening problem. Yet neutral observers in this study found at least one such problem in 43% of the surgeries, and 4% had three problems. Never trust self-reports from your team members as an accurate measure of how they are doing, or how you are as a leader.

In comparing their hypotheses to the results, the researchers admitted they were only partially right about the impact of the debriefings. Teams whose members had participated in previous teams’ debriefings took less time on average to perform comparable surgeries. There was no average impact on the rate of problems, though there was in some circumstances. The results held true whether or not members’ current team had done a pre-surgery briefing, and regardless of various factors about the surgeons.

Digging into the details, Vashdi and team found the surgeries were shortened partly by increasing the willingness of people to take on tasks outside their job descriptions. However, those behaviors only shortened complex surgeries. The job-sharing behaviors actually slowed things down when the surgery was simple. Of course, simple surgeries are shorter by nature, and thus any training would have less time to impact them. However, such workload sharing “may in fact complicate standardized work processes, thereby offsetting any temporal benefits,” the authors write. They found it interesting that the impact of learning seemed to come through better processes rather than higher levels of medical knowledge imparted by previous debriefings.

This study suggests that even if your teams are very short-lived and include an authority figure like a surgeon, “lessons-learned” meetings can still help your operations. (Pun not intended. And I thought better of using an alternate term for these kinds of meetings, “post-mortems.”) Team members can carry those lessons over to the next team. Taking time to reflect on recent work and identify better ways of operating puts the concept of “continuous improvement” into practice and provides measurable benefits for any team. Unlike the talkative scholar’s tea cup, you will find the time poured into retrospectives provides the value of a bottomless cup.

Source: Vashdi, D., P. Bamberger, and M. Erez (2013), “Can Surgical Teams Ever Learn? The Role of Coordination, Complexity, and Transitivity in Action Team Learning.” Academy of Management Journal 56(4):945.

The Complicated Caveats of Training and Turnover

Some researchers and managers assume that people-centered human resources practices will cut down on employee turnover, but the scientific results have been mixed. Using data from the Canadian government’s Workplace and Employee Survey (WES), Univ. of Montreal researchers broke out 14 specific practices and compared them to the likelihood of people quitting their jobs. The WES is a powerful tool because those contacted are legally required to respond, making its results more likely to reflect what happens in most Canadian businesses than would surveys where only a small fraction respond. For this study, 4,160 workplaces with 10 employees or more were included, from a broad range of industries. Workplace practices in 1999 were compared to voluntary turnover in 2000, suggesting (though not proving) that the practices affected the turnover rates.

The biggest surprise to some readers may be that training was linked to a higher likelihood of someone quitting. The authors, citing previous studies, say this may be because increased skills make it easier for a worker to find a job in another company. They point out, however, that their results can’t separate classroom versus ongoing training. I will add that they also do not separate technical or job skills from people-skills training. So it is possible some types of training raise “quit rates” and others lower them.

Having a standard individual-focused pay system was tied to higher quit rates, whereas group-compensation plans such as profit- or gainsharing had no significant effect, and merit or skill-based systems was mildly related to lower turnover. This study could not differ between good and poor performers, however; under merit systems poor performers might be more likely to leave, raising the average impact. Turnover was not lower in workplaces with higher per-person pay compared to other firms within a company’s industry, reinforcing scientific evidence that amount of pay is not a primary motivator. Higher employer-paid benefits did have a moderate link to lower turnover, however.

For reasons the authors do not explore, having an employee suggestion program was related to higher voluntary turnover. However, higher levels of information-sharing by managers with employees and the existence of “formal dispute-resolution systems” seemed to decrease the quit rate. These practices allow employees “to voice their concerns and thereby reduce their dissatisfaction… rather than quit,” the researchers write. Information shared included “firm’s performance, colleagues’ wages, technological or organization changes, and so on. This implies that employees have some feedback on policies,” the article says.

In the raw data, the use of self-directed work groups (teams without team leaders) and a tendency to promote from within also reduced the likelihood of turnover. But including the size of the company, presence of unions, and existence of a separate HR department in the analysis muddled the results such that the researchers could not show a clear link. Other practices that might seem to impact voluntary turnover, but did not, included the existence of problem-solving teams and flexible job design such as “job rotation… broadened job definitions” and “increased skill variety or autonomy of work.”

An interesting side result is that the various practices were not adopted in any pattern. That is, using any one practice did not increase the likelihood of a company using any other practice. This suggests companies did not take a comprehensive approach in their use of HR practices as a management tool.

As the researchers point out in several places, these results were focused on turnover only. There may be other compelling reasons to adopt practices that increase or have no effect on the quit rate. The authors write, “reductions in training investments or hiring talent from competitors may have worse consequences still. For instance, the workplace may stagnate or experience retaliation from competitors.”

Source: Haines, V., P. Jalette, and K. Larose (10), “The Influence of Human Resources Management Practices on Employee Voluntary Turnover Rates in the Canadian Non Governmental Sector,” Industrial & Labor Relations Review 63(2):228.

True Teamwork Proven Worth the Training Time

Most of my work and pretty much all of this hypertext is based on a trio of assumptions:

  • True teamwork is rare.
  • True teamwork can be taught.
  • True teamwork improves performance enough to justify the training costs.

I believe the first assumption because I have observed, read, or asked about teamwork in hundreds of companies and almost none take the time to fully leverage group dynamics. The last two are based on studies and what I have observed in my consulting. Still, I welcome proof. If you are reading this hypertext straight through, you know by now what we think is true about leadership has often proven false when tested objectively. However in one such test, after 40 hours of classroom training on teamwork, when 92 newly formed teams of U.S. Air Force officers competed with each other on various tasks, the teams that had absorbed the most knowledge outperformed the rest by far.

Many details about the study captured my attention. First, the training was not “teambuilding exercises,” but a combination of lectures and reading with some team discussions. Another detail of interest was the size of the teams, 11 to 13 members each. This is much larger than those in most studies and in the workplace, and are around the maximum team size I recommend. It is exciting to read that teams this large could apply new teamwork skills to tasks with as little as 15 minutes of planning time, as you’ll see.

These teams also were self-directed. No one was designated as the official leader, and it appears from the study report in Journal of Applied Psychology that several people of the same military rank were on each team. The teams were about as diverse as they could be, except for being 83% male and fairly similar in age. The authors write, “Team assignments were determined by a computer model that considered variables such as participants’ demographic characteristics, job classifications, military status, and rank.”

The study was conducted by Robert Hirschfeld of the Univ. of Georgia; Mark Jordan of the United States Air Force Academy; and Hubert Feild, William Giles, and Achilles Armenakis of Auburn Univ. Jordan was in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, while the others were management researchers.

The team members were in an Air Force officer development program in which “5th- to 7th-year USAF officers step out of their specialties and acquire a transportable set of teamwork competencies,” the article says. I find this intriguing because it means these were not people new to team leadership; they were the equivalent of middle managers in business, averaging age 31, who should already have known a lot about teamwork. Yet the training had a big impact on performance. The program was based on what the USAF considers to be a model of expert teamwork. Most organizations do not even have such a model, much less provide extensive training on it.

The Air Force program was an intense, five-week immersion. “Classroom activities totaled approximately 22 hr in Week 1 and 19 hr in Week 2, and assigned readings amounted to hundreds of pages,” the authors write. “Classroom time was devoted mostly to lecture but included several sessions in which team members met with their entire team to review and discuss teamwork concepts and principles that were previously presented in readings, lecture, or both.” At the end of Week 2, students took individual tests on what they had learned, providing the study with its teamwork knowledge measure. Performance was measured three ways:

  • Pairs of teams competed in a “novel team sport,” whatever that means.
  • “Teams attempted to solve difficult problems representing realistic military scenarios (e.g., solving an enemy code by piecing together information given to each team member, while complying with specific parameters).”
  • Teams had to complete 14 time-limited tasks over the course of the program. “An example exercise was a team given 15 min. to plan and execute crossing a river, with all of its equipment, without touching the water,” the article says. “The only physical resources available were a piece of rope and a board.”

The results for each type of performance moderately correlated with the knowledge test results of the team members (ranging from +0.24 to +0.28 on a –1 to +1 scale) and more strongly with ratings of their teamwork behaviors by trained neutral observers (+0.32 to +0.53). The observers rated teams with higher knowledge results as better at teamwork (without knowing the knowledge results). Through both direct and indirect effects, the researchers say knowledge had a powerful link to observed teamwork of +0.37. This supports the conclusion of the researchers that higher teamwork knowledge caused the performance gains by improving teamwork. It is possible people who already had better teamwork skills had or absorbed more teamwork knowledge. But given that teamwork skills are rarely taught to the depth provided by this program, and most of the performance tests came after the classroom training, I think it likely that the knowledge gain caused the better teamwork skills—and in turn, better measurable performance.

We don’t have enough data to monetize these findings, but there are hints. Assuming your organization provides two weeks of vacation, one week of team training is equal to 2% of the team’s labor time in one year. Given this study’s correlation of 0.37 between greater teamwork knowledge and greater competitive advantage, not much improvement would have to come in the first year to outweigh that cost. That’s why I was able to guarantee my SuddenTeams Program, which only took around 30 hours. And the performance gains would continue into subsequent years if your organization maintained a supportive environment. Of course, you don’t have to do all that training at once like the Air Force does. At an hour a week, you could finish in less than a year.

True teamwork can be taught, and it improves a team’s performance enough to justify the training costs. Because it is rare, gaining it will give you a competitive advantage. The longer you wait, the more money you lose.

Source: Hirschfeld, R., et al. (2006), “Becoming Team Players: Team Members’ Mastery of Teamwork Knowledge as a Predictor of Team Task Proficiency and Observed Teamwork Effectiveness,” Journal of Applied Psychology 91(2):467.

Cross-Training Reduced Team Stress under Pressure

If your team is trying to do more with less these days—like every other team on the planet—a 2011 study shows cross-training should be a weapon in your arsenal. The military metaphor is apropos. The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and involved a war game. But its implications fit in perfectly with research in less lethal workplaces and suggest a benefit you might not expect: Cross-training may also reduce your team’s stress.

Previous studies showed that team members under pressure tend to turn inward. They go “heads-down,” to use the current business jargon. They tend to communicate less, just when they ought to be sharing more. They become less clear on who is doing what and how, part of what scientists call a “shared mental model” of the team. Not surprisingly, these patterns contribute to higher stress. Business scientists Aleksander Ellis of the Univ. of Arizona and Matthew Pearsall of the Univ. of Maryland wondered if cross-training could reduce these impacts. “Cross-training can be defined as a training program where each team member receives instruction regarding the roles and responsibilities of his or her teammates,” they write in the journal Group Dynamics before describing their study.

Imagine you are sitting in front of a computer screen in a room with three other people doing the same. An area in the middle of each screen is marked as the “highly restricted zone.” Surrounding it is a “restricted zone.” In the unrestricted areas around that, incoming lines like radar tracks begin to appear. Your team’s job is to identify whether each track is friend or foe and how powerful the foes are, and then stop the baddies.

Your team has AWACS (radar) planes to identify each track, and tanks, helicopters, and jets. Each person has control of only one kind of vehicle, and knows the friendliness and power of only one of the four types of track after identification. The team has to dispatch a powerful enough vehicle to stop each threat. You might know who on the team knows what, or you might not. Now put your team in competition with others. Those in charge might place your team under extra pressure, or not. This describes what subjects in Ellis and Pearsall’s study faced.

First, 54 teams of undergraduate students were trained on the game and did a practice round. Then the experiment began, with a big difference. In the practice round, everyone had access to all vehicles and track data. Once the experiment started, they became specialized. “DM4 (decision-maker 4) knew that track A had a power of 1 and had four jets, DM3 knew that track C had a power of 3 and had four helicopters,” and so on. But they weren’t told what each member knew and had.

After 15 minutes, the game paused. Some teams spent the next 15 minutes practicing as before. Others were told to rotate their members from computer to computer, thus learning what the others were doing. Finally there came another 30 minutes of game play in which each team dealt with 140 tracks of the four types. During that period, some teams were told every five minutes how much time was left. They were also told they were being videotaped, and, “If your team is one of the three lowest performers, your professor will show the tape to the entire class the last week of the semester as an example of ineffective teamwork.” The other teams did not receive these extra pressures. Notice the four team conditions: high-pressure/cross-trained, no-pressure/cross-trained, high/not-trained, and no/not.

The researchers listened in during the game and counted how often members volunteered information like, “DM3, I have several C tracks in my restricted zone.” (Subjects could only communicate verbally.) Afterward, to check shared mental models, the scientists had the subjects separately list the behaviors the team members followed, in order, and compared the lists to see how similar they were. They used surveys to find out how tense people felt during the game.

The pressure had the predicted effects. The pressured team members differed more in their views of the process, shared less information, and felt more stressed than nonpressured ones. But if pressured people had cross-trained, their levels on those measures were closer to those of unpressured teams.

Cross-training had no significant impact on unpressured teams in these measures, but it has other benefits. There is more backup when people are absent. Everybody has a better understanding of the impact their actions have on other people and the team’s ability to get its job done. In teams doing more routine work than fighting off enemy intruders, cross-training reduces boredom and related problems like absenteeism and turnover.

Except as relates to that last point, the stress-reduction benefit from the study was new to me. It makes sense, though. When people go heads-down it can create a sense of isolation on top of the pressure. Knowing where you fit in the bigger picture and what your teammates are doing probably reduces that feeling. That knowledge would also increase the odds of people sharing information with you that is helpful.

Ellis and Pearsall say there are three kinds of cross-training you could perform with your team. You could have people do presentations on what they do; have team members observe each other working; or have them actually do the tasks. In the study the third kind was used, which fits with what we know about the value of hands-on practice.

Unfortunately the study doesn’t report which teams in the four conditions scored the best. Since their mental models and information sharing were better, the nonpressured teams probably did. If yours is one of those mythical beasts, maybe you do not need cross-training. But I don’t believe in unicorns, so I suspect all of you would do well to bring that weapon to bear on your team’s stress.

Source: Ellis, A., and M. Pearsall (2011), “Reducing the Negative Effects of Stress in Teams through Cross-Training: A Job Demands-Resources Model,” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 15(1):16.

Use Czech Results to Check Transfer of Tacit Knowledge

Transferring data is easy. Stick it in a document or a spreadsheet and attach it to an e-mail. Load it into a database. Start a wiki. “Explicit knowledge is encoded in formal organizational models, rules, documents, drawings, products, services, facilities, systems, and processes and is easily communicated externally,” writes Ludmila Mládková, Univ. of Economics, Prague, in the Global Journal of Business Research.

There is, however, that other kind of knowledge. “The tacit dimension of knowledge is perceived as highly personal and hard to discover and formalize… It is deeply rooted in action, procedures, routines, commitment, ideas, value and emotions. It is always related to a living being or to a group and is difficult to share and communicate,” Mládková says. This tacit knowledge that we rely on most to get us through the workday (otherwise, we’d be looking things up every minute) is also the hardest to share. Hence my fear of the Won-the-Lottery Syndrome. When knowledge is hoarded, the extended absence of an expert or a workload shock to a critical team can bring important company operations to a grinding halt.

All is not lost, my friends. There are ways to share tacit knowledge, and ways to encourage people to do the sharing. Mládková has been researching how well companies do this in her country, the Czech Republic. Since 2004 she has conducted intense interviews with 145 companies ranging from a seven-person shop to multinational firms. She freely states she has not used a rigorous sampling technique, and thus she refrains from doing statistical analysis on her data. I think, however, her observations should give any CEO or other team leader pause to ponder what their own organizations are doing to spread tacit knowledge.

Based on her review of prior research, Mládková says there are three ways:

  • Coaching, in which the expert “tries to articulate (knowledge and skills) and demonstrate them to the apprentice. The enviable part of the apprenticeship is sharing through the non-verbal personal practical experience of the apprentice, carefully monitored by the master.”
  • Communities, which “are groups of people who have some common interests… and share knowledge, experiences, tools and best practices to solve problems.”
  • Storytelling, through which the knowledgeable person creates “a virtual experience that enables the listener or reader to create his own tacit knowledge in reality, simulated by the story.”

For all the emphasis on coaching in the business literature, the practice is not widely used by Mládková’s sample. Of the 145 companies, only 91 (63%) said they used coaching. Among that subset, 44% used direct managers as coaches even though Mládková calls into question “if they have enough time, knowledge and willingness to be good coaches.” Less than 15% of companies using coaches selected them based on experience, work results, or expertise. A miserable 26% paid for coaching. Subtracting the 14% of coaches that were external and had to be paid, this suggests only 12% of the companies rewarded internal knowledge transfer financially, and a tiny 4% did so by other means. In fact, only 5% actively managed their coaching relationships, though 46% got involved when problems erupted.

I found it reassuring that two-thirds of the sample had learning communities, but the results went downhill from there. Only one-quarter reported having formal communities. A stark disconnect appears also. Nearly half the companies agreed the communities helped with innovation, quality, and delivery times, and 64% said they improved cooperation. Yet 41% provided zero support of any kind to their learning communities; only 23% provided financial support; only one-fifth rewarded participants; and a paltry 16% bothered to measure community performance.

This hands-off approach likely leads to problems: Half the companies said communities refuse to cooperate with other communities, and 40% said communities “create knowledge monopolies.” In other words, many companies allow their learning communities to create the very problems knowledge-sharing practices are meant to solve.

Only 41% of the surveyed companies claimed storytelling was used to transfer knowledge. I guarantee the worldwide figure is nearly 100%. Humans are natural storytellers, and I have never been in a company where I did not hear a story told to make a business point. Clearly companies don’t even get the concept. Not surprisingly, then, it is an under-used skill in Mládková’s sample, with only 30% of the companies saying their managers intentionally used stories to transfer tacit knowledge.

Mládková found the ratio of negative stories to positive ones reported by her companies was 70% to 30%. “The type of stories that prevail in an organization tells a lot about its health,” she suggests. “Negative stories indicate the organization is in some trouble and tries to cope,” she says. “Positive stories indicate positive changes in an organization.” What is the ratio in your company? Your team? What are they telling you about change?

“Results of the research indicate that organizations in the Czech Republic still do not understand the importance of tacit knowledge and do not know how to work with it and how to manage it,” Mládková surmises. My experience suggests organizations in the U.S. would not be very different. Do you, dear leader, set up formal coaching arrangements between the experts in your team and other team members, and measure and reward good results? Have you created formal learning communities and given them time and incentives to expand and trade their knowledge? Do you seek out and share stories that will help your people connect the dots between what they do and better ways to do it?

If the answer is “no” to any of these and you are a CEO, I think we just found a source of competitive advantage for your company. But even if you lead only half-a-dozen people, your answer and Mládková’s discovery may be pointing out a way to improve team performance while avoiding the dreaded Won-the-Lottery Syndrome.

Source: Mládková, L. (2012), “Sharing Tacit Knowledge within Organizations: Evidence from the Czech Republic,” Global Journal of Business Research 6(2):105.

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