What does it mean for a team to learn?

Jeff Dieffenbach

Moose skin boat, Canadian Museum of History

A colleague of mine studies how teams learn, perform, and learn while performing. After a bit of mulling on this topic, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what it meant for a team to learn separate from learning acquired from the individual team members.

I failed to adequately express my confusion and the conversation didn’t really get anywhere before dropping off both of our respective front burners. The question that I should have asked, but only recently formulated, is this: when a team disbands, in what form does team learning continue to exist?

Fast forward a year or two. In the course of the MIT Open Learning Journal Club that I lead with another colleague, we read the excellent Joint interactions in large online knowledge communities: The A3C framework (Jeong et.al. 2017).

The A3C framework posits that when individual interact, they may do so with varying degrees of shared–or unshared–goals, processes, and outcomes. The authors elaborate on four degrees of this sharing, from least to most: attendance, coordination, cooperation, collaboration.

Attending individuals have individual goals, processes, and outcomes. Imagine, for instance, a learner in a massive open online course (MOOC) interested in learning for himself but not in any way invested in the learning of others.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider a symphony. Yes, the individual members may have their own goals, outcomes, and even processes, but in the actual performance of the symphony, those individual wants are subsumed by melding of talents into a single piece of art.

By comparison, coordination and cooperation fall somewhere in between. The distinctions (unimportant for the topic of what team learning means) are illustrated in this table.

The article introduces the term “stigmergy,” the mediation of team interaction via artifacts. By virtue of the existence of an artifact (for instance, a job aid, training manual, or how-to video), it’s not necessary for all team members to participate in all facets of creating the artifact. Rather, they might contribute a specific part of the artifact along the way.

More important, the artifact serves future members of the team, or even members of different teams who subsequently encounter the artifact after the original team has disbanded.

What does it mean for a team to learn? It’s the collection of artifacts (including the documentation of the processes that arrived at those artifacts) created by the team in the course of carrying out its work.

postscript 2019-07-09: In doing some reading on and thinking about the topic, it occured to me that “team learning” goes beyond just artifacts to include the team members themselves, to the extent that they remain available to be asked by others for lessons learned.