MBA alumni have recently had the opportunity to sharpen their business skills - including a seminar by Meredith Belbin, noted management guru. Simon Newton reports
They came in quantity. They arrived as "plants", "shapers", and "monitor-evaluators", and left as Blue, Green and Orange workers. There was even a Pink Panther among them.

This was not an audition for the sequel to Reservoir Dogs but a recent seminar on effective team-working which was held at Walton Hall for MBA alumni of the OU.

Any manager who has been on an away-day about team-building learns the language of its guru, Dr Meredith Belbin. His seminal work, Management Teams - Why They Succeed and Fail (1981), set out the basic team roles needed for a well-designed and effective team and was cited by the Financial Times as one of the top 50 business books of all time.

Belbin's team role theory is now a mainstay of management courses. It sets out clearly the case for a team's needing to be a congregation of individuals selected for a purpose, with each member performing to individual behavioural strengths.

He argues that teams need to be deliberately designed with each member contributing a specific role if they are to achieve their goals.

Belbin presented his new thinking about teams with consultant colleague Barry Watson. Arguing for the importance of practical applications of management research, Belbin reflected that research is just heavy ingots until cast into shape by implementation. With examples drawn from their experience as corporate consultants, they ensured their more theoretical claims were followed through and tested by case studies in development and implementation.

Claiming that early hunter-gatherer groups of homo sapiens practised a primitive form of his team-work theory, Belbin pointed to the power of speech as the key for evolutionary success. Homo sapiens became "Nattering Man/Woman" who dispensed with the mumbling, stumbling Neanderthal.

Size matters but it is the size of the team rather than the size of the individual brain that wins out.

"We need to operate in the size of groups we can comfortably handle," Belbin argued. "There is a constant trade-off between size and efficiency."

Teams are distinctly different from groups. The large unplanned group can create "group-think", the sense of self-censorship which helps suppress deviant viewpoints and gives illusions of superiority.

Good teams are carefully selected, small, with specialised knowledge and rotating leadership. Belbin pointed to the example of sports teams and the role of managers in selecting, training and motivating for success.

"If you had a football team with 11 goalkeepers but they didn't know they were goalkeepers..."

In a working world characterised by uncertainty and supposedly, in Tom Peters' words, thriving on chaos, are there still clear job roles and descriptions? The standard classification for jobs is already redundant.

Already fewer employees have job titles or set roles. Job specifications are breaking down in flatter organisations which lack hierarchy. At the end of the millennium, new working patterns are emerging.

Managers may now brief an appropriately skilled employee who interprets and completes the task and then gives feedback.

For Belbin, words failed. "Words are a great barrier to communication," he claimed.

Recognising that these new patterns of work are now challenging his old team-role classifications Belbin set out a new theory of colour-coded work. Types of work depend on mixes of individual and team work, clarity of task and levels of responsibility and risk.

Using a colourful matrix, Belbin argued that Blue work consisted of typical command and control tasks while Orange work demanded a lot of interaction and high levels of risk and responsibility which was most appropriate form for teams. High risk and high complexity leads to great team-work.

In his new rainbow working world, Belbin offers White work for tasks needing a blank sheet of paper and completely fresh thinking, Grey work for spin-off jobs done at the margins and Pink Elephants and Pink Panthers for everybody's favourite time-consuming task - "imaginary work."

Leaving delegates to mull over the new meaning of "in the pink" and "off colour", Belbin and Barry Watson looked briefly at why teams fail. Many teams are wrongly selected on criteria of eligibility, availability and acceptability.

Teams need to be built by combining appropriate skills and not based on seniority. Teams are designed with great care to meet the needs and demands of a specific time-limited project. For Belbin, effective teams consist of carefully colour-coded individuals combining those who demand "Let's get on with it!" with those who suggest "Hold on, this might be wrong". Teams are small, highly-focused communities of individuals working on clear assignments.

For Belbin, the future probably should be orange but it could also have a hint of blue, green, yellow and pink.