Team players

The popularity of workplace teams indicates how work is elided with play.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

‘Tune in. Log on. Be well.’ That’s the New Age message behind Wellbeing, a digital TV channel and website that Boots chemist and Granada TV launched in mid-March 2001.

Wellbeing offers advice and ‘inspiration’ on ‘all aspects of your personal wellbeing’. You can learn about more than 70 different alternative (‘complementary’) therapies, from acupressure and Bach flower remedies to Western herbal medicine and Yoga. Here health is a thing one plays at.

Cassandra’s predictions were doom-laden, accurate, but never believed. So here goes: the therapy-to-victim (T2V) mentality will also begin to penetrate IT at work. Advice about health, safety, career, bullying, discrimination and employment law will come to a screen near you.

There already exists a wider, growing and increasingly obsessive quest for ecstatic transcendence at work. You don’t believe me? Check out the growing discussion on IT-assisted workplace teams, and on IT-assisted customer ‘delight’ in brand experiences.

For some commentators, the linking up of distant co-workers, through IT, into ‘virtual teams’ is almost a force for socialism. As one US expert sums up what people give to a virtual team:

‘Contributions are defined more by content than by cosmetics when the team works electronically: an objective, egalitarian quality that often is missing in the conventional workplace. And relationships are enriched when managers use “face time” to focus on personal concerns rather than on business tasks.’ (1)

For most others, however, web-enabled ‘virtual teams’ across space, time zones and organisations bring more snags than teams that work in the same room (2).

Yet the problem with virtual teams lies not with IT, but with what is referred to in the literature as ‘trust’. In itself, collective work done remotely through IT could bring about the laid-back, leisurely, genuinely therapeutic economy to which we all aspire. But so long as power relations in society remain as they are, no amount of playful, go-for-it, twentysomething-on-the-singles-market team spirit can stop members of a far-flung team pursuing different grown-up interests – to the detriment of trust.

Now: teams can be ‘functional’ (marketing may make a team work on a project before handing it over to finance); ‘cross-functional’ but ‘lightweight’ (members come from different functions, but remain under their respective functional managers), or even ‘heavyweight’ (members act as general managers and focus only on the project) (3). But whatever the forms taken by teams, the whole concept suggests that work is a mutually supportive activity.

Like a football team, one at work recognises individual talent, but subordinates it to the discipline of the whole. A work team demands humility of the participating Self, in the service of ‘scoring’ and so winning the affections of the surrounding work audience, or ‘community’. And a really professional work team, nowadays, is guided by a manager who is a coach.

Yet all this is new. For the past two centuries, workers broadly subordinated the Self to the objectives and deadlines surrounding profitability; but there was a strict divorce between the worlds of work and play. Play was something to be done after hours. Coaches were for the pitch, not the workplace.

Today’s dogma of teams shows how society has moved on. It elides work and play. It also represents a relativistic retreat from the absolute certainties of the past; for when you play in a team, there is room for disagreement about how to apply the rules, there is an irrational element of Lady Luck, there is an aesthete’s quest for the beautiful stroke. Teams represent a kind of manageable sandpit for a small group of friends: as the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has it, they are about affection, affiliation, acknowledgement, recognition and self-worth. Indeed, BCG believes that a team is ‘a circle – of need, desire, and ultimately of love’ (4).

Finally, the team relies on training sessions, pep-talks and what Americans like to call a sense of process. Indeed, delight in the style of performance rather than in its content or output is what characterises the playful attitude to innovation. In this framework, it is not important to win, so much as to take part.

Today’s evangelism for virtual teams complements today’s hand-wringing about trust. Forget building outputs and higher productivity through a rational division of labour. Instead, join as many teams as you can, in a therapeutic hunt for what New Labour ministers call self-esteem.

Still, if IT-based teams at work are a good idea in principle, but made difficult by social realities, what about their typical purpose: anticipating customer needs and pleasantly surprising the customer by fulfilling these?

The evidence is that the quest, through IT-enabled teams, for branded customer ‘delight’ has been largely unsuccessful. As everybody knows, it is rare to encounter delight in a brand when conducting transactions with a call centre or with an e-commerce website. Nevertheless, when management gurus wax lyrical about exquisitely user-friendly branded experiences of product, service or interface design, that says a lot about how corporate goals have changed (5). Many firms, it seems, are on a search for a world made free from alienation through the delivery of childish, toy-like awesomeness and bewitchment to customers, rather than through the delivery of breakthrough technologies.

Datamonitor estimates that the market for IT tools in customer relationship management (CRM) will rise from £4.1billion in 2000 to more than double that in 2004 (6). At the Institute of Directors, head of e-business Dr Jim Norton wants CRM ‘to create new value, preferably in a way that reinforces customer loyalty’. At BT, managing director of major business Danny McLaughlin wants one-to-one marketing that offers customers ‘things which are valuable, timesaving and life-enhancing’. At CRM specialists DataForce, managing director Andrew Johnson wants to help clients make customers ‘feel like number one’ (7).

The only problem with Customer Relationship Management, it appears, is customer privacy: the 1998 Data Protection Act means that ‘CRM projects should ensure a lawyer is in the team’.

Right now, however, few airlines or financial services providers, at least, give me much branded delight through their CRM. Instead, brands irritate me through their frantic, patronising urge to elicit a teenager’s ‘Wow’.

Tune in. Log on. Be well. If we’re not careful, this will become a mantra for our times.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(1) ‘The alternative workplace: changing where and how people work’, Mahlon Apgar IV, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1998

(2) Virtual teams: reaching across space, time and organizations with technology, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, Wiley 1997; ‘Teamwork across time and space’, Richard Benson-Armer and Tsun-yan Hsieh, McKinsey Quarterly, Number 4, 1997

(3) ‘Meeting the challenge of disruptive change’, Clayton M Christensen and Michael Overdorf, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000

(4) Why teams don’t work, Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, Texere Publishing 1997

(5) See for example, The Experience Economy, B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, Harvard Business School Press 1999

(6) Quoted in ‘The drive to market for an audience of one’, Jonathan Forrest, Financial Times, 26 February 2001

(7) Quotations from Tony Dawe, ‘Integration is the in thing’, Annie Turner, ‘Know your customer’, and Tony Dawe, ‘Database dilemma’, in ‘e-crm: reaching the customer’, The Times e-business briefing, 11 April 2001

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Topics Politics


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