The emergent route to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration in higher education

By Martin Vogel


This is the third in our series looking at how our counter-consultancy approach meets the needs of higher education institutions. Here we explore the complex nature of university cultures and how we use conversation and reflection to mobilise distributed leadership.

Interdisciplinarity can address a university’s need for funds and a distinctive marketing proposition but also the individual academic’s need for compelling research opportunities. If each university has unique research strengths, these can be synthesised into interdisciplinary ventures which pursue approaches to research excellence that can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. This creates compelling reasons for funds, students and academics to gravitate to particular institutions. It counters a view of higher education as a largely undifferentiated, instrumental business with one which construes it as comprising diverse institutions each with intrinsic value and distinctive contributions to make to the world’s knowledge.

In our experience, academics tend to adopt one of three stances to these possibilities: instinctively excited; persuadable; or more inclined to focus on their own specific area of interest. The formal structures tend to facilitate the latter disposition. So if interdisciplinarity is to flourish, there need to be informal processes of networking and influencing to foster possibilities to collaborate. To this end, we facilitate conversational workshops in which people of diverse disciplines inside academia and interested parties from outside can discuss ideas in a structured process and identify research questions of mutual interest.

This is where the dimension of external partnerships comes in. People rooted in domains outside academia are a source of real world challenges for academics to address. They tend to frame questions which cross academic disciplines and they sometimes flounder in approaching universities. If their question doesn’t map easily onto a single discipline or faculty, the point of entry to the institution isn’t clear.

To overcome this problem, universities often establish units dedicated to fostering external partnerships. These might be either generic partnership units or focussed on specific areas of interest. Either way, they provide visible points of entry, staffed by people whose business is to navigate onward pathways into the institution and broker cross-disciplinary engagement by academics with research challenges.

This looks like a neat solution institutionally, but the pertinent issue is how it functions in practice. Those that are successful are adept at managing collaboration from the initial fostering of research ideas, through establishing a functioning research project to holding it to account for research outcomes at the end of the project. It’s an interesting question whether these enterprises are best led by academics or non-academics. In our experience, the former are more inclined to work with established channels while the latter lean to getting things done by whatever means work best: informal rather than formal influence; networks rather than departments; distributed rather than centralised leadership. One academic with senior responsibilities in this area told us that the practitioners most enthusiastic about working across institutional boundaries and exercising informal influence are more likely to be women. We have observed this too. Perhaps because men tend to be more prevalent in established university hierarchies, they seem to be more comfortable working with the grain of them.

It is important to appreciate that progress on initiatives that challenge the status quo in higher education institutions is not linear, nor solely achievable through formal channels. If the issues facing universities are complex, universities are also complex institutions themselves, with leadership widely distributed. So complexity is compounded upon complexity. Those people trying to attempt something new will be keeping many parts in motion – often, on top of demanding routine responsibilities of their day job. They are likely to encounter colleagues who are defensive and frankly reluctant to get involved because it’s likely to be extremely hard work with uncertain results.

The only way to deal with such a context is to step back from it, think reflectively about what you are dealing with and to run experiments in navigating the maze that lies between you and achieving results. When sailing uncharted waters, there has to be some licence to fail if there’s to be any success. It’s imperative that those leading challenging change have access to the support that enables reflective space. We find teams achieve creative breakthroughs when we offer them reflective workshops in groups or work with them individually in one-to-one coaching – usually some combination of both. We try to help them access the intuitive knowhow that can get smothered by conventional managerial processes. And we encourage them to acknowledge the fears and obstacles that arise so that they can face them consciously rather than be conditioned by them.

When people step back reflectively, they are able to see more clearly who they need to influence – informal ways of moving forward. Without the reflective space, they may easily get stuck on autopilot, instinctively pulling organisational levers that don’t yield results.

None of this is to say that structural solutions are beside the point. They matter too. As well as the modus operandi, the model of internal funding matters: collaboration with external partners and internal colleagues in other faculties flourishes where the opportunity cost to the participating departments is minimised. Another way to reduce the friction involved in interdisciplinary collaboration is pre-emptively to bring together diverse disciplines in a shared area of focus. This has the effect of ensuring some internal joining up before partners come knocking at the door. But it is a producer-oriented approach which assumes an ability to identify socially relevant interdisciplinary configurations ahead of the evidence. Sometimes enterprises formed in this way never take off. So here too the trade-offs are complex and benefit from consideration in a reflective environment in which the options can be assessed against the criterion of what is optimal for the particular institution.

What should be evident is that organising universities to work in interdisciplinary ways and to the stimulus of external partnership raises profound management challenges. These challenges are of the order that would defeat leaders of conventional organisations. But, as should also be clear, universities are not conventional. They are politicised environments with multiple stakeholders (and thus comprise multiple sources of legitimisation for the stances and behaviours people choose to adopt). Academic staff, enjoying high levels of autonomy, are not easily encouraged to buy into the strategies of central management. Universities are littered with management initiatives which, if not exactly misconceived, fail to mobilise participation of staff – leaving legacy narratives of notorious failures which encourage cynicism and discourage enthusiasm for new initiatives.

Many universities are desperately in need of leadership that will provide energy, direction and a renewed sense of purpose. A number of the traditional universities, burnishing global reputations and opening campuses in far-away places, have become disconnected from the communities in which they are rooted. They have seen so-called modern universities usurp their place at the educational heart of their communities. They become, instead, remote, corporate institutions which may provide employment and other economic benefits, but have little to say at the local level. They are realising that there are risks in such rootlessness and are trying to reconnect with the social purposes that informed their founding. Relevance on the global stage grows out of connection to local concerns.

In the next post, we explore how capitalising on their interdisciplinary potential to address societal challenges offers universities a chance to revitalise their public purposes.

Other posts in this series:

Image courtesy University of Exeter.