Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

X-disciplines or lose relevance?

hands

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.

Photo of hands from http://tiny.cc/8xzl8

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2 Comments»

  innotecture wrote @

Alice – As institutions, universities are in a lot of trouble. I’d love to see them more tightly engaged with their environments (which are complex, messy & heterodox) but that doesn’t seem to be happening enough.

  amacgillivray wrote @

Could you tell me more about universities being in a lot of trouble? I’ve not been tracking stats. In a few days I will go to a huge graduation ceremony at Royal Roads (as I have a student walking in the ceremony), and the program where I did my PhD seems to be growing. Those may be anomalies. I’m most curious about the universities with Great Names. Would the Great Names be enough to maintain momentum for a long time, even if basic tenets were questioned and the post secondary system were in a major transition?

I am also interested in whether “applied” education will gain ground at the expense of good research closer to the pure end of the spectrum, and whether we’ll develop brokers and translators to mobilize research that is difficult to grasp in its academic form.

A colleague and former Royal Roads student–Joe Gollner–has written a couple of interesting papers that relate to this conversation. “Communities of Practice and the Agile University (2005)” and “Adventures in Learning: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Professional Education (2008)” at http://www.gollner.ca/papers/index.html


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