Self-managed work teams
Barriers, Inefficiencies, Limitations and Problems
The history of SMWT’s developed from Socio-technical Systems and Quality of Work Life (QWL) that provided a variety of specific ideas for application to organizations. (Pearce and Ravelin (1987) provide an interesting overview of early studies in the United States.) The initial success and acceptance led to efforts to expand the concept of SMWT’s into new settings. This expansion generated a proliferation of team types and situations resulting in the original basic concept becoming fragmented and overly complex. Because of the newness of the concepts, implementation has focused on problems and conditions surrounding team establishment. Even learning generated by team failures and problems has focused on beginning conditions and how to get teams organized and initially effective.
The concept of self managed teams is historically rooted in the Socio-Technical Systems approach and in elements of the Quality of Work Life movement. These origins provide the initial theoretical development and the examples of early success that account for current team popularity. Understanding these origins provides perspective on the current issues facing teams and the limits of the structural/acute problem perspective.
Origins of self- management
The concept of self-managed or self-directed teams originated with the Sociotechnical systems movement (Emery & Trist, 1960; Trist & Bamforth, 1951). Socio-technical systems argued that social and technical systems must be jointly optimized and that attention to either component alone could produce problematic results. The autonomous work group was the form that evolved from this design. Some authors (Wall, Kemp, Jackson & Clegg, 1986) also link the SMWT concept to the Quality of Work Life (QWL) movement (Hackman & Lawler, 1971; Hackman & Oldham, 1976) since many of the efforts to implement teams will lead to job enrichment and improved worker satisfaction. Additionally, the definition commonly used for SMWT’s draws on components of task identity and autonomy. Cummings (1978) notes that “autonomous,” “composite,” and “selfmanaging” have all been applied to work groups that have a relatively whole task; members with a variety of relevant skills; worker discretion over decisions related to methods of work, task schedules, and task assignments; and that receive feedback and compensation as a group. Each component of this definition is important in distinguishing self-managed teams from other forms of teams and work groups. SMWT’s are ongoing teams that operate over extended periods of time. Thus they are distinguished from ad hoc teams and task forces. Decision making and multiple skills generate true interdependence and distinguish SMWT’s from groups of individuals that have pooled interdependence (Thompson, 1967) but who do not make mutual adjustments to work contingencies. A set of telephone operators would represent a group of pooled individuals who are not acting as a team, for example. Autonomy and feedback allow responsibility to be held at the team level and provide the necessary input to allow the team to make appropriate adjustments to their efforts. Because teams operate in larger work organizations they do not, however, have complete autonomy and must coordinate their efforts with other organizational units. Thus some have emphasized that these are semiautonomous work groups.
Efforts to establish SMWT’s initially gained popularity in the US through the successes of major implementations. These implementations were reported in the popular press and TV in the early 70’s and included applications at Volvo, AT&T, and General Food’s plant at Topeka (see reports by Walton, 1977). Not all efforts in this time period were successful. For example, Tichy (1976) reported that efforts at work restructuring at General Motors were...
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