How to Transform Any Team of Experts into an ‘Expert’ Team (Part 1)

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

The global and technological nature of markets has caused organisations to increasingly struggle with staying competitive. To achieve this, they need to work more effectively, efficiently, and/or innovatively in carrying out ‘complex cognitive work’.

To accomplish the complex work successfully, organisations rely on interdisciplinary and cross-functional high performing teams (Lovelace et al., 2001). Examples of such teams can be found in all kinds of ‘industries’, such as healthcare (Burke et al., 2004; medical or rehabilitation teams), product innovation (Lovelace et al., 2001; design teams), education (Shibley, 2006; teaching or academic teams), …

But a team of experts isn’t the same thing as an expert team just as a football team of superstars isn’t necessarily a super team. The question is, what does it take to ensure that a team of experts isn’t just ‘ordinary’? As Delise and colleagues point out in their 2010 article, there’s a serious lack of understanding of what the most effective strategy is to support these oh so needed teams in enhancing their performance. There are a ton of aspects to be considered and this blog attempts to tease some of them out. Particularly, it discusses the theoretical background of the matter, while a follow-up blog (to be posted 2 weeks after this one) will provide concrete examples that you can use as a just-in-time performance support tool. Also, both blogs aren’t necessarily only for learning professionals. If you’re managing a team of experts and you think they need to improve as a team – for example a team of knowledge workers in an organisation or a team of teachers in a school – the tools and examples provided will be useful for you as well.

Let’s start by discussing what we mean by an ‘expert team’.

What is an expert team?

Tancig (2009) defines an expert team as “a group of interdependent team members with a high level of task-related expertise and the mastering of team processes” (p 106).

The idea of an expert team is that, first the skills or expertise of each individual team member can be leveraged in order to reach a common goal (e.g., a task or a project) which then usually somehow contribute to a ‘higher order goal’, for example staying ahead of the competition. However, as Burke and his co-authors (2004) point out, even when you put the best people together (and usually that’s not even the case as teams generally consist of members with a variety of expertise levels), individual “experts don’t necessarily make an expert team.” (p 96).

Fransen[1] and colleagues’ (2013) research focuses on learning teams, however in the light of this blog it’s worthwhile to discuss their research because through their explanation of the differences between learning teams and work teams, we can get some good insights on what an expert team is. The authors explain that work teams are effective when they “successfully use their distributed expertise to effectively and efficiently perform as a team to successfully complete a given task” (p 9). Although in work teams, learning may occur as a by-product of collaboration, the quality of the product is the primary goal. They also add that team effectiveness in a workplace context isn’t only expressed by the quality of the product but also by aspects such as “speed, performance, accuracy, and inventiveness, as well as attitudinal and behavioural indicators” (p 10). Compared to learning teams, effective (or expert) work teams are thus defined in a broader sense; both in terms of quality of the outcomes in relation to organisational standards as well as satisfaction of individual team members’ needs.

In order to develop (as) an expert team, you need more than a group of expert individuals. This is often visible in football (for you Americans: soccer) where team owners buy lots of top players for astronomical salaries, but the side doesn’t function as an effective team.

expert team1

So, what do you need to support a team of experts to develop into an expert team?

How to turn any team into an expert team

Again, although individual task-work competencies and skills[2] are the foundation of expert team performance, they aren’t sufficient (Burke et al., 2004). You also need to look at teamwork competencies and skills[3]. Teams must, first, have the competencies to “enable them to communicate and coordinate with team members and, second, must carry out complex tasks that require smooth integration of each team members’ competencies” (Delise et al, 2010, p. 54). In order to achieve this, teams need necessary information about one another’s competencies and need to build mutual trust. This doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes time to develop as an expert team.

Fransen c.s., (2013) discuss various models of team development. The Team Evolution and Maturation (TEAM) model from Morgan, Salas, and Glickman (1993) nicely combines various existing theories into a general and useful team development model (see Figure 1). While it describes a set of developmental stages for teams, teams don’t necessarily need to go through all stages; it depends, for example, on past experiences of the team and its members. The figure also illustrates that the optimum level of performance (hence when the level of ‘expert team’ has been achieved) is reached when the two paths converge.

expert team2.png

Figure I. Essentials of the TEAM model with teamwork phases, team development stages, and the convergence of task-related skills and team-related skills during team maturation.

Next, when developing teams into expert teams, we also need to take various variables that influence work teams’ effectiveness into account. Fransen and colleagues discuss the Big Five in Teamwork from Salas and colleagues (2005), which is based on a meta-analysis of research on team effectiveness in organisational settings. The table below explains the Big Five factors and their three supporting and coordinating mechanisms briefly.

Big Five factors Brief explanation
Team orientation


This refers to a preference to work with others and a tendency to enhance individual performance through coordination of one’s actions with other members while performing group tasks. It facilitates decision-making, cooperation, and coordination, which in turns contributes to increases team performance.
Team leadership


The effects of team leadership depend on the type of team and/or task. Overall, teams prefer democratic leadership. When groups work with distributed leadership, emergent leadership is important. This refers to a shift in leadership depending on the stage that the team is in.
Mutual performance monitoring


This factor refers to team members keeping track of one another’s work while carrying out one’s own work to ensure that all is running as expected. The more complex a task, the more important mutual performance monitoring will be. It requires a shared understanding of task and team responsibilities.
Back-up behaviour


This is the ability to anticipate other team members’ needs through accurate knowledge of their responsibilities and also to shift the workload mong members to achieve balance during periods of high pressure. It is strongly related to shared mental models and mutual performance monitoring. It can be provided through feedback, assisting a team member, or completing a sub task for a team member.


This refers to the ability of a person or group to adjust strategies through back-up behaviour and reallocation of intrateam resources. It can also refer to change a course of action in response to changing conditions. Adaptability requires both mutual performance monitoring and shared mental models.
Supporting & coordinating mechanisms
Shared mental models


This refers to both team-related and task-related mental models. The first is about awareness of the team functioning and expected behaviours, the second is about information on the materials and strategies needed to successfully carry out the mutual task. The accuracy of the mental models is more critical than the similarity of the models. High-quality planning in the early stages of the team work is required.
Mutual trust


This implies the shared perception that each team member will perform particular actions important to all members and will protect the rights and interests of team members. Trust is a multidimensional construct and it seems to develop through stages building upon each other.
Closed-loop communication


This is the ability to exchange clear, concise information, acknowledge the receipt of that information, and confirm its correct understanding. This type of communication facilitates teams in updating their shared mental models engaging in activities regarding task execution, monitoring the process, and adapting to changing conditions.

It’s obvious that the factors that influence team effectiveness involve very complex constructs, which is something to keep in mind when you’re involved in developing expert teams.

What we’ve figured out so far is that in order to develop expert teams, you need to a) take the development stages into account and b) be aware of all the variables that influence team effectiveness. However, this still doesn’t tell us what it is exactly we need to do to support teams to get to an ‘expert level’. In other words, what kind of interventions or support do we need to provide?

Delise and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis, comparing 23 studies (which is a small sample size and therefore, all results need to be interpreted with caution) on the effects of learning and performance interventions on team outcomes (they call it ‘team training’, which refers to any “planned effort designed to improve team performance by assisting individuals in the acquisition of new information, skills, and attitudes essential to effective performance in a team environment” (p. 55)).

Overall, their findings suggest that well-planned and well-implemented learning experiences are highly associated with team effectiveness and that they’re effective in general for all kinds of teams in all kinds of contexts. In addition, there were no differences in effectiveness across lab and field studies. Results also indicated that these structured learning experiences are as effective for existing teams as for ‘ad hoc’ teams – teams that are put together for a specific, temporary purpose.

Unfortunately, the sample size of Delise et al’s meta study was too small to examine one potentially important moderator variable, which is the method of the learning intervention (the how).

expert team3.png

Because all authors agree that just waiting for something magical to happen in order to achieve expert level in teams won’t do the trick, it’s worthwhile to tease out what type of learning and performance interventions help to develop expert teams. This is exactly what we’ll do in our next blog.

To be continued next week!


Burke, C.S., Salas, E., Wilson-Donnelly, K., & Priest, H., (2004). How to turn a team of experts into an expert medical team: guidance from the aviation and military communities. Quality & Safety Health Care, 13, i96-i104. Retrieved from

Delise, L.A., Gorman, A., Brooks, A.M., Rentsch, J.R., & Steele-Johnson, D., (2010). The effects of team training on team outcomes: A meta-analysis. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 22, 53-80. Retrieved from The effects of team training on team outcomes: A meta-analysis

Fransen, J., Weinberger, A., & Kirschner, P.A., (2013). Team effectiveness and team development in CSCL. Educational Psychologist, 48, 9-24. Retrieved from

Lovelace, K., Shapiro, D.L., & Weingart, L.R., (2001). Maximizing cross-functional new product teams’ innovativeness and constraint adherence: A conflict communications perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 779-793. Retrieved from Maximizing cross-functional new product teams’ innovativeness and constraint adherence: A conflict communications perspective.

Morgan, B.B., Salas, E., & Glickman, A.S., (1993). An analysis of team evolution and maturation. The Journal of General Psychology, 120, 277-291.

Salas, E., Sims, D.E., & Burke, C.S., (2005). Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork? Small Group Research, 36, 555-599. Retrieved from

Shibley, I.A., (2006). Interdisciplinary team teaching. Negotiating pedagogical differences. College Teaching, 54, 271-271. Retrievded from

Tancig, S., (2009). Expert team decision-making and problem-solving: development and learning. Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, 7, 106-116. Retrieved from

[1] Fransen’s PhD thesis (2012) on team effectiveness in collaborative learning in higher ed is available on

[2] Task work competencies and skills are those “that members must understand and acquire for individual task performance” (Burke et al., 2004, p i97) and

[3] “Team work competencies and skills are the cognitive, behavioural, and attitudinal actions that members need to function effectively as part of an interdependent team” (Burke et al., 2004, p i97).