Why Project Networks Beat Project Teams

Finding the expertise to handle complex, knowledge-intensive team projects is challenging. That’s where a project network comes in.

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Through a project network, a team can maintain a stable core of project team members while dynamically tapping into expertise within the personal networks of team members as needed.

Projects that are nonroutine, complex and require sophisticated knowledge are a challenge to managers in organizations today. The required expertise to tackle such knowledge-intensive projects is often unexpected, complicated, subjective and distributed across the organization. Managers in organizations often assemble project teams to work on such tasks, since day-to-day work by an individual employee is less likely to achieve the desired results.

To research the factors that affect the success of teams working on knowledge-intensive projects, we studied an established companywide recognition program for project teams at a large multinational food company. As part of that study, we surveyed 1,304 members of project teams in the company to identify key characteristics that promote success in knowledge-intensive work. We then compared responses from the project teams regarding how they went about their work with the company’s assessment — through the judging of the team recognition program — on the significance of the projects’ outcome.

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1. D. Ancona and D. Caldwell, “Bridging the Boundary: External Activity and Performance in Organizational Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 37, no. 4 (December 1992): 634-665; and J. Cummings and R. Cross, “Structural Properties of Work Groups and Their Consequences for Performance,” Social Networks 25, no. 3 (July 2003): 197-210. Project networks are more than externally focused teams, which often attempt to influence senior personnel outside of the team to acquire resources, buy-in and support. Rather, our conceptualization of project networks is one in which knowledge is shared and problems are solved by team members and contacts in their personal networks.

2. J.R. Hackman, ed., “Groups That Work (and Those That Don’t): Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990); and R. Cross and J. Cummings, “Tie and Network Correlates of Individual Performance in Knowledge-Intensive Work,” Academy of Management Journal 47, no. 6 (December 2004): 928-937.

3. D. Brass, “Being in the Right Place: A Structural Analysis of Individual Influence in an Organization,” Administrative Science Quarterly 29, no. 4 (December 1984): 518-539; R.S. Burt, “Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); and D. Krackhardt and J.R. Hanson, “Informal Networks: The Company Behind the Chart,” Harvard Business Review 71, no. 4 (July-August 1993): 104-111. Project networks differ from the concept of hidden social networks, which focus primarily on collaboration among individuals that is not captured by an organizational chart. In comparison, project networks are characterized by the informal and formal networks of members who work on a project together.

4. J. Merrone, “Team Boundary Spanning: A Multilevel Review of Past Research and Proposals for the Future,” Journal of Management 36, no. 4 (July 2010): 911-940; and M.L. Tushman, “Special Boundary Roles in the Innovation Process,” Administrative Science Quarterly 22, no. 4 (December 1977): 587-605.


The research discussed in this article was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Award No. IIS-0603667.

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