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interdisciplinary studies…what, why? – part 2

workforce needs

scientific breakthroughs

by Kenneth Rudich

Part 1 explored the what and why of interdisciplinary studies: how it differs from disciplinary thinking, and its usefulness for unearthing insights that might otherwise remain elusive.

This post looks at specific examples to reveal its relevance beyond the classroom.

a benefit to science

Interdisciplinary studies have been used to chart new frontiers in science.  The
field of cognitive neuroscience, for example, combines cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

According to Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, cognitive psychology attempts to study the mind  — that is, how humans engage in mental manipulation.

Neuroscience, on the other hand, studies the brain — the actual neural activity that occurs in the cranium.  He characterizes the former as being like the software in a computer and the latter as more like the hardware.

The difficulty associated with trying to combine these two fields of study may not seem readily apparent to those unfamiliar with the core intellectual differences that separate them.  For a scientist, however, these differences can make this challenge somewhat akin to the problem of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  To this day, says Gardner, “…the integration of the two disciplines is by no means complete;” and he concedes that many scientists have chosen to remain rooted in their home discipline rather than attempt to negotiate the intellectual leap that is necessary to facilitate such work.

But there are scientists who have been able to make the intellectual leap and combine the two into one domain of study known as cognitive neuroscience. Through their work, they have gained a better understanding of the relationship between the mind and the brain.  They believe these findings will bode well for future advancements in science and medicine.

back down to earth

The same objective of combining different perspectives has been translated into other practices as well.

One involves open-source thinking, particularly as it pertains to product and process development.  A notable example of this is the development of computer software via an open-source model, which relies on a community-based approach for enhancing the capabilities of a software application.  This differs from the centralized approach of a company formulating the software entirely in-house; rather, open-source decentralizes the development process by taking contributions from outsiders.  This tapping of diverse perspectives has yielded a development process that is both rapid and effective.

Another example, called knowledge brokering, has been transforming the way global companies develop new products.  It has led to the coining of the term “open innovation.”

Professor Corey Billington and co-author Rhoda Davidson define it as “a systematic approach to seeking external ideas from people in a variety of industries, disciplines, and contexts and then of combining the resulting lessons in new ways.”  Basically, it boils down to borrowing ideas from others who have faced and solved similar challenges elsewhere; and then adapting or re-purposing those solutions to fit the task at hand.

other applications for interdisciplinary studies

The challenges do not have to be large and formidable to make interdisciplinary studies a fruitful alternative.  Training people how to think and interact in this manner, sometimes referred to as lateral thinking, can make a material difference in almost every form of enterprise.

Consider the current needs of the labor market, for instance.  Employees who perform higher value work, what economists call tacit interactions, can also use the benefits derived from an interdisciplinary approach to thinking.  Such interactions typically involve the ability to manage non-routine tasks – like sizing up a complex situation and then making context-based decisions for correctly handling it; or mobilizing loosely coupled teams of people with different backgrounds, skills and expertise into a fluid workflow; or promoting a cycle of continuous improvement and rapid innovation within a work process.  Many workers fall into this category, not the least of which include managers, sales people, customer service representatives, and more. (To read more about the current labor market, see “The Current State of Future Workforce Needs.”)

In reality, the expanded view of an interdisciplinary approach can help all individuals gain a fresh perspective, even in areas traditionally known for specialization.  Professor Richard Florida cites the emergence of a “creative class” of workers — comprised of scientists, engineers, university professors, poets, novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, architects, designers and others for whom creativity is essential to their livelihood — as the barometer of where things are going.  The task of the creative class, says Florida, is to “produce new forms or designs that are readily transferable and broadly useful– such as designing a product that can be widely made, sold and used; coming up with a theorem or strategy that can be applied in many cases; or composing music that can be performed again and again.”  Inspiration born of a larger vision or broader understanding can give such specialists a leg up for translating their knowledge into creative outcomes.


It is evident we have arrived at a time in history where there is ample room for interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies to stand alongside the conventionally standard practice of disciplinary studies, without one necessarily crowding another. Each will serve a purpose, and all will contribute to the benefit of the greater good.

Related Posts:

Creativity Management: The Value of Tacit Knowledge


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