Friday, May 23, 2014

Interdisciplinary Teams

A popular thing for many companies to do is to create "interdisciplinary teams." I have noticed, however, that many of these so-called interdisciplinary teams are rarely in fact interdisciplinary.

For example, if you have a team that has a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer, that is not an interdisciplinary team. To be an engineer, you have to master math and physics. The other two may bring in a few more details from their fields, but these three people are in fact all talking the same language and using the same basic methods. They are not an interdisciplinary team.

But let us say you have a team consisting of a psychologist, an economist, and marketing specialist. Now we are closer to having an interdisciplinary team. Here we have three people who in their narrow specialties may not have the least idea what the other two are talking about. However, this team is still not necessarily interdisciplinary.

What will make this team interdisciplinary? Integration. Without the ability to integrate the knowledge provided by each, you only have a multidisciplinary team. You can get some things done with a multidisciplinary team, but you will get far less than you could if you had someone to integrate their knowledge.

One way of integrating is to make sure at least one person on the team is an interdisciplinarian, having sufficient knowledge of the other two members' knowledge to be able to do the work of integrating. While such a person is in many ways ideal, they are also rare.

Another way of integrating is to bring in an interdisciplinarian -- someone who is trained to integrate knowledge from different sources and understand the different methods being used by each of the team members. This person acts both as a bridge among the different individuals and as an integrator of ideas and knowledge.

Unfortunately, while integrationists are necessary for your interdisciplinary team to be most successful, it is rare to have such a person on such a team. People talk about being interested in interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving, but rarely do you see people act on them. And when they do, more often than not they put together a multidisciplinary team rather than an interdisciplinary one. This may also be why there is less actual enthusiasm for interdisciplinary teams than the rhetoric would suggest. Multidisciplinary teams are not going to be very successful precisely because of communication problems among the specialists; unless you have an integrationist on the team, you cannot solve those communication problems, meaning your team will not be as successful as it could be.

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