‘Transdisciplinarity’: A Future Workforce Skill

“Transdisciplinarity,” the ability to adapt concepts and lessons from outside one’s field of experience to challenge one’s core proficiency, is helping researchers find a solution to America’s obesity epidemic at an unexpected location: IKEA.

The answer isn’t to burn calories by wandering through a mammoth furniture warehouse, however. Instead one must view both public health interventions and retail as complex service systems. An unconventional blend of subject matter experts at IBM’s Almaden Services Research group compared the way IKEA adapts its product design and delivery to customers’ needs with how medical professionals, government health agencies and patients interact to develop workable weight-control interventions.

IBM made this leap by creating an environment where researchers viewed their dissimilar backgrounds as an engine for insights. Transdisciplinary workers, team leaders and thinkers can provide counterintuitive solutions to elaborate challenges in the workplace and the world at large — and can prepare an organization for the unpredictable years ahead.

Understanding Demand for the ‘T-Shaped’ Employee
Transdisciplinarity was identified in a report written by the Institute for the Future for Apollo Research Institute, “Future Work Skills 2020,” as one of 10 workplace skills that will help organizations handle disruptive technological and societal change (See sidebar).

People who can correlate material from diverse knowledge bases and extract tangible results — whether for a new business initiative or massive global issues, such as resource scarcity or pandemics — will be prized in the future workplace.

Key to the transdisciplinary mindset is the “T-shaped person,” a concept popularized by Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO. T-shaped individuals possess deep knowledge in a primary field (the upright part of the “T”), but cultivate a broad curiosity about areas of expertise outside that field (the crossbar of the “T”). Brown cites empathy, enthusiasm and a readiness to collaborate as hallmarks of the T-shaped person.

Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president and managing director of Apollo Research Institute and a former Silicon Valley executive, described recent hiring practices as swinging between two extremes. “In years past, you wanted generalists who had MBAs, who could walk into any company and who had this broad base of management. And then we went through a phase when firms only wanted specialists — people who had deep experience, whether it was in technology, HR or marketing.”

Now, she said, companies seek people with an integrated breadth and depth who can transition easily between different functions and company cultures as projects or skill requirements dictate.

“Future Work Skills 2020” states that disruptive societal and economic shifts could make it difficult for talent managers to tailor workforce development to rapidly changing skill demands. Misconceptions about what skills will matter most are prevalent. In “Asleep at the Wheel: Are College Students and Employers Ready for the Jobs of the Future?,” a 2011 survey of more than 2,500 college students and employers, Apollo Research Institute reported that 65 percent of employers believe the workforce skills keeping their firm competitive today won’t change during the next 10 years. Only 37 percent are trying to identify what skills will preserve their competitive advantage, and just 40 percent are adapting their talent management strategies to develop a properly skilled staff. Transdisciplinary workers could play a strong role in bridging current and future gaps in corporate skill sets.

Improving Service Delivery at IBM
According to “Future Work Skills 2020,” transdisciplinarity can help overcome world problems and technical obstacles too great for experts from a single field. Jim Spohrer, innovation champion and director of IBM University Programs Worldwide and founding director of the Almaden Services Research group in San Jose, Calif., said teaming people from diverse disciplines has energized IBM’s role as a global services provider.

IBM began recruiting humanities and social science experts such as anthropologists and economists in 2002. Their behavioral insights allow them to detect systems and workflow patterns that traditional analysts might miss. “Business consultants are good at ‘following the money’ to explain things, but anthropologists are good at ‘following the power’ to understand things,” Spohrer said.

This power, he said, often resides outside high-ranking or obvious figures — for example, the person who has survived several staff turnovers and has important institutional memory. Therefore, without that person, changes would be near impossible. Revealing such hidden relationships has helped IBM customize its services to each client’s cultural terrain.

To help new arrivals introduce themselves, Spohrer said, “We would ask people to teach a course on their discipline to the others,” based on their past project areas, which could range from health care and retail to finance. They describe the solutions their discipline has developed, as well as the “grand challenges” that remain. This creates a shared vocabulary and helps pool experience to spark interdisciplinary discussions.

Developing a Transdisciplinary Workforce
Brown, of IDEO, said T-shaped qualities don’t always stand out on resumes; they emerge gradually during a candidate’s discussions of past projects and collaborators.

Wilen-Daugenti described one person whose resume didn’t suggest she’d be an ideal candidate, but who was able to flesh out her capabilities and achievements in a highly personalized way that demonstrated how her diverse experiences matched interviewers’ needs, which won her the job. By prompting candidates for stories about how they led or joined cross-functional initiatives that highlight their breadth and curiosity, Wilen-Daugenti said hiring managers can better envision how an applicant’s range of capabilities can enhance the organization.

As for current staff, Wilen-Daugenti said managers aren’t always conscious of their departmental skills gaps, and workers might not know how to share their full spectrum of abilities outside those their current job requires. Empower them by opening a dialogue.

“If managers can tap into their needs and clearly articulate them, I think there are ways employees can communicate to managers too. Employees should take control of their career and say, ‘Here’s what I really want to try,’” she said.

Wilen-Daugenti said large firms often allow employees to rotate to other departments or make lateral moves within their own groups. Allowing staff to tour other workgroups can round out their experience and build an appreciation for these departments’ contributions. Another alternative that won’t reduce headcount is for HR and team managers to build cross-department employee task force teams to address company problems. This can help the entire group understand how each function works and learn how members can collaborate by pooling expertise and skills across departments. Either option can convince people thinking of leaving the company because their talents aren’t being fully engaged to switch to a more suitable department instead.

Alongside employees’ routine work, Spohrer said managers should create “challenge projects” that help reports reach out to co-workers and subject matter experts from other disciplines and cultures to absorb lessons applicable to their own tasks. Spohrer encouraged an employee to establish a new program at several international universities. It led her to make multiple contacts within IBM while obtaining buy-in and recruiting volunteers, even before she started her pilot program, which further broadened her range of experience. Within a year, she had gained priceless insights into the inner workings of several academic departments, along with the experience of building a cross-disciplinary team to launch a successful, still-running program.

Colleges and universities are establishing interdepartmental links and reaching out to industry to ensure graduates enter the workforce with a transdisciplinary outlook. For instance, IBM has partnered with Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., by participating in the Symposium on Engineering and Liberal Education, which aims to foster development of cross-disciplinary teaching between technical and liberal arts departments. The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology facilitates interdisciplinary and industry partnerships between University of California campuses with the goals of “accelerating innovation and shortening the time to product development and job creation” to preserve California’s competitive edge.

Likewise, Stanford University’s MediaX program — where Wilen-Daugenti is a visiting scholar — is a “catalyst for industry and academic research partnerships” that encourages interdisciplinary research among Stanford’s academic departments and experts from government, nonprofits and industry into technology’s impact on society.

To build a transdisciplinary outlook, Wilen-Daugenti said workers returning to school should include areas of study outside their existing field. “That’s very popular in Silicon Valley,” Wilen-Daugenti said. “A lot of the directors and VPs say, ‘If you’re going to go back to school, reverse the learning from what your discipline is so you can stretch your brain.’ So if you went to school for history, you go back for IT, and if you went for computer science, go back for an MBA.”

If workers are receiving tuition reimbursement for training, however, Wilen-Daugenti cautioned managers to tie requests for training to results. Ensure that employees have a plan for how skills acquired in a given class will contribute to the department’s goals.

Inspiring Innovation
“The benefit of transdisciplinarity is innovation,” Wilen-Daugenti said. “By putting together an interdisciplinary team, you really have an opportunity to innovate. When you include a marketing person, a Web person, a finance person and an economics person, something really interesting is going to happen.”

Although making the case for adding liberal arts majors in a STEM environment, or allowing employees to cross-train in different departments, might require some convincing, Jim Spohrer said the contributions of a transdisciplinary staff make it worthwhile. “Were folks initially skeptical?” he asked of the Almaden effort. “There are always skeptics. But in the end, we did it, and it was hugely valuable — and continues to be for IBM.”

James M. Fraleigh is a freelance writer. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.