Is Structure Bad for Team Learning?


Team learning is seen to be at the heart of organisational change and renewal. Hence the interest in team learning – and how to influence this – is not surprising. Typically, structure (specialisation, hierarchy and formalisation) is assumed to have a negative impact on (team) learning. For example, research confirms that structure impedes creativity. However, what structure are we talking about here and is structure always negative?

Professors Bresman and Zellmer-Bruhn distinguish between organisational structure and team structure and arrive at some interesting conclusions.

In general, team structure is positive for team learning and organisational structure is negative for team learning. A – for the researchers – surprising result was that when there is a lack of team structure, organisational structure does facilitate external team learning (i.e. learning from interactions outside team boundaries).

Team Structure is specialisation, hierarchy and formalisation enacted by the team, specific to the team, and emerging from team specific tasks.

Organisational Structure is specialisation, hierarchy and formalisation uniformly applied without any influence of the team.

When distinguishing between team structure and organisational structure how is team learning affected by each of these structures? Team learning was conceptualised as learning behaviours (i.e. asking questions, seeking feedback and information, exploring and experimenting). The research outcomes indicate that team structure is good and necessary for team learning. Organisational structure can and often does impede team learning.

The practical implications of this research:

  • Team leaders should recognise that Team structure (clarity of role expectations, leadership, and priorities) encourages team learning;
  • Team leaders should vary their leadership style and emphasis on learning activities depending on the level of constraint of the overall organisational structure;
  • Executives should – when taking organisational decisions – take into account how organisational structure effects teams;
  • Executive should – when the company is active in dynamic environments – implement minimally constraining organisational structures ensuring optimal learning teams (and meanwhile assuring adequate team structure).


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