Team behaviour: lessons learned and lessons lost

In a world where the fastest-moving, quickest-learning team wins, there are significant advantages to be gained from understanding and applying the best learning processes for the task at hand.

by Henrik Bresman

This award-winning paper points the way to an unexplored aspect of team learning that is a significant contributor to efficiency and performance.

Henrik Bresman, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, points out that although we have a good understanding of learning within teams - experiential learning - and how teams interact with and gain knowledge about their external environment, we are less sure about how teams accumulate useful information from outside that relates directly to the way they perform the task at hand. Vicarious learning, he proposes, is the missing component in our picture of how teams improve their performance.

In a preliminary qualitative investigation, Bresman conducted a two-year field study focused on in-licensing teams at a large pharmaceutical company, referred to as 'Pharmaco'. Bresman's teams were tasked with deciding whether the company should acquire novel molecules that had pharmaceutical potential, typically offered by small biotechnology firms, a strategically critical task in drug development today.

Given the external origin of the molecule in question, the teams were frequently operating with little prior knowledge, and so information acquisition was extremely important.

Through extensive interviews across six project teams at Pharmaco, he was able to identify distinctions that separated vicarious learning from other boundary-spanning activities as well as experiential learning. He identified the key aspects of vicarious learning and, through a detailed description of the highly successful Team Beta, highlighted how they applied vicarious learning processes to multiple areas of their task.

The implication of this first investigation was that vicarious learning was distinct from other team learning activities, involved a range of behaviours, and made a significant contribution to the success of the teams studied.

A second, quantitative study - of drug licensing by large pharmaceutical firms - was developed to test two hypotheses: that vicarious learning is distinct from both experiential team learning behaviour and contextual team learning behaviour; and that vicarious team learning behaviour is positively associated with performance in organizational teams independently of other team learning strategies.

Bresman expanded his investigations to create a statistically testable sample of 43 teams. Recently completed tasks were examined through interviews and questionnaires, and performance ratings obtained from senior executives. Drawing on established Likert scales where possible and using standard statistical techniques, his analysis of the results supported both hypotheses.

Bresman identified specific types of vicarious learning behaviours that teams use to gain advantage, such as figuring out who to contact for advice, observing outsiders working on similar tasks and inviting experienced others to discuss how not to repeat past mistakes.

By avoiding reinventing the wheel, teams that made best use of vicarious learning improved their efficiency and made effective use of resources. This study demonstrates that vicarious learning is useful as a means to understand team learning processes and that it represents a valuable tool for further research in this area. 
Lessons learned and lessons lost: A multi-method field study of vicarious team learning behaviour and performance
Henrik Bresman


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