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The Challenges in Integrating Cross-Boundary Teams

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Key Takeaways

  • Cross-boundary teams bring people from diverse disciplines, backgrounds, countries, cultures, languages together to achieve a common goal
  • Frequently cross-boundary teams do not achieve the expected results because they are not able to integrate 
  • Team mental models and transactive memory are factors in building a cross-functional team
  • It is important to overcome knowledge barriers in a cross-boundary team through syntactic, semantic and pragmatic channels
  • There are additional contextual factors around an organization like environment, task, time and leadership which impact on team effectiveness

Modern organizations are global, and the challenges they face are hence multifarious in dimension. The development of internet-led technologies has transformed the way organizations tackle problems. Research has shown that a definitive relationship exists between innovation at the workplace and a cross-boundary team. For example, experts from the banking sector, service sector, and agriculture collaborated to give Haitian mango farmers an innovative supply chain integration. But building a cross-boundary team is easier said than done. There are multiple challenges involved in integrating the diverse factors in a cross-boundary team. The peripheral aspects include culture, gender, age, etc., while deeper attributes relate to knowledge groups, functional background, educational background, etc.

A cross-boundary team is one consisting of experts from diverse disciplines. They come from different working environments. The primary challenge in merging such a team for innovation is blurring the knowledge barriers they may have. To do that, the language barrier needs to go first. When these barriers melt, teams interact and understand each other spontaneously. It is in such an atmosphere that innovation happens, as the examples mentioned above clearly indicate. But before we go into depth on these barriers and their implications, it is first necessary to understand the need to integrate a cross-boundary team.

The Need to Integrate a Cross-Boundary Team

A cross-boundary team creates a unique working environment. For example, in a mobile application development company, it is the interplay of diverse skill sets that make a mobile app happen. Creating a mobile app involves the integration of management skills to assess the client needs and expectations. If the client has an idea, then that idea needs to be transformed into business logic. Then the business logic is translated into a technical solution with the help of a suitable platform like iOS or Android. It involves software engineers and developers collaborating with the business analysts and other experts. Another element is the creative aspect of integrating designs that engage users. Here UI/UX designers visualize the look and feel of the app. Hence, we see expertise from diverse disciplines collaborating to find a solution.

However, adding domain experts to a team does not guarantee its success. Some inner dimensions must be understood before we move further. Firstly, in cross platform teams, some stereotypes of working are commonly assumed. One such supposition is that putting two different subject experts together is enough to ensure that they will find a solution. Here, the basic managerial notion is that knowledge is just information, and two people with different sets of domain understanding will hit upon a solution. For example, when you team up software engineers and law professionals to digitize legal procedures and design legal workflows, you can’t simply expect them to succeed. They will be living in their own respective world, i.e a lawyer will be using words such as "garnishment" and "statute" like common words. The software engineer is bound to be dumbstruck and they may not communicate constructively at all. Vice versa, the software professional may use words like "DNS", "Ping" or "middleware." Thus, the work of the manager doesn’t end when teaming up professionals.

Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave assert that learning is not an individualistic mechanical process, and there is a social angle to it. They are speaking about the situated nature of knowledge. For example, in a global malnutrition eradication team, the social worker will have a grasp on malnutrition from the social practices that prevent women from having healthy meals, while a nutrition expert will have a perception of malnutrition from the molecular level with deficiency of proteins, vitamins, etc., causing the malady . Both may be right in their domain, but only when they break out of this domain to move towards the team goal can they make a difference and invent a solution that will be comprehensive. This is the fundamental premise for integrating cross-functional teams.

Secondly, three types of diversity can emerge in a cross-functional team, according to David Harrison and Katherine Klein.They are:

  1. Separation – constituting of the blend of opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and values of individual team members. These are highly subjective.
  2. Variety - the industrial experience and network ties along with functional background and content expertise form the variety
  3. Disparity - a list of quantitative factors like pay, income, prestige, status, authority, power

Unless a project lead cuts through these factors, it is difficult for them to ensure that the team they have conjured up will contribute to any innovative solutions.

Building a Team

Now, when it comes to building a team, two prominent approaches exist: one is to map its sequential growth, and the other is to allow the non-sequential way they confront an issue. In the sequential growth approach, the team first interacts slowly, learns the tasks and goals, and then progresses competitively towards the goal. It involves the surfacing of conflicts, their resolution, acceptance, and then moving towards performance. On the contrary, a non-sequential team moves in a flexible way; they don't have the slow progressive pattern which we see in sequential teams. It is hence usually an association of known people; those who have worked previously or those who understand each other deeply.

When assembling cross-functional teams, it is essential to understand the role of team mental models and transactive memory in enhancing team effectiveness. The team mental models make the members aware of the team environment, in a shared and organized understanding of the way key elements interact within the team atmosphere. It is the way an individual member perceives these factors. Transactive memory, on the other hand, is the knowledge of ‘what’ information or expertise is ‘where’ in the team milieu. When these two factors are taken care of, the team can function more effectively, as a team member will be better placed and better situated to utilize the diverse field knowledge scattered within the group.

However, a significant challenge that managers or project leads face is to create the conditions for free flow of knowledge in order to activate team mental models and transactive memory. We will now discuss some fundamental challenges that need to be solved so that fluidity and harmony fills a cross-functional team.

Integrating Cross-Boundary Teams

A cross-functional team needs careful administration and handling to smooth the differences and conflicts that emerge at various levels. Mismanagement can make the whole project redundant, as the following example shows:

"ResNet was a health research network that was formed in 1998 to address the impending problems of research and learning in the primary health sector in the United Kingdom. Its prime aim was to establish research infrastructure within the defined region of operation. But when the agency began to roll out its plan, there was discord with regards to the integration of different goals. The funding agency Regional Health Authority expected value for money methodology in project implementation. The national health directives were to be incorporated into the whole scheme of developing research awareness in general practice. There were about 2000 individuals in ResNet, and they were from diverse backgrounds and experiences. In its actual implementation, a common point of integration didn’t occur, and hence after four years of operation there was a falling out between the directors, and ResNet was shifted to a teaching hospital for academic purposes. The director was also replaced."   

Overcoming the Knowledge Barriers

A peculiar situation arises when we try to integrate team associates who are experts from different domains into a single project. The situation regards the degree of knowledge diversity in the team and how to manage it.

Paul R. Carlile, in his work ‘A Pragmatic View of Knowledge and Boundaries,’ identifies the three levels of boundaries viz. as localized, embedded and invested. A localized knowledge boundary conveys the knowledge to be situated within the context of a particular problem, while embedded means the knowledge is implicit and is located in the social and intangible aspects. Invested knowledge means that imbibing new knowledge is difficult for those who already are in a particular branch of study.

Carlile further identifies three types of knowledge divides viz. as:

  • Syntactic - arising from the different ways language is used in the organization. It is particularly true for organizations which have experts from all over the globe. These boundaries can be transgressed through the evolution of a common lexicon and requires considerable investment in time.
  • Semantic - signifying the way people perceive ideas. A sentence may assume multiple meanings as it filters through the cultural, social, and academic lens of the person. Personal interaction outside the workplace, like touring worksites, team retreats, etc. can help blur this boundary.
  • Pragmatic - manifesting when team associates are facing competing interests, and they give preference to a particular interest based on their embedded values. This boundary will need discussions, debating, and open, constructive confrontation to declare the value preferences of individual members. When the individual priorities are understood through interactions, a self-learned code of conduct will emerge within the group and differences and conflicts will reduce as each member is now able to understand the likes and dislikes of the others.

Contextual Challenges

Organizations do not exist in isolation; they are very much a part of the society and cultural diversity of their geographical location. Hence, the contextual influence is inevitable on the organization. The influence of some of the contextual factors are discussed below:

  • Environment - performance pressure, competing atmosphere, etc. influence the teams. A study of two software companies in a competing environment shows positive results. However, the positive effect was a consequence of using general experience to tackle the problems, rather than the specialized knowledge of the cross-boundary team. So the environment can affect the performance of cross-functional teams.
  • Task - the results of the study show that tasks, when assigned to a newly formed 54-person team,  exhibited a substantial amount of interdependence. However, it is essential to understand that this interdependence making full use of cross-platform knowledge domain within the team is not a general tenet. For instance,  when the task was split into simple independent components, the subject experts within the team went on to solve them in their own way; this study highlights that tasks have a considerable impact on the way diverse knowledge is made use of in a team. Christina Schmickl and Alfred Kieser further showed that interdisciplinary development teams use their knowledge diversity only when they have innovative tasks at hand. Otherwise, they tend to go on solving the problem with peripheral knowledge.
  • Time - some innovative teams exist for a long time, while others are created and disbanded in a short period. Teams with a short life-span can make much less use of the knowledge pool than those with a longer life span, as Melissa Valentine and Amy Edmondson found. They also show that even in short-term teams that are protocol-driven, the coordination was possible at deeper levels of team interaction. Thus, the management of such units has to consider creating such opportunities to form deep relationships among team members to make it happen.
  • Leadership - an essential contextual factor that can make or break a team. Amy Edmondson and Jean Francois Harvey propose that leaders influence the way interpersonal relations pan out within a group. Team associates are always observing the leader; the way they give feedback, the kind of behavior they reinforce and reward, on criticizing, etc. Edmondson further suggests that in a team where the leader is found to be more approachable and available, the team members are more confident in bringing up issues and asking for deeper collaboration, thus making use of the knowledge diversity available within the team.

The Outcomes of Integrating Cross-Boundary Teams

Finally, we come to the outcomes of carefully and diligently handling all the diversities; overcoming the many knowledge boundaries and neutralizing the contextual challenges of time, task, leadership, and environment.

These outcomes are of two types: at the team level and at the individual level.

At the personal level, cross-boundary teams enable them to adapt to a new milieu of knowledge, culture, and challenges. Paul Carlile found that such units help to bring out the leadership qualities in individuals when they transcend the semantic, syntactic,
and the pragmatic boundaries that exist in cross-functional teams.

At the team level, the insights they teach are very subtle. The handling of problems  and the point of confluence where diverse knowledge mingles to facilitate innovation give the team excellent acumen to interact and contribute to getting things done in such groups. Studies and research in this area are yet to evolve, because organizations are also changing continuously.

Lessons for Modern Human Resource Management

A thorough understanding of the complexities like knowledge diversity, leadership, and other contextual hurdles can better equip Human Resource Management to take conscious actions in building productive cross-functional teams. For example, TechniCo, a construction engineering firm with 50 offices in 40 countries, had its head office in London. The structural distribution of the company was such that it existed as loose federations coming together during the decision-making process. Over the years, the organization developed disparate administrative structures in different national and cultural settings. It evolved to incorporate the local knowledge into its location-based teams. The complex structure of the globally distributed company, autonomy issues, and the consequent change it brought to HRM resulted in the pursuance of multiple strategies across the globe. Hence, the uniformity of managing the company under direct command chain was not possible. Following, innovative strategies came up on their own without the articulation from the top management :

  • Niche market strategies emerged like green buildings, energy efficient buildings, etc.
  • Management of uncoordinated knowledge and information.  
  • New services were introduced to tailor to the location-specific needs, like supporting existing buildings and carrying out maintenance.

Lessons in Staffing

Every time a project comes up, the responsibility for selecting the individuals for the team falls on the managers. From the above discussion, we can infer that HR needs to analyze the competencies already available within the organization to gauge the need for external expertise, a crucial role HR will have to play in assisting hasty managers to exercise patience, providing ample time for the cross-functional teams to get to know each other before starting work, along with stack times for the teams to think about the project and understand the environment better. A conducive psychological environment is a prerequisite for such a team to build interpersonal relationships, and this will be the job of the team leader. Further, there is a need to balance the productive practice of work-at-home, because within a cross-functional team, it minimizes the possibilities for deep informal interactions.

Lessons in Coaching and Development  

HRM plays a critical role in the capacity building of employees. They are adept in identifying the talent pool in the organization, and in planning for training modules and methodology that can nurture a vibrant workforce. The crucial benefit that accrues to managers handling cross-boundary teams is that they gain the rare experience of integrating these diverse functional challenges through models for training and partnership. Another opportunity that a cross-functional team offers is to nurture the young and eager talent in the organization without looking for external experts. Edmundson and Harvey suggest that such teams need to be led by experienced associates in the organization to encourage skill development along with the deficient sector. They further suggest that using performance appraisal tools is a very effective method to measure individual progress. For example, a creatively-designed intranet links the performance management software in an organization to give real-time reports of an employee’s work. Using the software at the beginning of a cross-functional project and then comparing it with the final results will indicate the areas in which the team associate made progress.


Today there is an increasing pitch for interdisciplinary solutions, especially in the fields of management, biotechnology, mobile related technologies, robotics, medicine, and so on. The list is ever-expanding, with more and more independent subjects taking cross-functional approaches. The organizations which are grappling with problems of inefficiency and innovation are increasing. The diversity in the workplace is bringing new quality to organizations and institutions like never before. The above discussion illuminates the various challenges an HRM needs to watch out for in creating innovative teams. Today, more and more research is interdisciplinary, and thus cross-functional teams are going to be the future of innovation and problem-solving. Understanding the challenges and diversity within a cross-functional team will empower the industry for innovative solutions.

About the Author

Premjith Purushotham leads the Digital Marketing team at Aufait Technologies, a pioneer in developing DMS Software for organizations. He also heads the SEO team at Mindster, a frontier mobile app development company in India. With his four valuable years of experience in online marketing, he helps clients expand their online presence and mushroom novel business ideas.


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