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  • Writer's pictureFiona Fennell

Interdisciplinary work – why we badly need it, yet it is a challenge

Although “multidisciplinary” and “interdisciplinary” are used interchangeably, these related terms have different meanings. A "multidisciplinary" approach borrows from a broad range of different subject areas whereas "interdisciplinary" work is narrower and more complex. It requires yet knitting together inputs from a number of disciplines to assess, evaluate and plan for a specific outcome.

Why we need interdisciplinary work?

(i)                    We face VUCA times

The acronym “VUCA” stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Many industries have faced VUCA for some time e.g. in the form of disruptive technology but now the average person has experienced directly during COVID. Daily life is characterised as “VUCA” for many and indeed, it is no surprise that interdisciplinary work is one of the Holy Grails of healthcare settings. After all, each patient is a unique biological system of inputs and variables requiring an integrated approach to figure out what can be done for a desired outcome. Our thinking is challenged by uncertainty as well as our inherent biases but as humans we are always trying to “sense make”. Together is certainly better for this purpose when dealing with complexity in the face of irregular data and patterns. (ii) There are more “hard” problems

STEM professionals are good at solving problems and answering questions e.g. that require analysis of multiple inputs and variables. However, a “hard” problem is one where the solution method and concepts needed are not immediately clear. More often than not, manufacturing settings require us to integrate a number of (what might appear on the surface to be) unrelated concepts in order to find a solution that is likely to be compound i.e. combining elements. To do so, requires a number of cognitive approaches and different problem-solving methods so interdisciplinary work gives us the best chance in highly integrated settings.

(iii) Learning environments are “wicked”

In complex manufacturing such as biologics, we see less of a correlation between the decisions we make and their outcomes. This is called a “wicked learning environment” (Hogarth) where patterns don’t repeat themselves or at least insufficiently so to derive hard-and-fast rules. If we return to the healthcare setting, there is a reason we typically see less errors made by anaesthetists than radiologists. Anaesthetists benefit from shorter and clearer feedback loops between making a decision/action and the patient impact. “Wicked learning environments” rob us of such direct feedback producing greater ambiguity and hence, any single “subject matter expert” approach is rarely appropriate.

Why interdisciplinary work is a challenge?

Although neuroscientists now consider that man evolved reasoning for the purpose of persuasion, sometimes these powers serve us well and other times poorly:

(iv) Social dynamics and biases

All groupwork is subject to social biases that hamper us optimising our collective IQ. For example, as social animals we are prone to reach agreement sometimes too readily and converge around “what we all know”. In the face of “wicked learning environments” this is problematic as we may overlook “what we all don’t see” when that is the very cause of the problem. At other times, opinions can become polarised with each side preferring alterative standpoints. Yet we can avoid both (convergence and polarisation) with effective social dynamics in order to frame problems better.

(v) A clash of “ways of knowing”

The wider bandwidth from combining several disciplines is very useful. Each of the STEM area's share common foundations in philosophy. For example, maths depends on logic for its development and science began as “the philosophy of nature”. Engineering relies heavily on the hard science of physics and on mathematics for its epistemology. The truth however is that how knowledge has developed within each discipline is slightly different. Physics prefers universal laws, for example, while biology with its focus on emergence tends to shy away from immutable principles. Hence, there is some mismatch when we combine all these approaches for interdisciplinary work. We can overcome this, however, if we apply a common language for discussing both the general and the particulars of a given situation.

To conclude, we now face a time when interdisciplinary work and innovation are needed more than ever. What will complicate achieving both is an increasing remoteness in our work settings. We will need to find new tools and even resurrect some approaches that facilitate collaboration with less time to meet face to face. These are not necessarily expensive but do require careful thought and consideration. Fiona completed a Master’s thesis in Organisational Behaviour on “the Role of Language in team level Innovation” (from the National Centre for Quality Management, U.L.). She has experience in purpose-training STEM professionals for QA and Validation. Fiona is the founder and owner for and helps individuals and collectives to achieve their purpose during VUCA times.


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