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Why Group Assignments Matter to Graduates' Futures

Tue, 25 Sep 2018

View the article with accompanying infographic here.


Many tertiary students bemoan group assignments.

Will everyone pull their weight?

Who’s responsible for what?

What if I end up doing all the work?

What if do my best work alone?

Can’t I at least choose who I work with?

These are all understandable concerns but they are also questions that will be asked well beyond the group assignment at hand.

The ability to collaborate, with people who may be very different from you, has become a basic requirement in virtually all forms of modern employment. It can mean the difference between success and failure in business, government, not-for-profits and volunteer organisations.

But what has changed to make working in teams even more important? In a word, complexity.

Individuals alone can rarely comprehend all facets of a product or plan. While one person may be responsible for a certain result, many jobs will still require input from others, which means teamwork skills even when there’s no formal team in place. On top of that, employees may be members of several teams concurrently.

‘Whether it’s in aircraft manufacturing or whether it’s in software development, it is a team effort. So people need to be able to work very collaboratively and also have the ability to communicate effectively within those teams,’ Director of Strategy and Innovation at Dimension Data, Duncan Brown, says.

Employers see good teamwork as more than only completing a task together. Effective teams support the overall direction of the organisation, foster mutual respect and promote on-the-job learning.

Business students are often assigned group tasks and graded on the results. However, some employers argue for more emphasis on the performance of each group member considering factors like adherence to the team’s agreed timelines, willingness to participate in decision-making and problem-solving discussions, and the degree of information sharing within the group.

‘I would want to know how the team made decisions about workload distribution. I would want to know what protocol the team had put in place to keep one another honest about meeting those goals. I would want to know what cultural standards they had set for themselves in terms of behavioural norms and how they had defined those and agreed what the cultural norms of that particular group are going to be. I would want to know the course of the process. What did they do when something unexpected arose as it inevitably will?’, Education Leader Oceania at EY, Catherine Friday, says.

Chair and CEO of the Australian Accounting Services Board, Kris Peach, says she’s working to build a corporate culture that rewards good group processes and not just good outcomes. She asks of her employees, ‘How did you get to the answer?’

Bendigo Bank’s Head of People and Performance, Mark Schultz, agrees and says that acquiring such skills are an important part of university studies. ‘I think that one of the most important learnings from group work at university is not necessarily the final product, but it’s the process and how people contribute to that,’ he says.

‘Often it’s the process that provides the richest learning experience that will help people be ready for that environment when they get to work because that’s exactly what they’re going to walk into in an industry like ours,’ Schultz says.

Dimension Data’s Duncan Brown describes a worst-case scenario with business graduates who may be competent in technical skills but poor at working in teams and communicating. It’s human engagement skills, at the end of the day, that will make them successful,’ he says.

Group assignments are valuable opportunities to hone the life skills that are key to good teamwork and a promising professional future.

The business leaders quoted were interviewed by the Australian Business Deans Council as part of wider consultations to understand how Australian business schools and their graduates can continue to improve and meet the future needs of industry.



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