Cross-functional teams are most likely to be found in large companies with lots of different departments that need to communicate and cooperate with each other effectively. However, the approach can be applied to many other areas and with the implementation of digital technology the advantages of the process can be greatly enhanced.
First, let’s clarify some definitions:
A cross-functional team is primarily a working team made up of members from different disciplines. Usually, when the group is within an organisation, members are of a comparable rank in the organisation. More generally it can mean a working group of various members that can contribute different skills to a particular goal, project or aspect of a project.
A digital cross-functional team is one that takes advantage of digital media and communication to work from a diversity of places, often internationally. Some of the technology a cross-functional digital team might utilise includes Google Hangouts, Skype. email, message boards, project hubs and various other collaboration tools.
Working in a cross-functional digital team is challenging enough so it might seem as if spreading that team across a country or even the globe would make it more so. In many ways it does. Even with the technology available communicating internationally can still be difficult.
Beyond language difficulties, there is also the challenge of differing backgrounds, differing cultures, both social and business, all making it hard to understand each other’s perspectives.
With such challenges, there must be significant advantages to working in this way. Indeed there are many, several of which arise directly from overcoming the challenges involved.
One of the most obvious advantages of cross-functional teams is the diversity of knowledge and experience that is brought to a project. Each problem the project poses gets viewed from as many perspectives as there are team members. This naturally means problems can be solved more rapidly and with greater ingenuity.
But beyond projects being realised more efficiently and effectively, the team members also get to share the perspectives of other team members and bring the resulting insights back to their own field of specialisation. These valuable insights would not necessarily be available to them outside of a cross-functional team.
This creates the potential for improvement outside of the core project, both for the individuals and the organisations they work for.
With a digital team, the diversity of perspectives is broadened even further making them even more valuable. A digital team from across a spectrum of businesses and business cultures allows group members to more easily see the bigger picture, think outside the box and recognise new business opportunities.
Interdependence between areas of business means there are few decisions made in one department that does not have consequences for other departments. Often, one department doesn’t immediately see the value or reason in implementing changes coming from another department and fails to adequately implement them, causing a wider project to flounder.
This is ultimately a problem of communication and one which cross-functional teams have to solve to be successful.
One of the initial challenges a cross-functional team faces is in members understanding concepts from other areas of specialisation. Part of the process of working together involves unpacking and explaining these concepts.
While this can take some time and will require work to get through, it ensures everyone has a common understanding of the principles of the various areas of expertise involved. This facilitates clearer communication within the context of the project.
It also gives members of the team the ability to facilitate communication between departments with their new found understanding of the underlying concepts of other specialisations and ultimately create consensus between departments.
Working in a digital framework again brings added diversity but it also adds many dimensions to the ability to communicate. Links to relevant information more clearly explaining concepts can easily be shared. Message boards or email can also facilitate broader discussions without inhibiting the progress of the project.
In contrast to functional teams from only one department or background, cross-functional teams can more readily move forward with projects and ideas. This is because they do not necessarily need clearance or clarification from other departments as representatives from those departments are already within the group.
This leads to faster resolutions, completions and implementation of projects.
Digital cross-functional teams benefit even more in this regard as they are not constrained by the availability of other members of the group. When the group does not have to physically meet to make decisions, some group members can be implementing elements of the project while others are asleep or others are just on their way into work. It also allows members to run ideas by each other when they have them and reply to questions when it is convenient.
Working in cross-functional teams is always a challenge, particularly when carried out through digital means. It requires focus, understanding and commitment. However, as with most challenges the potential benefits it brings make it a challenge worth taking.
At Digital Skills Global, every participant on our Professional Certificate programs has the opportunity to work in a cross-functional virtual team (Coders, Managers, Data Scientists, Analysts, Marketers, Sales professionals and Designers working together) on digital projects. This unique opportunity benefits each team member by providing them with shared experience and knowledge. Participants also learn the tools and techniques to collaborate in virtual teams, a skillset highly prized in the digital economy.