As health professions educators consider both the potential value and practical implementation of interprofessionalism in their institutions, we have much to learn from the history and growing body of literature on interdisciplinary collaboration in universities. This article focuses on definitions and forms of interdisciplinary research, as well as widely viewed benefits and drivers of interdisciplinarity. Our summer newsletter will extend this overview with a look at barriers to interdisciplinary efforts and ways to overcome them.
Just as interprofessionalism involves more than one of the health sciences, interdisciplinary research and education entail two or more of the traditionally designated academic disciplines. These disciplines became institutionalized as university departments in the 1890s, and as the number of disciplines expanded in the 20th century, each developed as an increasingly specialized knowledge and practice, with its own language, research methodologies, standards and protocols, associations, conferences, and publications. This disciplinary structure largely continues today, so that most of us likely received our undergraduate and even graduate degrees in a single academic discipline.
In discussing activities that cross disciplinary borders, researchers distinguish between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary efforts. Multidisciplinarity involves “two or more divergent disciplines, which approach a research problem by using their own framings and methods, at a level that requires cooperation” and moving toward “aligned but separate goals,” as Siedlok and Hibbert explain in their literature review.1 By contrast, in interdisciplinarity, the separate disciplines go beyond cooperation to collaboration and integrated effort toward a common goal. In Siedlok and Hibbert’s words, “the perspectives are combined to provide a synthesized, systematic approach and a collective outcome.” The notion of integrated effort is also key to the definition of interdisciplinary research developed by the Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, established by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.”2 Note that none of these definitions suggests individual disciplines abandon their distinctiveness or autonomy as separate units; rather, the focus is on making use of knowledge and practices developed within those units for collaborative discovery and learning.
Yet, like interprofessionalism, interdisciplinarity comes in many varieties. Siedlok and Hibbert draw useful distinctions that illuminate the range of possibilities. First, they define a spectrum based on the context and durability of research integration. At the spectrum’s lower end are one-time “project-based collaborations,” which are “transient and problem-oriented,” while the upper end context is “the disciplinary community itself” including researchers who “engage repeatedly in interdisciplinary research in the long term,” often in research clusters or centers. A second distinction involves the process by which integration occurs. Siedlok and Hibbert distinguish between knowledge exchange, in which “knowledge is transferred from one discipline to another, either to solve a problem or to develop the receiving discipline,” andknowledge creation, in which “knowledge from two disciplines is connected together to produce new understandings or applications.”
Combining these two distinctions leads Siedlok and Hibbert to propose a grid of four modes of interdisciplinary integration: (1) knowledge exchange between disciplines at the short-term project level, (2) knowledge exchange between disciplines at the long-term community level, (3) knowledge creation generated by short-term interdisciplinary projects, and (4) knowledge creation generated by longer term interdisciplinary communities. In health professions terms, I might, for example, categorize as mode (1) a course in which dental faculty teach pediatric nursing students to perform an infant oral health exam, whereas a research project in which nursing and dental faculty members work together to to improve the oral health literacy of new mothers in a community falls into mode (3). Should those faculty members continue meeting over time, perhaps with institutional and grant support, to develop a series of collaborative studies that create new knowledge about infant oral health care, their efforts would extend into mode (4).
Taxonomies like this have begun to emerge in the scholarly literature along with the past decade’s flowering of national attention to interdisciplinarity (and interprofessionalism). Interprofessionalism has not replaced interdisciplinarity. In 2005, the National Academies of Science and the Association of American Universities released reports calling on universities to “reshape themselves to break the structural barriers that prevent researchers from engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations.”3 The National Academies urged universities to evolve into “institutions ‘without walls,’” with “a high degree of flexibility and mobility for students and faculty, and research efforts . . . organized around problems rather than disciplines” (qtd. in Sá). Likewise, a 2006 NIH report “affirmed the agency’s commitment to lowering the ‘artificial organizational barriers’ of the disciplines.”4 And these national statements are reflected in grant priorities for funding bodies ranging from the NIH and the National Science Foundation to private foundations. While some universities have a long tradition of commitment to interdisciplinarity, drivers like these are motivating many more to establish initiatives supporting interdisciplinary research and education. Brown University’s new model (supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) in which students simultaneously pursue graduate degrees in two different fields is a recent example.5
The assumption underlying all these efforts is that interdisciplinary research and education lead to enhanced creativity and innovation. A major driver is the widespread recognition that solving complex problems requires expertise from multiple disciplines—as well as current and future researchers’ being comfortable crossing disciplinary borders. Issues of the environment, poverty, national security, and, yes, health care involve a broad range of stakeholders and interests as well as disciplines and must therefore be addressed with an equally broad range of tools, methods, and practices.
At the individual level, faculty and students report being energized by interdisciplinary research. The Chronicle of Higher Education article on the Brown program also quotes an official saying students in Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary programs “have more than just the job market on their minds”; rather, she says, “they want to do something meaningful and are trying to fix big problems such as food or health care.” Evidence of this driver for interdisciplinarity is largely anecdotal so far, although one study that surveyed natural and social science researchers on environmental projects found “the formulation of new perspectives and intellectual stimulation was most frequently identified as the greatest reward.”6 Another study by a group of early-career researchers identified many benefits, including helping them “understand the wider impact of their research and their ‘home’ discipline while also contributing to wider societal questions”; “enhanc[ing] their ability to ask innovative questions with wider impact”; and aiding their “career progression by increasing their potential to secure funding.”7
I suggest health professions educators ask themselves if the definitional concepts and drivers of interdisciplinary collaboration outlined here can further their thinking about interprofessional education. Such types of knowledge exchange and creation are, after all, what being part of a community of learning is all about.
Siedlok F, Hibbert P. “The Organization of Interdisciplinary Research: Modes, Drivers, and Barriers.” International Journal of Management Reviews 16, no. 2 (2014): 194-210.
National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005.
Sá CM. “‘Interdisciplinary Strategies’ in U.S. Research Universities.” Higher Education 55 (2008): 537-552.
Harris M. “Interdisciplinary Study and Collaboration: A Case Study of American Research Universities.” Journal of Research Administration 41, no. 1 (2010): 22-34.
Patel V. “Brown U. Tests Approach to Interdisciplinary Graduate Work.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2014: A14.
Roy ED, Morzillo AT, Seijo F, et al. “The Elusive Pursuit of Interdisciplinarity at the Human-Environment Interface.” BioScience 63, no. 9 (2013): 745-753.
Bridle H, Vrieling A, Cardillo M, et al. “Preparing for an Interdisciplinary Future: A Perspective from Early-Career Researchers.” Futures 53 (2013): 22-32.
Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean, LECOM School of Pharmacy
Senior Consultant, AAL
In the 1990s I studied with a group of professionals examining the factors that accounted for success, which we defined as “achieving desired outcomes.” The group leader introduced me to the bookMan’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I read the book in one night and have since read it many times over. I often recommend it to my coaching clients who are looking for added insight into the dynamics of personal responsibility.
Frankl was a Jewish-Austrian neurologist/psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in late 1944. Frankl lost his wife, his mother and his brother during the Holocaust. He was liberated from Turhkeim (affiliated with Dachau) in April 1945. During his confinement, Frankl realized that one of the starkest contrasts between him and his captors was that while they had freedom (they could come and go as they pleased, for example), they did not have liberty (the right to choose their thoughts). On the other hand, while Frankl and his co-captives were stripped of their freedoms, they continued to have access to liberty; that is, they could continue to think as they chose. From this realization he concluded that all life, even a life of suffering, can have meaning.
Following his liberation, Frankl went on to work with Holocaust survivors utilizing logotherapy and existential analysis. This approach, described as the “will to meaning,” is considered the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. To Frankl (and Irvin Yalom, a disciple) “the lack of meaning is the paramount existential stress” and is manifest by feelings of meaninglessness, boredom, cynicism, a lack of direction and a questioning of the point to most of life’s activities.
In my work as a dean and as a consultant, I often frame faculty and client concerns into a question of meaningfulness. Questions such as “Where is your passion?” and “What would you be doing with your life if money and security were not an issue?” offer insight into meaning. The skill that underlies success, in my opinion, is connecting meaningfulness with organizational vision and mission. Those who figure out how to wed their passions to organizational aspirations preserve personal and organizational integrity.
My colleagues Dan Sontheimer, Bill Braun and Stanley Kozakowski helped me develop the “Commitment Compass”TM which is a tool that connects individual passions to life work (occupation, parenting, marriage, community, etc.). For me, the phrase “inspirational teacher” captures my connection. When I reflect on my life, it is clear that a direct and profound correlation exists between being an “inspirational teacher” and generating success. I was reminded of my influence when my son, as a teenager, announced one day, “You know dad, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life!”
Clyde Evans, Ph.D.
President, CE Consulting
Senior Consultant, AAL
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is noteworthy not for its intellectual sophistication or its groundbreaking insights, but for its simplicity and power. In plain terms and a reader-friendly format, this short book gets directly to the heart of why people work together well or poorly and, by implication, what good leaders must cultivate and nurture at all costs.The Five Dysfunctions that must be avoided for success (in rank order priority) are lack of trust, fear of conflict tolerance, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.
Operating according to these principles requires a high level of emotional intelligence, which is always advantageous and increases the social capital of any organization. Besides presenting the fundamental concepts, this book provides tools, assessments, exercises, practical guidance and real-life examples to help readers move in the right direction. Although the book is about high performing teams rather than leadership per se, I have found that striving to create and sustain a culture that reflects these principles has enhanced my own leadership skills tremendously.
Judith Albino, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Strategic Planning and Development, Colorado School of Public Health
Senior Consultant, AAL
My choice for the “book that has changed my life as a leader” is not a “leadership book,” but a novel. Moreover, it was written not by a novelist, but by a Russian esotericist/philosopher. I’ve read, “Strange Life of Ivan Osokin,” many times over the past 40 years. I have noticed that it is neither particularly well written, nor as wholly enlightening as it seemed when I was younger.
Nonetheless, the simple message that I take away could not be presented in a more compelling fashion. Osokin is the Faustian tale of a Russian man who is given the opportunity to relive his life — specifically for the purpose of making different decisions than those he now laments – particularly some big decisions with regard to career, life partner, etc. Restoring memories at the end of both his lives, he puzzles that he repeated exactly the same decisions – even knowing that he was there to do the opposite. He ultimately comes to the realization that we make the only decisions we can. Rather than simply categorizing this outcome as the phenomenon of eternal recurrence, I prefer the following lesson: there are no BIG DECISIONS. There are only small decisions — usually unconscious, about the way we choose to interpret our experiences and the way we live our lives — and those small decisions irrevocably shape the so-called big decisions that we make.
W. Rory Hume, D.D.S., Ph.D., D.D.S.c
Executive Director of Education, Training and Development, The Qatar Foundation
* Dr. Hume will join AAL as Senior Consultant in Fall 2014
For me, the book was “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. A friend at UCLA gave it to me shortly before I became the executive vice chancellor there, the campus provost. I had been dean of dentistry, and the shift in both the size and scope of responsibilities seemed enormous. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the challenge, but I was very interested in how best to approach adding value to the institution as a whole through what I would be doing. I talked to people that I trusted about the challenge for a few weeks just before I took up the position. Mike Phelps, a prime inventor and the co-creator of the PET scan, recommended the book and gave me a copy.
The book is about institution-building, and the role of leaders in defining what institutions want to become, and then acting to facilitate the necessary changes to realize the ambition. Some words in that sentence became, to me, the key for many activities; getting the right groups of people in the institution to ask, “What do we want to become?” and moving forward from there.
The guidance that the book provided gave structure to what was, in most senses, a comprehensive strategic planning activity for the campus that ran for several years. People developed very clear ideas about what was most important, what their priorities were, and we acted accordingly. All of the indicators showed that it was an effective thing to do. Student satisfaction was already good, but it improved; research productivity improved as well. So did fundraising, by almost all of the major units, and the campus as a whole.
The philanthropic results were spectacular, and I believe firmly that that was because department chairs and deans became personally convinced of what the value of their units were, and very practiced at articulating that value to others. When we couldn’t provide all of the necessary resources from inside people knew what to ask for, and how best to explain their goals and needs.
“Good to Great” was written about for-profit companies, not universities. Jim Collins also published a book about non-profits, highlighting some differences, but to me the core principle is the same. The first thing is to work out where you want to go, with the people who will go there with you. Then you can decide how best to get there.
XComP™ (eXtensible Competencies Platform) is a cutting edge technology that will redefine student and program assessment. XComP™ was invented by Dr. R. Todd Watkins, Jr., Assistant Dean of Dental Education and Informatics at East Carolina University (ECU). In 1994, as founder, President and CEO of VitalSource, Dr. Watkins guided the development and delivery of the first XML-based electronic book platform which is currently the most used e-textbook technology in the world. XComP™’s patented method utilizes sets of microcompetencies as the building blocks for competencies. In its curriculum mapping application, XComP™ tags microcompetencies to every learning objective. Microcompetencies are also linked to six different assessment methodologies, including OSCEs, problem-based learning, case-based learning, multiple choice exams, discussion, and clinical performance. XComP™ “normalizes” student performance across all these different methodologies to provide a composite, authentic assessment of the individual student and cohorts of students. For accreditation, XComP™ is unparalleled in the data it provides in real time about the curriculum and student outcomes. The technology will be available for use in higher education, including health professions education, this summer.
AAL has formed a separate corporation, AAL Informatics, as the exclusive licensee of XComP™.
Who needs it? Everyone could benefit from a professional coach at some point in his or her career. A professional coach can help you to:
• Assess your prospects for career growth and development
• Provide support in negotiating a new role or position
• Prepare yourself to compete on the job market
• Effectively manage a crisis in your current position
• Get off to a great start in a new position
• Understand, weigh, and test your options at turning points in your career
• Continue to develop as a professional, an academic, and a leader
• Sharpen your skills at developing (and coaching) those who report to you
And how could a coach do all of those things? AAL professional coaches are trained to identify strengths, to draw out of our clients the best that they have to offer, to learn how to develop new skills, and to provide expert advice when needed. However, talented we are, it is always challenging to see ourselves as others see us. It is equally challenging in times of crisis, pressure or competition to make good choices about what is best for an organization and also what is best for us as individuals. Coaches don’t provide answers, but they do provide an objective and knowledgeable sounding board for testing our ideas, for understanding how we can best manage a given situation, and for setting priorities within complex and pressure-filled environments. Put simply, they help us to identify and to act on what is most important, and to do so in the most effective way — in order to maximize our success.
Imagine yourself taking on a new role with greater responsibility, in a complex work environment that includes a healthy share of discontent among those who report to you. That scenario would make most of us more than a little bit anxious. Now imagine that you have a respected colleague, someone who has been where you are now or in a comparable position. That colleague also is a professional coach who is available to meet with you regularly to talk through the challenges you are facing, and to provide consultation on your decision-making, even on the presentations you will make. If you can imagine that, you can imagine what it would mean for your anxiety level — as well as for your success. And that is what it means to work with a professional coach.
Now imagine yourself as a candidate for a high-level position in your field. If you have a coach, you have someone to consult with before every interview, to review your application materials and other documents, and even to advise you in negotiations – and you will need to negotiate since well coached candidates have a major advantage in the job market.
If you would like to learn more about coaching, or just want to discuss your current situation to determine whether coaching could be helpful for you, please contact AAL.
Chairs and Academic Administrators Management Program (CAAMP) Practical, applicable management and leadership training for current and future deans, chairs, and other academic administrators.
July 17-19, 2014 Atlanta, GA
Tuition: $1,995 (institutional discounts for 3 or more faculty and alumni discount)
The premier teacher training for dental and dental hygiene educators, and pathway to a Master’s Degree in Dental Education.
Phase I: August 14-16, 2014 Atlanta, GA
Phase II: October 16-18, 2014 Atlanta, GA
Tuition: $4,950 (institutional discounts for 2 or more faculty and alumni discount)
Compass Program for Academic Advancement (Compass) Independent, interprofessional training for all early- and mid-career faculty, to develop skills in conducting educational research, grant writing, and writing for publication.
Independent Module: Writing for Publication: April 17-18, 2014 Atlanta, GA
Compass 3-day Program: September 17-19, 2014 Atlanta, GA
Tuition: $595 (individual module); $895 (3-day program) (institutional discounts for 2 or more faculty and alumni discount)
Institute for Allied Health Educators (IAHE) Convenient, collaborative, cutting-edge online teaching and learning programs.
Revitalizing Curriculum and Calibrating Faculty: October-November 2014
Tuition: $350 per program (institutional discounts for 3 or more faculty and alumni discount)
Master’s Degree in Dental Education (MA) In partnership with the University of the Pacific and ADEA, AAL presents the only Master’s program created for dental educators by experts in academic dentistry and adult education. Online sessions: Jan.-March, 2015
Onsite sessions: March, June, and October 2015 San Francisco, CA
Tuition: $26,500 (or $6,500 for Certificate in Dental Education only)
A new manager takes over a department or division and immediately begins issuing edicts, disbanding committees, replacing chairs, and squelching the inevitable dissent—through heavy-handed means, if necessary. In another area, a new manager comes in and right away starts working to build consensus, listening to those who have been there longer and seeking to understand the issues before making any drastic decisions.
How can two people in such similar situations take such radically divergent approaches?
One of the most misunderstood aspects of management, I believe—especially in a higher education setting—is the difference between leadership and control. Sadly, too many academic department chairs, deans, and vice presidents are focused primarily on controlling the people and circumstances around them rather than on providing actual leadership to their areas. And ironically enough, these are often the same individuals who, as faculty members, squawked the loudest when they felt that their managers were too authoritarian. Obviously they’ve never been taught, either by example or by any other means, the qualities that make a good leader.
True leadership requires humility, a willingness to listen, to admit that others might know more about a given area or situation, to acknowledge that one might actually be wrong on occasion. Control, on the other hand, is prideful and arrogant, seeking to have its own way and make others conform to its vision. An effective leader listens more than speaks, whispers more than shouts, apologizes more than blames.
True leadership seeks to serve rather than to be served. History and religious tradition provide many examples of such leaders, from Ghandi to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Socrates to Jesus Christ, who famously taught that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Leaders understand that one of their most important functions—perhaps THE most important—is to help the people they lead reach their full potential, and not to exploit those people for their own gain, in order to make themselves look good, or advance their own careers. That’s what control does.
Ultimately, leadership is really all about trust. The best leaders demonstrate trust in those around them, which is the opposite of control because it involves a great deal of letting go and no small amount of self-effacement, which brings us back to humility. Great leaders are also trustworthy themselves, meaning that they tell the truth, follow through on what they say they’re going to do, and don’t hesitate to go to the mat in defense of what they believe is right. Control tends to be cynical, calculating, and inconsistent.
The great paradox of leadership is that by letting go, we ultimately gain mastery over our situations, together with our colleagues; whereas, by attempting to clamp down, we merely invite passive aggressive resistance, if not outright mutiny, which in the end leads to chaos. This is a true and time-honored principle that all great leaders seem to understand intuitively, and one that the control freaks can never seem to grasp.