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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Learning vs. Productivity: An Analysis of Managing Multiple Team Memberships within an Organization

By Aaron S. Robertson  

The following is an expanded version of a paper submitted by the author on May 2, 2012 for a class assignment. The author is currently pursuing a master of science in management degree from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.  


The author reviews an article by O’Leary, Mortensen, and Woolley (2011) on the potential implications of multiple team membership. Next, relying on a combination of personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and further academic research, the author analyzes the article and offers suggestions for further research into the effects of multiple team membership.


One may assume that serving on multiple teams within an organization carries many advantages  – staying connected with the larger picture that is the organization as a whole, fostering collaboration, enhancing communication, laying a foundation for further networking opportunities, and cross-pollinating the organization with one’s specialized knowledge and skill sets. But can there come a point in which multiple team memberships actually pose an adverse effect on an organization?

In the following paper, this student reviews an article by O’Leary, Mortensen, and Woolley (2011) that takes a look at the effects of multiple team membership in relation to learning and productivity taking place in an organization. Next, he will analyze their work within the context of personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and further academic research. He will close by offering a number of suggestions for future research into the effects of multiple team memberships on organizations.

A Review of the Literature

O’Leary et. al. (2011) argue that, “Organizations use multiple team membership to enhance individual and team productivity and learning, but this structure creates competing pressures on attention and information, which make it difficult to increase both productivity and learning” (p. 461). To overcome this, the authors propose a model, “…guided by attention and social network theories, which are particularly useful because people have increasingly unlimited access to information (through new technologies and rapidly widening networks) but limited abilities to attend to and process that information” (O’Leary et. al., 2011, p. 461). Utilizing these theories, the authors assert that, “…carefully balancing the number and variety of team memberships can enhance both productivity and learning” (O’Leary et. al., 2011, p. 461).


This student ultimately concurs with the authors in their conclusions that, while serving on multiple teams within an organization may increase learning across the organization, it also has the potential to seriously hamper productivity. While this student admittedly does not yet have any significant, worthwhile experience serving on multiple teams within a single organization, he does have considerable insights gained by simultaneously serving on multiple teams of multiple organizations: as a board member of the Hales Corners Chamber of Commerce; an ambassador of the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce; a member of the leadership team of a business networking group; a member of a Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce committee that partners with Muskego High School in order to provide additional learning and experiential opportunities for business students; and municipal government service that includes memberships on the city of Muskego’s Library Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. Additionally, this student is a recent past president of the Muskego Kiwanis Club. This student believes that the fact that he lacks meaningful experience serving on multiple teams within a singular organization is irrelevant here. The principles and experiences are ultimately no different, he would contend.

Many of the teams this student serves on are a part of community-based organizations that all have similar needs: fundraising, or some sort of revenue generation; public relations; marketing; membership; events planning; etc. From a learning standpoint, this student can attest that he has been able to transfer meaningful insights and knowledge gained from his service on these teams to other teams for their own benefit, and vice-versa. Likewise, he has seen his team members bring their own expertise in from their work with other teams and organizations. However, this student can also attest that he has seen both his personal productivity, as well as the productivity of other team members, decreased as a result of these multiple team memberships. Speaking for himself here, this student acknowledges that, while he is learning and transmitting this knowledge to other teams, he has, through the years, come to a self-realization on more than one occasion that he would not be able to do these teams, and hence the larger organizations they serve, full justice, from the facet of productivity, if he does not scale back his involvement to a degree.

Certainly, none of this is to suggest that serving on a team or that learning in an organizational sense are somehow pointless or of little value, and the authors would not say that, either. On the contrary, it is well-known that the literature extolling the benefits of teams and of organizational learning is vast, rich, and diverse. Kreitner & Kinicki (2010), in offering their definition of a learning organization, state that it is “…one that proactively creates, acquires, and transfers knowledge and that changes its behavior on the basis of new knowledge and insights” (p. 507). The authors go on to describe the characteristics of learning organizations, pointing out that they:
 …strive to reduce structural, process, and interpersonal barriers to the sharing of information, ideas, and knowledge among organizational members…Learning organizations are results oriented. They foster an environment in which employees are encouraged to use new behaviors and operational processes to achieve corporate goals (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2010, p. 507).
Noe, Hollenbeck, Gerhart, and Wright (2010) offer their own take, from more of a human resources standpoint, on learning organizations, defining the term to mean an organization, “…in which people continually expand their capacity to achieve the results they desire” (p. 97). They elaborate in further detail, suggesting that, “This requires the company to be in a constant state of learning through monitoring the environment, assimilating information, making decisions, and flexibly restructuring to compete in that environment. Companies that develop such learning capability have a competitive advantage” (Noe et. al., 2010, p. 97). Scholtes, Joiner, and Streibel (2003) devoted an entire book to the topic of teams, opening their first chapter with a powerful statement on the role that teams play in the modern organization:
To succeed, organizations must rely on the knowledge, skills, experience, and perspectives of a wide range of people to solve multifaceted problems, make good decisions, and deliver effective solutions. This is where dynamic, productive teams can make the difference. Teams create environments in which members can keep up with change, learn more about the organization, and develop collaborative skills (p. 1-1).
Power (2012), speaking of the “silo” effect, and in arguably a justification here for multiple team memberships, notes that:
The only way to sustain improvement in a cross-organizational process is for workers in the process to see it from end to end. Only by understanding the entire flow and logic can they uncover huge opportunities for improvement. And only by collaborating with other process workers can they implement the changes.
As meaningful as teams and organizational learning may be, however, one can understand the practicality of the learning-productivity dilemma caused by multiple team memberships, at least to a certain degree, and as seemingly an odd paradox as it might be. Learning, put in simple terms here, is meant to increase efficiency and effectiveness, in both an individual’s personal life and pursuits, as well as in an organization. But it can come to a point where one serves on so many teams that one’s time is largely spent sitting in meetings engaging in debate, dialogue, and the sharing of ideas and knowledge, rather than utilizing the acquired knowledge and insights in order to implement improvements to processes and outcomes – in other words, and in short, being productive. Pentland (2012), in research he and his team conducted on the subject of communication in teams, “...found that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. Together those two factors explained one-third of the variations in dollar productivity among groups” (p. 62). Wagstrom, Herbsleb, and Carley (2010) note that, “…a community member may be very active on discussion forums and mailing lists, but may have problems getting actual work done because those conversations do not address the actual technical coordination issues at hand” (p. 5).

Suggestions for Further Research

This student believes that further research into the implications that multiple team memberships pose on organizations is critically necessary, as there remains a lot in this subject that has yet to be discovered. O’Leary et. al. (2011) acknowledges this throughout their work, essentially stating that this is largely an untapped niche in the available literature on teams. This student finds it somewhat perplexing that, up to this point, there has been so little research conducted on this subject. With organizations increasingly turning to the team model in order to accomplish objectives and cultivate talent, one would think that this field of study would have more prominence in the business literature.

In particular, this student, after his reading and interpretation of O’Leary et. al. (2011), is left wondering whether or not the loss of productivity that occurs within an organization as a result of multiple team memberships is only a temporary anomaly, with productivity levels rebounding at some point, and even taken to new heights. Learning, by its inherent nature, is intended to improve, however one chooses to define that term. So while it is undoubtedly plausible to see a temporary loss in productivity as the result of spending a significant amount of time in the acquiring and sharing of knowledge and information through service on multiple teams, this student sincerely suspects that the quality of this transferring of wisdom would allow the organization to eventually catch up with this productivity gap, with the ultimate goal of exceeding it once it is closed.


Serving on multiple teams within an organization can have many advantages. One of the key advantages is an increase in learning for all in the organization. However, as O’Leary et. al. (2011) found, there is the potential for decreased productivity as this increase in learning is taking place. Finding the proper balance to successfully manage multiple team memberships is critical for the overall health and vitality of the organization. Utilizing a rich mix of personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and additional academic research, this student ultimately arrives at an agreement with the findings of the authors. However, he believes that further research into the effects of multiple team memberships within an organization is needed.


Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2010). Organizational behavior (9th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Noe, R. A., Hollenbeck, J. R., Gerhart, B., & Wright P. M. (2010). Human resource management (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

O'leary, M., Mortensen, M., & Woolley, A. (2011). Multiple team membership: A theoretical model of its effects on productivity and learning for individuals and teams. Academy of management review, 36(3), 461-478. doi:10.5465/AMR.2011.61031807

Pentland, A. (2012). The new science of building great teams. Harvard business review, 90(4), 60-70.

Power, B. (2012, April 9). Get your team to work across organizational boundaries. Posted to

Scholtes, P.R., Joiner, B.L., & Streibel, B.J. (2003). The team handbook (3rd ed.). Madison, WI: Oriel.

Wagstrom, P., Herbsleb, J. D., & Carley, K. M. (2010). Communication, team performance, and the individual: Bridging technical dependencies. Academy of management annual meeting proceedings, 1-7. doi:10.5465/AMBPP.2010.54500789

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