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Professor Yorks and Doctoral Students Explore Culture's Impact on Team Learning

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Lyle Yorks researches team learning.

Lyle Yorks researches team learning.

The February issue of Advances in Developing Human Resources (Volume 5, Number 1), edited by Lyle Yorks, Associate Professor of Adult Learning and Leadership and Director of the Adult Education Guided Intensive Study (AEGIS) doctoral program, reveals that models in the social sciences, in this instance team learning, should be placed in their cultural context.

In the 1990s, Victoria Marsick, Professor of Education, joined with Elizabeth Kasl and Kathleen Dechant to conduct two case studies of team learning in different organizations. They distinguish between teams that work effectively and teams that learn together. Team learning involves some collective meaning making and knowledge creation that is understood, owned and used by the group.

The model identifies core team-learning processes as well as conditions under which teams learn; and the organization can use their insights for organizational knowledge building. Some doctoral students have since incorporated a validated Team Learning Survey into their dissertation studies. In this issue, Yorks and a group of doctoral students explore the impact of culture on team learning.

"Culture is a critical contextual element that can have an inhibiting effect on the learning process. Because people do not have a culture but inhabit one, they are never free agents capable of transcending their situation," writes Yorks in "Cross-Cultural Dimensions of Team Learning."

According to Yorks, culture impacts the processes of learning at multiple levels. Culture, he says, acts as a screen to the kinds of input that are considered relevant. Also, embedded in culture are processes of power that both impact the search for meaning and define the range of acceptable solutions. These effects are especially intensified under team and organizational learning as culture shapes the patterns of communication and influence.

In an interview with two of Yorks' doctoral students they spoke about the impact of culture on team-learning in South Korea and in South Africa. In Young-Saing Kim's chapter, "The Relationship Between Team Learning and Power in Organizations," he uses a case study that is explicit about culture and the traditional values that influenced the teams in a South Korean information technology company. In Dorothy Ndletyana's article, "The Impact of Culture on Team Learning in a South African Context," cultural diversity, a history of repression, and cooperation based on traditional African unity is evident. However, in the both examples, the relationship and roles played by organizational and national cultures are different. In the Korean teams, the key traditional values in the national culture were imported into the organization, thereby shaping the organizational culture. In South Africa, the organizational culture is said to mediate among the groups "around the table," creating a space of apparent harmony and open communication but suppressing frankness.

According to Kim, in the 1990s, team-based organizations became a fad in South Korea. The idea of team-based organizations gained prominence through the popular business press and as very visible senior business leaders embraced the idea. The concept of organizing the workforce into teams was imported from the United States.

For a better understanding of the role of culture on team learning in South Korea, Kim examined how one company employed the team structure. His case study emphasizes the struggles experienced with the team concept, how the organization had to adapt the concept, and the implications for team learning. It also demonstrates the difficulty of introducing a team-based organizational structure in the context of a national culture that is cohesive and hierarchical in its traditions and values.

Ndletyana's pilot study of a global professional services firm in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the summer of 2001 showed that culture impacts team-learning conditions and processes significantly, whether in its influence on the direction and flow of information or team members' ability and willingness to contribute ideas freely.

Ndletyana said that not only do cultural differences exist at the organizational level but that group members each bring their own unique cultural preferences to the table, and that these influence the way they think, work and learn.

"South Africa is an inherently unequal society," said Ndletyana. The difference in power available to team members is a critical lever in determining team-learning success. The exclusion of low-power employees from the team-learning process has implications for organizations. Serious attempts have to be made, she says, to create conditions in which power is shared among team members.

The key to success, according to Ndletyana, lies in first recognizing that differences exist and then finding methods and practices that complement each other. South Africa's majority population has a rich culture, rooted in Ubuntu (Humaneness). "South Africans can learn much about the importance of relationships, of human dignity, and of respect for the self and each other and that can be used to facilitate team learning processes in culturally diverse teams."

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