Might an Olympic swimmer’s ideas for cross-training suggest how to make inter-disciplinary and inter-business working more effective?

There are a number of examples of successful ideas emanating from intriguing inter-disciplinary partnerships, but finding useful partners seems more like an exercise in progressive trial-and-error than a logical process. So is speed-dating the best way of helping young businesses to get inspiration from one another in science parks, incubators and accelerators? 

It is easier to see that inter-disciplinary partnership is going to be important in some projects than it is to see who the partners should be.

Projects in areas like ageing, climate change or green technology are of their essence inter-disciplinary, but partnering research into how law firms operate with Zoologists (Gillian Tett in the Financial Times Magazine section 21.7.12) might seem to pre-suppose given kinds of findings. I am intrigued with exploring the nature of the vision that is necessary to make inter-disciplinary projects successful.

In a recent interview, a top Olympic swimmer mentioned that he had worked with kick-boxers – as embodying controlled aggression, with rock climbers – as developing muscles in the upper body, and with ballet dancers – for the sensitivity to their own bodies. These links seem to result from analysing what could enable the swimmer to perform significantly better with an understanding of other fields in which that may be a similar objective.

A similar process can be seen in other cross-disciplinary projects.

British Airways used often to pay for a day of his/her time to a specialist from a different field in order to get new perspectives on old problems. On one occasion, faced with the problem of how to stop grease trails developing along the aisle floor-covering from the galley of an aircraft, they invited an expert on the lay-out and equipping of surgical theatres to help them.

         A group of cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital, concerned at the dangers involved when an infant was handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care because monitoring and feed lines had to be disconnected and new ones re-connected, asked Maclaren, the Formula One racing company, to help them because of their expertise in the pit stop.

         First Great Western wanted to develop new products, and invited a Cabin Service Director from British Airways to their session along with specialists in Stress Relief, in Yoga and in NLP – with the result that the ideas for new products had a much broader scope than otherwise.

         The skills involved in making these connections seem to consist in knowing where best to find comparable operations that might produce fruitful insights. York University has had philosophers work with its epidemiologists – to see how understandings of causation might help the latter. The Professor of English has worked with a big pharma – inter alia on the role of trust – a project subsequently taken forward with 3-year funding from the Wellcome Foundation. Another department has worked with the European Space Agency – on issues to do with safety; and environmentalists have worked with lawyers – on issues of climate change. (At one workshop, a computer project was enabled by actors acting out how this would play out with users.)

         Professor Tom Inns at Dundee University has specialised in inter-disciplinary working. Choreography and theatres are metaphors central to his thinking; and he is interested in spaces, props, (loose) scripts, characters etc; and play, ownership and structure are concepts that would be part of his design-led approach. He makes use of co-experience activities as a source of ideas. He likes taking methods out of the areas in which they are commonly used and turning them into 3D realities or happenings, with the aim of making tacit information explicit.

         What seems to mark these exercises is an experimental approach – trying out several approaches and seeing what happens. For example at York University one approach has been to take an abstract theme, and to start by having expert speakers from several different depart-ments or disciplines (including leading experts from worldwide), then allowing the discussions to go where they will.

Some call the game one of ‘silo busing’, and Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab calls it ‘anti-disciplinary’ rather than ‘inter-disciplinary’. At all events, it would seem to be a field in which simile, metaphor and analogy have a big part to play. But whether research will show that successful lawyers turn out to behave like Meerkats is another question. 





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