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Team learning behaviors of front office teams in Dutch municipalities: a qualitative case study

Tuenter, B.J. (2011) Team learning behaviors of front office teams in Dutch municipalities: a qualitative case study.

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Abstract:This report presents a research concerning team learning behavior in a Dutch municipality. Nowadays organizations operate in a constantly changing environment. In order to succeed,organizations in the private as well as in the public sector need to adapt to this ever changing environment and must become ‘learning organizations’. An important theme in the literature on a ‘learning organization’ is ‘team learning’. Many scholars argue that an organizations ability to learn depends on the ability of its teams to learn. As most organizations choose a team based organizational design, it is very important for organizations to know how teams learn, and what factors influence team learning behavior. Current literature on team learning shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on team learning behavior in different organizational contexts. An extensive literature review shows that no research has been conducted on team learning behavior in Dutch local governments (municipalities), even though municipalities are now more than ever forced to learn, change and improve their internal organizations. This is the context were this study makes a contribution. This research studies to which extent team learning behavior exists, and aims to contribute to the identification of the factors that promote or inhibit team learning behavior, whether and how these factors terrelate, and in turn, how team learning behavior affects team performance of front office teams in the context of a Dutch municipality. Team learning is examined in this study in the organizational behavior tradition, in terms of behavior and activities. This study adheres to the definition proposed by Edmondson (1999) and regards team learning as a process of action and reflection characterized by five distinct learning behaviors: (1) seeking feedback, (2) asking questions and sharing knowledge, opinions and perspectives, (3) collective reflection, (4) error management and (5) experimenting. In the extant literature on team learning behavior numerous factors can be identified that influence the learning behavior of teams. Five factors were identified that were sufficiently included and supported in previous empirical studies. These factors are (1) team psychological safety, (2) team identity, (3) team learning orientation, (4) team leader behavior, and (5) team composition. This early identification of possible factors that influence team learning behavior provided a theoretical lens and direction to the field research. However the research site was entered as open minded as possible. To get an in‐depth understanding of team learning processes and the factors that influences these processes in a new context (Dutch municipality) a qualitative research strategy was chosen. The empirical part of this study is designed using a case study. The selected case is a front office team within one of the largest local governments in the Netherlands. This front office team is part of the department of public services and is responsible for environmental permits. This team consists of six team members and one team leader. During this study three types of data collection procedures were used: (1) open interviewing, (2) observations and (3) studying existing documents. The research results show that all five learning behaviors occur within the front office team under study, but differ in the frequency in which they occur. The behavior ‘seeking feedback’ appeared too narrowly defined in this context and was extended with the behavior ‘giving feedback’. The behaviors ‘seeking and giving feedback’ and ‘asking questions and sharing knowledge, opinions and perspectives’ occur on a daily basis. The other (collective) learning behaviors occur a lot less frequently mainly during team meetings. All learning behaviors are related to operational team tasks. The research results show that some factors promote and as well inhibit learning behaviors. The factors that promote and/or inhibit team learning behavior within this context are largely similar to the factors of universal models of team learning behaviors. Four factors that were identified in the literature review ‘team psychological safety’, ‘team identity’, ‘team composition’ and ‘team leader behavior’ also influenced the learning behaviors of the team under study. Two new factors ‘task characteristics’ and ‘team autonomy’ emerged from the research results as factors that influence the learning behaviors in this context. Especially the ‘task characteristics’ have shown to be an important motivational and driving force to engage in team learning behavior. This study shows that the type of team tasks, which are non‐routinely and knowledge intensive, shape the learning behaviors of the front office team under study in essential ways. The factor ‘task characteristics’ is hardly ever included in research on team learning behavior and is an under‐theorized concept. Within this context it is concluded that the factors ‘team psychological safety’, ‘team identity’ and ‘task characteristics’ are the most influential factors as ‘team psychological safety’ and ‘team identity’ are identified to influence all six learning behaviors and the ‘task characteristics’ are identified to influence five of the learning behaviors that occurred within the team under study. The direct influence of the team leader on the learning behaviors is limited; he influences the team learning behaviors for the most part indirectly through the factors ‘psychological safety’ and ‘team autonomy’. Based on the perceptions of the team members and the team leader, the learning behaviors appear to have a positive influence on the team performance. This study has contributed to the literature on team learning behavior and practice by providing detailed insights in team learning behaviors and how and which factors promote and/or inhibit the specific learning behaviors in a municipal context. This study shows the challenges the front office team faces and in which way these challenges shape the learning processes.
Item Type:Essay (Master)
Faculty:BMS: Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences
Subject:85 business administration, organizational science
Programme:Business Administration MSc (60644)
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