Handling knowledge diversity in cross-functional teams

Innovation happens in the right environment, but to create the right conditions skillful handling of knowledge diversity is essential


Teams in modern industries require a great deal of active collaboration. They can no longer be static as they used to be because of the challenges that contemporary organizations deal with are mostly interdisciplinary, while static groups tend to be passive in their domain expertise. The scope for innovation is also limited in static teams as their composition rarely changes. But a cross-functional team can be devised according to the nature of the problem, making them far more agile.

HR managers today are well aware of this. However, they often miss something very crucial in nurturing innovation in cross-functional teams: Handling knowledge diversity.

Knowledge diversity is an inherent part of a cross-functional team. And recent technological developments are inherently interdisciplinary, with no clear boundary between physics, chemistry, mathematics or applied science as such. The re-orientation in the academic culture is promoting a problem-based approach to theory building and innovation, proving cross-functionality is an effective path forward.

While bringing together experts with diverse knowledge it is necessary to understand the barriers that the team members face so they can be as effective as possible. So, awareness about the knowledge diversity present in teams' better positions HR executives to build, guide and align teams effectively.

Knowledge is not just cognitive

In a traditional team, knowledge is simply seen as 'information' and this has not changed much in practice, because the studies on the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and its relevance in team building have become imperative only recently.

For instance, to create a mobile app it is essential to bring together experts from various disciplines like medical experts for a health app, HR managers for office apps, public officials for governance apps and so on. They then have to work with more groups such as UI/UX designers, programmers, app testers, marketing teams and investors. Hence, it is essential to understand the contextually-embedded nature of knowledge.

Another form of knowledge is seen when innovations do not come from the experts but from those who have situated knowledge in interacting with the work environment. It comes from their long practice but is not available to the whole team.

Recognize the three frontiers of knowledge

According to Harvard researchers Amy Edmondson and Jean-François Harvey, in a cross-functional team, three frontiers of knowledge divide may emerge:

Syntactic: The way language is used at workplace decides how knowledge is transferred within the group. It is a syntactic challenge.

Semantic: The difference in the way individuals of a team conceive ideas, meaning a team goal may be interpreted differently by different experts, and this could result in a creative barrier among team members.

Pragmatic: Knowledge can also be bound by the way people give value to things, the value that each specialist gives preference to will impact their understanding of the overall goals.

Methods to handle knowledge diversity

The greatest hidden challenge in building innovative teams is to make them work. HR management will have to play an enabling role in such units to diffuse the three frontiers of knowledge as mentioned above.

First, the syntactic boundaries can be eradicated by developing a common lexicon to process information across the frontier, just like the one two similar professionals develop working together for some time like the doctor's jargon or the law terminologies of lawyers

Second, to dissolve semantic boundaries teamwork has to happen in a problem-solving environment. Here, the beginning need not be in the office. People understand themselves better when they are playful. A team outing or problem-solving games in the weekly fun hour can help solve the semantic issue.

Overcoming the pragmatic challenge is the third step. It is a very subjective boundary and needs awareness from the employee side, with individuals having an intrinsic view of the expected role behaviour and work skills beforehand to tune in with the organizational work culture.

Today organizations are rich in diversity. This means that, in the era of big data and assisted technologies, HR management needs to delve deeper into the subtler aspects of team building to nurture innovation.

True innovation is rare. It cannot be created, but with the right environment and the right mix to encourage innovation can be created, then with some perseverance, this rare flower of innovation may just bloom in your organization.

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