X-disciplines or lose relevance?

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News and conversations are filled with challenges that cross disciplinary divides: climate change, poverty and effective education to name a few. In my consulting practice, I work with leaders who are struggling with complex, knowledge-related challenges. As a researcher, my scholarship hovers around the intersections of leadership, complexity theory and knowledge management. Increasingly, I appreciate the strengths and relevance of people who can make connections across boundaries to enable innovation, ethical decisions, and environments in which people can learn and thrive.

Last night I attended a small house party where people were associated with at least five universities. Several individuals—who knew little or nothing of my background—spoke to me about leadership, complexity theory and/or knowledge-related challenges. Almost everyone spoke about spanning, linking or integrating disciplines. Some described the challenges of communicating with single-discipline-focused colleagues. One had been told by a supervisor at their university that they had too many interests: they could not be an “expert” in all of them.

In my world of practice, important learning can occur rapidly, across many boundaries. Someone posts a request for help and within hours there are stories, references, provocative questions, practice examples and tool suggestions posted by experts from many organizations and countries. These conversations sometimes continue through cycles of experimentation and improvement. For better or worse, such learning does not require terms of reference documents, project charters, grant proposals, approvals through hierarchies, publication, peer reviews or evaluation metrics.

What are the risks and benefits of universities’ maintaining discipline-based structures and values? I suggest formal education in some fields will quickly lose relevance of universities do not find meaningful ways of honouring and rewarding their boundary-spanning faculty and students.

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