Toolkit for High Performance Knowledge Teams

Teams are the powerhouse of organizations. They are the hubs that gather, develop and apply knowledge to create value. They are the nodes in knowledge networks. Because of globalization and better communications, an increasing number of teams are virtual teams. This page gives an outline of our checklist for nurturing high performance teams that operate in a global knowledge economy.

Key Success Factors

team success factors

The diagram shows the factors that affect overall team performance. Obviously the capabilities of individual members play a part, but so does the wider organizational context, such as its culture, structures and values. Analysis of the literature on high performing teams show that they exhibit a number of recurring characteristics:

  • they are empowered and self-managed
  • the team is more important than the individual
  • they assume collective responsibility - an individual is expected to be able to represent the team as a whole
  • members support each other through thick and thin
  • they value diversity; ideas are challenged; debate is intense
  • they are never satisfied with the status quo; they seek to learn and innovate and have a competitive spirit.

Looking now at what factors are mostly within the team's own control, I have developed a set of 25 principles in five success categories - team composition, processes, knowledge, technology and leadership. The precursors have been published in more detail elsewhere (see Further Reading), and were fleshed out from an original set of "15 principles of a networked organization" that I expounded when I worked in Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1998.

25 Principles for Highly Effective Knowledge Teams

Team Composition

1. Create teams in your organization that are centres of excellence for their specific knowledge skills and experience.

2. The most productive knowledge teams are small multi-disciplinary teams of 5-7 people with a variety of backgrounds and personality traits.

3. Except for routine repetitive work, avoid large teams as your primary organizational unit. Use larger groupings to create cohesion, reinforce values and to provide networking and knowledge sharing opportunities.

4. Every knowledge worker should belong to at least two separate teams. This helps the organization achieve cross functional co-operation; it provides knowledge sharing links between different teams and it helps the individuals gain a broader perspective.

5. An individual can have one or several roles in the team, and these can, indeed should, change over time, to accomodate chaing workloads, cover absences and to develop individual team members. Distinguish the role from the person.

Team Processes

6. Good communication is the fundamental process. Communicate frequently, both within the team and to its wider network. If you are in a virtual team (working apart in several locations), make sure you also communicate socially in between face-to-face meetings.

7. Develop clear mutual understanding through active listening and 'play back'. Reaffirm decisions or understandings made in face-to-face meeting through a follow up email.

8. Recognize the unpredictability and fuzziness of decision making processes. An action taken might imply a decision taken. Be guided by your mission, values and principles. Understand which types of decision are fundamental and should be agreed up front, and develop simple formal processes for these. Otherwise keep formality to a minimum.

9. Learn together - all the time. Coach each other. Critique each other's actions and output. Share your respective knowledge and skills. Reflect and learn from your successes and failures.

10. Build trust in depth. Although formal relationships within and between teams are best cemented by having agreed written processes ('rules of engagement') on key interdependencies, aim for higher trust and openness rather than higher formality.

Team Knowledge

11. Knowledge is an important team asset. Every team member should have some responsibility in their areas of expertise for collating and distributing team knowledge. However, other knowledge roles, such as librarian, knowledge editor, gatekeeper and brokers should be specifically recognized and assigned.

12. Create a team knowledge repository, organized according to one or more well understood structures. Make it an online knowledge 'portal' as a window for others into your domains of expertise.

13. Regard email exchanges and online discussion as embryonic knowledge. Identify that which has ongoing relevance and refine it for reuse.

14. For each main task area or domain of expertise, appoint a knowledge leader. Their role is to continue to develop this domain of knowledge and package it in a way that it is easily accessible and understood by those who could benefit from using it.

15. Be sure to capture lessons from team processes and projects. Over time this becomes team memory and a vital resource for future situations, and often has applicability in other parts of the organization.


16. Consider how various technologies could enhance team communications, work processes, meetings or team knowledge. Consider a wide range of collaborative technologies, including web-based services, wikis, blogs, social media on a variety of devices including desktop computers, note- and net-books, portable devices for voice, data and video communications.

17. Agree on standards and protocols that team members will use. Select a common core set of products and services - word processing, email, applications software etc. and develop best practic guidelines for using them to carry out different tasks.

18. Create an online document library for important team information. Distinguish documents that are for team use only or for wider dissemination. Add relevant metadata so that readers understand its provenance and current status.

19. Pay particular attention to good email practice. For example, select the TO and CC addresses appropriately, and used agreed conventions for how others should handle them.

20. Don't use technology just for the sake of it. Err on the side of proven rather than experimental technologies, but keep an open eye for opportunities to pilot technologies that could be beneficial.

Leadership and Committment

21. Every team must have clarity of purpose, and an explicit and well understood team vision, mission and goals which reinforce those of the organization.

22. Every team should develop a strong set of cultural norms and values. Hence regular team meetings should take place. A set of working principles should be developed (print them on a laminated card!).

23. Each team should identify other teams carrying out related or dependent activities. It should develop its network distinguishing those teams with which it has formal relationships, those with whom it exchanges knowledge and its relationship to wider communities of practice.

24. Each team should make its core processes explicit, identifying carefully knowledge flows and interdependencies with others.

25. Individual members of teams should maintain their personal and professional networks, and their communities of practice, even beyond the immediate requirements of current activities.

Further Reading

1. Knowledge Networking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise, David J. Skyrme, Butterworth-Heinemann (1999). Further Details.

2. 'Virtual Teaming and Virtual Organizations', David J Skyrne, Chapter 12 in Web-Weaving, Peter Lloyd and Paula Boyle, Butterworth Heinemann (1998). Further Details.

3. 'Virtual Teaming and Virtual Organizations', I3 Update No. 11 (June 1997)

4. High Performance Work Systems: The Digital Experience, James McCalman and David Buchanan, Routledge (1989).

Last updated: 19th March 2011


KM: practice and pitfalls
KM presentation

A presentation (PDF) that goes through the elements of a KM initiative including several of the most useful practices for sharing and managing knowledge


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