Why is collaborating in interdisciplinary teams so difficult?

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Just putting students from different disciplines in a team and giving them an assignment could result in creative new products or insights, but most often it doesn’t. Collaborating in interdisciplinary teams is much harder than working with your disciplinary peers, as one student proclaimed after such an experience: 'This is collaborating to the next level!'.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is particularly difficult compared to working with disciplinary peers, because students have different background knowledge and do not understand each other easily. Moreover, students need to integrate their various insights, which is a complex cognitive challenge, even more when students do not fully understand all details of each other's contributions.

To gain more insight in what interdisciplinary collaboration takes from participants, we asked 13 successful interdisciplinary scientists. Results of these interviews are summarized below. 

Delving into each other’s perspectives

Understanding each other’s perspectives of other disciplines is key to successful collaboration; learning about each other’s knowledge base but also about assumptions, values, norms, methods, and epistemology. Obviously, this requires time, effort, and mostly curiosity, a drive to understand each other, and the courage to ask ‘stupid’ questions. These experts all have learned not to take anything for granted and keep asking until real understanding of the other’s perspective is reached.  They also use to read a lot about other disciplines to get a grip on a new discipline and mentioned Wiki and the ’Oxford's Very Short Introductions to …’ series as valuable sources to start with. 

Open mindedness and humility

An attitude of humility and open mindedness is crucial, according to the experts. There are two sides to this attitude. The first is the awareness of the limitations of your own disciplinary knowledge, the second one valuing the insights of other disciplines into the problem and a willingness to learn from others. As one of them stated: “To be honest, I looked down on the humanities, but after having worked with historians for a few years, I highly respect their scientific quality”. 

Finding common ground

Being able to communicate clearly is one of the most important competencies mentioned when trying to find common ground in interdisciplinary teams. Speaking different disciplinary languages could cause several problems. Others may not understand you, for example because terms might mean something different in other disciplines. Interestingly, while these researchers are valued for their ability to connect and integrate insights, the mechanisms that they used remained largely ‘black boxed’. Only few of them were able to recollect specific integration methods that they applied, for example using metaphors. For most of them, synthesis eventually occurred through a combination of a lot of discussing, reading and thinking. 

Concluding, successful interdisciplinary collaboration requires time, effort, and curiosity, and can best be trained by doing and reflecting on the process (experiental learning).


This article was written by the colleagues of Team Interdisciplinary and Community Engaged Learning (Educational Development & Training).