Social, technological, and economic factors have instigated a surge of interest in learning organisations (LOs) and self-managing work teams (SMWTs). The reification of these two concepts presents organisations with major challenges, because it requires an overhaul of their values and practices. In Australia, the first attempts to implement SMWTs occurred in the early 1990's.
This research adds to the body of knowledge on the critical factors that affect the success with which SMWTs can be implemented. It assesses the functioning of such teams in the Australian context by using as case studies several companies that have the reputation of being at the forefront of team development and organisational learning. Specifically, the research examines the mechanics of implementing SMWTs as well as the values and principles that guide their implementation.
To attain this objective, two conceptual frameworks were
first developed and used during the data collection phase of the research. The frameworks drew upon the theory and practice of LOs and SMWTs. The combined use of these frameworks was predicated on the assumption that SMWTs reach their full potential when they operate within an environment that has the properties of an LO. The first conceptual framework was a contextual framework, which comprised a series of conditions that were hypothesised to be needed in different areas of organisational life to nurture a learning environment. The second was a procedural framework, which comprised a series of stages, with individual processes at each stage, that were hypothesised to facilitate the establishment of SMWTs. The two frameworks were linked together in that the processes included in the procedural framework were expected to create the conditions shown in the contextual framework. In the interest of simplicity, an integrated model was developed subsequently that encapsulated the major
processes and principles that influence the development of teams with learning and self-managing properties. These processes and principles were categorised under the following six parameters of organisational life: leadership role, information sharing, employee competence building, work re-organisation practices, employee participation in decision-making, and the organisation's axiological (or value) system.
During the preparatory phase of the research, an open-ended questionnaire was sent to manufacturing companies with over 50 employees that were located in the Brisbane area. The use of the Department of Business, Industry, and Regional Development's QINDIS database system provided the addresses of 320 companies. The purpose of the exploratory survey was twofold: a) to gauge the general trend concerning the establishment of LOs and SMWTs, and b) to establish contact with companies that were interested in LOs and SMWTs and were willing to participate in
this research. The data obtained from the 25 companies that completed the questionnaire helped refine individual elements of the organisational parameters examined in this research. A few potential case studies were also identified. Subsequently, a 59-item survey instrument was developed that was based on the initial six organisational parameters as well as an employee motivation parameter. The purpose of the instrument was to document employee perceptions on their organisation's progress in fostering the development of teams with learning and self-managing properties. The instrument was pilot-tested with 14 employees of one of the 24 companies that had responded to the initial questionnaire and had just started to implement SMWTs. An initial intention to use participatory action research with that company was aborted. After an eight-month period of continuous contact with the company (through interviews and observation of meetings and training courses), it became obvious that
management, despite its rhetoric, was reluctant to adopt a philosophy and implement processes that would lead its teams to engage in self-management.
Consequently, another avenue was considered more fruitful-namely, focusing on companies that had already accumulated some experience with the development of their SMWTs and had reported good progress. The search was difficult because only a handful of Brisbane companies had expressed commitment to the establishment of SMWTs and publicised their results in 1994 (when the search commenced). Eventually, three companies were found at different points in time through attendance at conferences and seminars on teams. A multi-method approach to data collection was used to triangulate the research findings-namely, convergent interviews, focus groups discussions, observation of meetings, perusal of company reports, and the survey instrument that was developed previously.
Survey data were obtained
from 445 employees in the above companies. The data were analysed using Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) techniques with LISREL. The purpose of the analysis was to test the fit of the conceptual framework (on which the survey factors were based) to the data. The results indicated that the initial framework had to be refined by developing factors that were unidimensional-namely, the factors had to be measured by variables that were not strongly associated with other factors in the model. The seven factors that were formulated from the elimination of variables that did not distinguish adequately between the initial parameters were as follows: company empowerment, management support, learning conditions, work clarity, employee motivation, employee openness of interaction, and SMWT conditions. In the second stage of the SEM analysis, the paths that described the most salient relationships between the model's factors were identified. Finally, the qualitative data obtained from the
three case studies were used to flesh out how these relationships were manifested in the respective organisations. Moreover, the research examined the implementation of the Star model of shared team leadership by one of the three companies. This model, which has scarcely been used worldwide, appeared to be instrumental for the development of SMWTs. It provided direction and structure to the change process.
In the structural model developed in this research, company empowerment and employee motivation are exogenous factors. The remaining are endogenous factors. Positioning the first factor as exogenous reflects the proposition that a company's commitment to empower its employees is a prerequisite for the development of SMWTs (the final endogenous factor). This commitment is defined in terms of the resources that a company allocates to help its employees develop their decision-making ability and achieve their targets. This finding is congruent with prior
research evidence which emphasises that the transition to SMWTs is a major strategic decision that requires substantial investment in terms of resources and time. It is not a 'quick fix' solution to company profitability. Placing employee motivation as an exogenous factor, however, contradicts prior findings which postulate that employee motivation is directly influenced by company conditions. In this research, employee motivation was predominantly influenced by personal factors. It was similar across companies (and groups within companies), despite employees' experience of different conditions.
The level of company empowerment is associated with the level of support that local management gives to employees in their day-to-day interaction. The level of management support in turn is associated with the extent to which learning conditions are fostered in the organisation. Learning conditions are defined both in terms of processes (e.g., networking,
benchmarking, project work) as well as principles (encouraging calculated risk and experimentation, and questioning of established norms and practices). Such principles represent the attitudinal paradigm shift required by companies that want to facilitate continuous learning (which, according to this research, is necessary for effective self-management). The level of learning conditions is associated with the level of (a) employee work clarity (e.g., understanding roles and responsibilities, internal and external customer requirements, and performance measurements), and (b) employee openness of interaction (e.g., communicating openly, resolving conflicts effectively, and using mistakes for learning purposes). To a lesser extent, openness of interaction is also associated with employee motivation levels. Employee work clarity and openness of interaction are associated with the extent to which SMWT conditions exist-namely, teams establishing meaningful and worthwhile work objectives,
performance indicators, and behavioural groundrules, and using them for self-monitoring purposes.
Finally, the analysis of the case studies led to the development of a framework that outlines different possible adoption levels of the SMWTs' philosophy by a company's Headquarters and its various managers. The framework was used as a guide to evaluate a company's commitment to and motivations for developing SMWTs. The five proposed SMWT adoption levels are (a) the rhetoric level, (b) the cognitive acceptance level, (c) the emotional acceptance level, (d) the conceptualisation level, and (e) the behavioural level.
In summary, the research gives a parsimonious account of the factors that contribute to the establishment of effective SMWTs. The structural model developed retains the initial framework's main premise-namely, that 'true' SMWTs need to operate within an LO. The qualitative data that support this model explicate how the
conditions that determine the level of each factor in the model influence the conditions manifested in other factors and ultimately the SMWTs' conditions. The research results also confirm prior findings about the importance of some factors in establishing SMWTs-for example, the critical role of leadership, the significance of allocating adequate resources and time for the SMWTs development, and the importance of using a conceptual framework to facilitate the transition to self-management. Moreover, the research results highlight the negative consequences that might arise from focusing more on intra-team effort rather than inter-team cooperation and the barriers that bureaucratic structures in large organisations can create in SMWTs' development. The issues examined in this research are expected to assist organisations interested in SMWTs by sensitising them to the pitfalls encountered by other prominent Australian organisations and by suggesting ways of dealing with these pitfalls.