According to last week’s results from the first of its kind school report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, most education systems poorly teach students how to solve problems in teams and the standard individualistic exam systems in most schools produces professionals who lack cooperation skills in the workplace. With a notable exception, the East Asian education system, with Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and Korea topping the table for problem-solving teamwork.
But what, indeed, is teamwork?
Nowadays, the term teamwork is heavily perceived as reserved for the areas of sports, education and business, but in etymological and historical terms, it draws its roots from the collaboration between people and animals in family farm work. Deriving from a Proto-Germanic verb describing the actions of ‘pulling, drawing, bringing forth and producing offspring,’ the concept entered English circa 10th century, with the noun team first defined in the eleventh-century descendants of the earliest school text in the English language, The Antwerp–London Glossaries, as ‘a group of oxen harnessed together to pull a plough.’
The first official use of the compound noun teamwork is recorded eight centuries later in William Brooke’s True Causes Present Distress for Provisions where he suggests that instead of horses, English farmers should use oxen, bulls and mules for the “the ploughing, the drawing, and all kind of team-work.”
Introduced by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations and further impacted by the ideas of Kant and Marx, the division of labour came out as the preferred method used by manufacturers to reduce costs in the 19th century and teamwork – as the manufacturing organisation of work where each individual is responsible for a particular part or component, rather than the whole product. 1877, Massachusetts Bureau Statistics Labor: “By team work is meant a species of work made use of to some extent in manufacturing boots and shoes,..signifying a combination of men where the labor of all—each doing a particular part—is necessary to the production of a single article.”
Naturally, this production model promoted the rise of big mass production and routine work, supported by the Classical Management Theory – with scholars like Henry Ford and Taylor – where employees were considered as a production factor, to be later replaced by Human Relations Managing practices, pioneered by Elton Mayo, and highlighting the importance of working in cooperative and cohesive groups, laying the groundwork for later approaches to team building, with the concept first recorded in use in relation to business management in 1907.
A century later, teamwork became the standard management for maximizing employees’ motivation and organisation’s productivity. And with most businesses going global and the collaborative market projected to reach USD 35 billion next year, corporate investments in teambuilding and collaborative technologies are on the rise.
However, any teamwork is prone to numerous challenges, as there are ‘individuals’ involved, be it people or oxen.