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Thom de Vries on managing coordination in multiteam systems

Date:07 February 2017
Thom de Vries, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business
Thom de Vries, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business

Thom de Vries, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business, recently published an article on  managing coordination in multiteam systems in Academy of Management Journal. We caught up with him to chat about the article 'Managing Coordination in Multiteam Systems: Integrating Micro and Macro Perspectives', and its implications.

What is the article about?

'Multiteam systems (MTSs) comprise several specialised 'component teams' that need to coordinate work in order to deal with complex and demanding challenges (e.g., emergency response, product development). Coordination is, however, often problematic within MTSs due to misunderstandings that can arise from differences in specialised component teams’ routines, jargon, and working methods. In this project, myself, John Hollenbeck (Michigan State University), Rob Davison (University of Kansas), Frank Walter (University of Giessen) and Gerben van der Vegt examined how MTSs may use “generalist” members to overcome such coordination difficulties. Generalist members have experience in multiple functional work domains (e.g., operations, finance, HR, etc.) and, as such, may understand the functions and workings of MTSs’ diverse component teams. Correspondingly, we expected that generalists are able to help coordinate component teams’ efforts in a bottom-up, lateral manner (i.e., horizontal coordination). Horizontal coordination may, in turn, increase MTS performance. We further expected that there might be detrimental side effects to generalists. Generalist members often lack in-depth experience within any specific work area. MTSs with many generalists might, thus, be tempted to avoid working towards high-impact, strategic goals for which specialised experience is beneficial.

We further argued that generalists’ ultimate influence might be contingent on the actions of the formal integration team in the MTS. The integration team is responsible for overseeing component teams’ horizontal coordination and realisation of strategic goals. As such, the integration team is uniquely positioned to develop 'big-picture information' on coordination and strategic demands in the MTS. We suggested that the integration team could distribute this information by aligning its efforts with component teams – a process that we refer to as 'vertical coordinated action'. Equipped with this information, generalists may be able to use their broad understanding and horizontally coordinate component teams’ efforts. We further proposed that the integration team could emphasise core strategic goals through vertical coordinated action, thereby focusing component teams on strategic efforts that advance such goals. Even MTSs with many generalists may then pursue strategic goals.'

What are the main results?

'We tested our hypotheses using a sample comprised of 3,304 United States Air Force officers attending a five-week leadership development course. As part of the course, participants were assigned to 236 fourteen-person MTSs. Our analysis provided evidence in support of our hypotheses. Results corroborated that vertical coordinated action enabled MTSs to realise the performance benefits of generalists through increased horizontal coordination, while neutralising its negative side effects. In contrast, MTSs with poor vertical coordinated action experienced the negative effects of generalists, but failed to experience related benefits. In sum, these findings help to resolve the ambiguity regarding generalists’ value for coordination and MTSs performance by illustrating generalists’ distinct benefits and detrimental side effects, as well as strategies to optimise these implications.

To illustrate the practical relevance of these findings, we examined the implications of the 'best-case scenario' advanced in this research for MTS performance: high numbers of generalists combined with high vertical coordinated action. In our sample 6.4% MTSs had both many generalists and high vertical coordinated action. These MTSs were clearly overrepresented among the top-performing systems, with 16% of the top-25 performers exhibiting a best-case scenario. In fact, MTSs with many generalists and high vertical coordinated action were 2.5 times more likely to be in the top 25 compared to systems with fewer generalists and/or lower vertical coordinated action. Moreover, MTSs exhibiting a “best-case scenario” were underrepresented among the worst performing systems in our sample, representing only 4% of the bottom-25 performers.'

What are the practical implications?

'Based on our results it appears possible to improve horizontal coordination and MTS performance by selecting members with broad functional experiences or by promoting such experiences through training opportunities and appropriate assignments. By increasing the number of generalists, MTS leaders may enable component teams to bridge language, thought-world, and goal differences that may otherwise prove detrimental. By itself, selecting or training functionally broad members is unlikely to guarantee high performance. Our results suggest that without effective integration team support (through vertical coordinated action), horizontal coordination may be too complex and burdensome even for MTSs with many generalists. In fact, generalists may even diminish MTS performance in such situations.'

Publication in the spotlight

Vries, T. A. de, J.R. Hollenbeck, R.B. Davison, F. Walter & G.S. van der Vegt (2016). Managing Coordination in Multiteam Systems: Integrating Micro and Macro Perspectives, Academy of Management Journal, 59(5), 1823-1844.

Thom de Vries