Multidisciplinary teams are essential to success in complex societies and economies. The most important member of any multidisciplinary team is the customer.

As information explodes, people need to specialize. Otherwise they have no hope of developing genuine expertise. 

As individuals become more specialized, the need for multidisciplinary collaboration becomes more pronounced. Because in complex societies, the solutions to most problems are multifaceted. Complexity throws up all sorts of interconnections and interdependencies.

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Multidisciplinary collaboration is messy but it merely reflects the reality of the challenges we face today. Complexity is messy. Predictability and linearity are characteristics of simple systems. Unpredictability and randomness are characteristics of complex systems.

Science has long been aware of the need for collaboration. In 1920, most scientific papers were being published by single authors. By 2010, the average was more than 5 authors per paper. Between 1981 and 2012, the average number of single-authored scientific papers dropped from 33 percent to 11 percent. 

“Recent years have seen a steep increase in the number of papers with authors in excess of 50 — and a particularly notable spike in reports whose author counts exceed 1,000 and more,” Science Watch stated in 2012.

Traditional organizations struggle with multidisciplinary collaboration particularly when it comes to the management of technology. For years, technology was seen as something for the IT Department to manage. Technology systems have been designed in a factory production line model not unlike Henry Ford used in 1920. 

The customer — the most important member of any multidisciplinary team — who was expected to use the system was nowhere in sight.

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A 2015 Ventana Research study found that the “only business unit not interacting with customers is IT.” Forrester Research reported that fixing an IT issue post launch is 30 times more expensive that fixing it during the design phase. The best way to fix such design issues is through observing how the design is being used.

It’s easy to blame IT but the fault really lies with senior management and current organizational models. Many organizations have ‘outsourced’ their technology competencies, and where IT does exist it is often treated as a service to be requested and paid for. This creates the opposite of a culture of collaboration. In fact, many organizations have deliberately created models that encourage internal competition rather than collaboration.

Cost management, linearity and silofication give the illusion of control. And, of course, multidisciplinary collaboration is developmentally more expensive, time-consuming and difficult because of all the inherent challenges of getting multiple disciplines to work together.

Recently, the Canadian government announced that an employee payment system that it had recently installed would cost at least $50 million to fix. This is just one more drop in a great sea of IT system failures. 

Multidisciplinary collaboration will not solve every problem. However, if used from the beginning of the process it will unearth the messiness as early as possible. Solving the problems during design is much cheaper and better in the long term. That is, of course, if you are focused not simply on the production of the system, but also its use. Managing outcomes and not simply inputs is the model around which multidisciplinary collaboration thrives.