Interdisciplinary strategy and collaboration: a case study of American research universities.

Author:Harris, Michael


A combination of external pressures and the increasingly established benefits of collaboration provide the impetus for institutions to make efforts to support intra-organizational collaborative activity. Particularly pronounced in recent years, outside stakeholders, from grant agencies to accreditation bodies, call for higher education to place greater emphasis on collaboration among various departments and units on campus (Ramaley, 2001). Kanter (1994) cites increased efficiency and effectiveness throughout the institution as a hallmark of a collaborative systemic approach. Higher education traditionally resists such endeavors, which can largely be attributed to the role of departments, disciplinary silos, and bureaucratic administrative structures. Although new organizational structures such as organized research units (ORU) attempt to overcome these historical limitations (Geiger, 2004), barriers continue to exist, discouraging individuals from engaging in cross-unit collaboration.

Only limited application of the extensive scholarly literature on collaboration currently exists (Kezar, 2005). This research draws on organizational studies of collaboration, in particular intra-organizational activity. Much of the organizational literature focuses on specific types of initiatives, as opposed to the more process-oriented approach adopted in this case study. In addition, much of the research focuses on barriers to collaboration, failing to address avenues to move initiatives forward to foster collaborative environments on campus. As Denison, Hart, and Kahn (1996) contend, our understanding of the larger contextual and environmental forces involved in collaboration represents an underexplored area of research. Furthermore, the larger systemic factors that influence organizational behavior in this regard also represent a weakness in the literature (Tjosvold & Tsao, 1989). This study addresses these deficiencies by examining how interdisciplinary strategies as a form of intra-organizational collaboration emerge, develop, and become institutionalized within major research universities.

Organizational collaboration can occur between internal and external stakeholders. Wood and Gray (1991) offer the most accepted definition of collaboration as "a process in which a group of autonomous stakeholders of an issue domain engage in an interactive process, using shared rules, norms, and structures to act or decide on issues related to that domain" (p. 437). Of particular importance in this study is the focus on institutional artifacts that demonstrate the activities related to establishing the shared rules, norms, and structures in support of interdisciplinary initiatives.

Given the increased pressures for interdisciplinary research, this study considers the organizational responses of 21 American universities defined by the Carnegie classification as research institutions with very high research activity (Walters, 2006). This work seeks to determine what strategies research universities employ to support collaborative interdisciplinary research efforts through the study of institutional texts. The goal is to identify patterns of similarity or difference among these institutions, focusing the strategies of universities that support interdisciplinary efforts as a vehicle to better understand how institutions develop collaboration among internal units. The following research question guides this work: How do interdisciplinary strategies as a form of intra-organizational collaboration emerge, develop, and become institutionalized?

This research expands on Kezar and Lester's (2009) model of organizational collaboration by examining interdisciplinary strategies broadly across more institutions than their original work. This study will provide additional data using their model to understand intra-organizational collaboration and how interdisciplinary innovations emerge, are put into practice, and become institutionalized in major research universities. Interdisciplinarity is defined as the active integration of two or more disciplinary perspectives in the pursuit of a shared problem or topic (Klein, 1990; Lattuca, 2001). The nature of the process of implementing this integration requires collaboration by faculty, administrators, and students. Furthermore, the development of the shared knowledge base requires a collaborative approach to successfully develop a new area of inquiry. Understanding how universities engage in highly innovative and collaborative behavior, in this case, interdisciplinary research, provides insight for institutions seeking to support such activity. By examining the interplay between socially constructed meaning systems (the disciplines), symbolic institutional artifacts (textual documents), and regulation (the perception of organizational priorities), this research seeks to better understand how institutions practice intra-organizational collaboration.

Context for Exploring Interdisciplinary Collaboration

A 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences identified the most pressing issues and interdisciplinary fields of study awaiting contemporary academics as nanotechnology, genomics and proteomics, bioinformatics, neuroscience, global climate change, conflict, and terrorism (p. 17). Such demands not only presume a wealth of knowledge drawn from across the disciplines, but also collaborative networks of research teams. Pursuit of innovation in these areas fosters collaboration among academics who previously resided within disciplinary boundaries, rarely venturing out to work with other researchers (Holley, 2009). Furthermore, "no single individual will possess all the knowledge, skills, and techniques required" given the complexity of new areas of inquiry (Katz & Martin, 1997, p. 14).

The paradigm shift toward interdisciplinary knowledge results not only in a change for individuals, but also in institutional behavior (Holley, 2009). In recent decades, observers of American higher education have noted an increase in organized interdisciplinary activity (Brint, 2005; Feller, 2004; Klein, 1990; Weingart & Stehr, 2000). Such activity is frequently motivated by external demands from policymakers, funding agencies, and industry partners with the goal of producing knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries. For example, a 2006 report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) affirmed the agency's commitment to lowering the "artificial organizational barriers" of the disciplines. According to the NIH, these traditional borders may in some cases "impede the pace of scientific discovery" (NIH, 2006).

Organizational strategies to foster interdisciplinary activity in higher education largely concentrate on structural barriers that traditionally divide the institution. Interdisciplinary strategies include campus-wide initiatives, new buildings for interdisciplinary use, research centers and institutes, seed funds for collaborative research projects, and faculty hiring policies, such as cluster hires or joint hiring procedures (Sa, 2007). Other approaches have a greater focus on the institutional culture--fostering a campus climate supportive of collaborative learning and research, providing faculty incentives such as tenure and promotion policies, and utilizing strategic plans to reinforce support of interdisciplinary activity (NAS, 2004).

Conceptual Framework

In their work on organizing for collaboration within higher education, Kezar and Lester (2009) draw on the Mohrman, Cohen, and Mohrman (1995) model of developing intra-organizational collaboration from the management literature. This model emphasizes the role of formal processes and a learning approach to how organizations foster collaboration.

The focus on formal activity, such as mission development, training, and rewards, contrasts with the alternative view in the literature on collaboration. Most notably, the work of Kanter (1994) draws heavily on the importance of informal processes and relationships, as well as sense-making, to foster collaboration within institutions.

By applying the existing knowledge available within the corporate literature to higher education, Kezar and Lester (2009) provide a three-stage model to assess and understand collaboration within postsecondary institutions. Their work builds on the Mohrman et al. (1995) model by relying on assessment and learning as foundational elements. Each of the stages represents an evolution of institutional commitment in establishing and engaging to form an environment of collaboration. Table 1 highlights each stage and the key elements within each progressive level.

The first stage of Kezar and Lester's...

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