It has taken the threat of global warming to get professors from different academic disciplines to talk to each other seriously about solutions (See New York Times article: A Threat So Big, Academics Try Collaboration by Claudia H. Deutsch). University centers, which are safe zones for cooperation among university departments that have historically been at war, are being created at institutions across the U.S. Academic centers as a place for interdisciplinary study is not a new idea in higher education, but the size and resources of these new centers and their focus on environmental issues is worth noting. They are an attempt to break down the academic silos that have persisted in universities for the past 150 years.
The workplace silos in corporations mirror the divisions that faculty and students experience in the university. One of the biggest concerns I hear from my clients in businesses today is the need to break down these silos and get product engineers, economists, marketers, sales people, IT people, and manufacturing engineers to all work together and stop “tossing the product over the wall.” This structural roadblock to innovation and market-place success is being addressed through new approaches to organizational structure, teamwork, and organizational learning. However, until the academy changes, new employees will continue to bring their disciplinary biases with them to the workplace, which reinforce the current barriers to finding sustainable solutions in business and to the most vexing problems of society.
Health care, public education, poverty, crime, employment, are all problems that need an interdisciplinary approach. Solutions to these problems are not likely to be found in the academy. The culture of the university continues to reward individual contributions to narrow problems at the edges of inquiry in a single discipline. It is still very difficult for interdisciplinary groups to get funding, to be published, and to enjoy recognition from one’s peers, which are the rewards of academia. I applaud the centers that have been created to bring chemical engineers, MBA’s, and political scientists together to study the complex problems of drinking water and alternative fuels. But where are the educators, architects, artists, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, sociologists, and others? Why aren’t they at the table? In the university, as well as in corporations, it is still about maintaining tradition rather than about achieving solutions.