Working across disciplines can lead to new perspectives, new solutions and lots of excitement. When smart, capable people from different arenas of thought come together, ideas get adapted and adopted, opinions change or get sharpened and, sometimes, a whole new discipline is created.
This is obvious with the hybridized sciences – biochemistry, biophysics, computational chemistry, forensic archeology, etc. Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect explores benefits and approaches to cross-fertilizing thought. As someone who is comfortable in “white spaces,” I’ve been wondering what the role of technology is in creating and supporting such collaborations.
Is the golden age already here? Between Google and social networks, don’t we all have access to expertise and experts across all the disciplines? Not exactly. I used to read about 10,000 research abstracts a year, and it was clear to me that people working on the same problems, even in the same discipline (chemistry) weren’t talking to each other. They were separated by the journals they read, the professors they had and the terms (same for different, different for same) they used.
Semantic Web promises to understand, translate and connect across disciplines, and I have no doubt that it will be a big step forward. But let me suggest a few other problems and point to technologies that might lead to a new age of renaissance endeavors.
Reputation Management – Yes. I’ve talked about this before. Knowing, trusting and qualifying people is essential to any deep collaboration, and right now many people don’t even believe in college courses that are earned online. Resumes are doubted and crazy mash-ups of you bio and that of your namesakes’ can lose you a job. But necessity will push the development of reputation management systems that are reliable enough to do more than provide evidence that people aren’t crooks.
Process Matching, in Color – People get edgy when collaborators jump around in tried and true processes for brainstorming, quality control, security and dozen of other essentials work efforts. Sometimes, there is a real reason for this. The partner may be sloppy or their discipline may be less rigorous. But, often, the steps are essentially the same – done in a different, but equally valid order. If we had a way to match our favorite processes with those of partners so well that we could track and anticipate what was going on, it would be a great confidence builder. Using visualization, rather than just text or flow diagrams, might make the whole thing more intuitive (and fun).
Speaking of quality control, how do we know when someone from another discipline had delivered (or will deliver) a quality contribution to our joint effort? For this, some sort of assessment tool will be needed – one that is convincing and useful. Assessment is one area where it seems like innovation has curled up and gone to sleep. Partly, this is because we habitually grab the three to five measurement tools that we always use, without looking further. Partly, this is because we are afraid of new tools. I’m not sure a new toolbox will emerge in the near future, but perhaps tools or techniques can be developed that will help us have good discussion of measurement across disciplines.
Finally, a pot may be nearly useless without a handle. Too many successful hybrid innovations – which look weird to people beyond the collaborators from different disciplines – never find a way to reach out to a larger community. What is missing is a broad way to discuss value and compare it with the status quo. This means going beyond feature lists to connecting innovation with real life needs and quick, easy to understand ways to assess the real risk of these hybrids. For the latter, I think translating advances in risk assessment techniques to easy to use applications is doable. For the latter, I don’t think there is an easy fix, but the culture of mash-ups seems promising. With enough people out there looking to put handles and pots together, the odds of success increase.
Ready for a golden age? Not quite. People still need to listen. They need to have open minds. They need to respect people with different perspectives. They need to be curious. Try as I might, I can’t see technology helping much with these. But perhaps gaming, with low-risk role-playing and regular rewards, can provide education and experience that will push things in the right direction. History is filled with technologies (TV being an obvious one) that futurists were convinced would change culture to the better and enable education. Maybe we’ll get lucky this time.