The recent increase in research collaboration creates the need to better understand the interaction between individual researchers and the collaborative team. The paper elaborates the conceptualisation of research teams as complex systems which emerge out of the local interactions of individual members operating in their local research groups, and which exhibit different dynamics: the local, the global dynamics, and the contextual dynamics. A model of research teams as complex systems is also introduced. This conceptualisation provides unique insights on management of distributed research teams: (a) the internal operations of some teams are more sensitive to external events than others; (b) conflicts emerge as a mismatch of management structures at the different levels in which a team operates; and (c) teams of high complexity have additional coordination needs, which can be fulfilled by the use of information and communication technologies. Recommendations are drawn for the use of a complex adaptive systems model in the field of knowledge management. © 2012 Operational Research Society. All rights reserved.