Transcending Knowledge Differences in Cross-Functional Teams


Published: 17Jan2013

Authors: Majchrzak, Ann; More, Philip; Faraj, Samer


Knowledge differences impede the work of cross-functional teams by making knowledge integration difficult, especially when the teams are faced with novelty. One approach in the literature for overcoming these difficulties, which we refer to as the traverse approach, is for team members to identify, elaborate, and then explicitly confront the differences and dependencies across the knowledge boundaries. This approach emphasizes deep dialogue and requires significant resources and time. In an exploratory in-depth longitudinal study of three quite different cross-functional teams, we found that the teams were able to cogenerate a solution without needing to identify, elaborate, and confront differences and dependencies between the specialty areas. Our analysis of the extensive team data collected over time surfaced practices that minimized members' differences during the problem-solving process. We suggest that these practices helped the team to transcend knowledge differences rather than traverse them. Characteristic of these practices is that they avoided interpersonal conflict, fostered the rapid cocreation of intermediate scaffolds, encouraged continued creative engagement and flexibility to repeatedly modify solution ideas, and fostered personal responsibility for translating personal knowledge to collective knowledge. The contrast between these two approaches to knowledge integration—traverse versus transcend—suggests the need for more nuanced theorizing about the use of boundary objects, the nature of dialogue, and the role of organizational embeddedness in understanding how knowledge differences are integrated.

Organization Science, 2012