Working Group Approaches

There are three fundamentally different ways of dealing with the organization of a cross-disciplinary, collaborative effort, each characterized by its treatment of the knowledge areas of the parties involved; these include multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. Barbara Mirel, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, describes these three 

approaches as assembly line, swap meet, and symphony, respectively.

fig. 26. a visual comparison of the three collaborative approaches: the multidisciplinary assembly line, the crossover of knowledge in interdisciplinary swap-meet, and the shared working space of the transdisciplinary “symphony.”


The first, multidisciplinary, is the most common form of collaboration found in academic and professional groups alike. In this model, each discipline, profession, or knowledge area (henceforth referred to as “discipline”) is bound by the limits of its standard functions and responsibilities. Very much like an assembly line, a multidisciplinary team operates in a sequential manner; as one discipline finishes its contribution, the project is passed on to the next discipline, and so on. From the outset this model relates its perceived efficiency to an undeniable sense of direction and process. In practice, the marketers start the process by telling the designers what the customer wants, the designers create the product concept, then the engineers turn the concept into reality. Precise and rigid, but is it efficiency at its best? Not so when problems arise, or when one member of the team is unclear about the ideas or notes passed down by the discipline before them. The multidisciplinary, assembly-line approach leaves no room for a glitch in the works, no way of ensuring that all players are on the same page from the start, headed toward the same goal. Nor does it allow for one discipline to share in the responsibilities of — or give criticism of — another because of the perceived lack of knowledge and understanding of what each specific discipline does. The advantage of the multidisciplinary model of collaboration can be found in its methodical, formulaic treatment of the production process, however its lack of maneuverability and reflexivity to outside pressures seriously undermines its benefits.

The prefix “inter-” is borrowed from Latin, where it meant “between” or “among”. As its name would suggest, then, interdisciplinary collaboration deals with what happens between the different disciplines involved in a joint venture. Taken literally, this would imply that something occurs within the physical space between, say, a marketer and an engineer, but figuratively this means focusing on the interactions that take place when that marketer and engineer discuss their respective viewpoints. In interdisciplinary teams, the tasks performed are usually still held as being particular to each discipline, with the marketers still providing the big idea and selling points of a product, the designers interpreting the identified consumer needs and embedding those functional requirements within the form of the product, and the engineers translating the proposed concept into working documents and finally a real, physical object. But this model differs from multidisciplinary collaboration in that each stage of the process is reviewed by all members of the team, creating a system of oversight of and from the individual disciplines.

The interdisciplinary approach also differs by creating an environment where team members are able to communicate with any other discipline at any time, instead of through a chain-of-command-type protocol. This overlapping of input from the various disciplines within the team is this model’s greatest benefit, however with each discipline still wholly responsible for producing its own contributions, the pervading sense of proprietary material still exists.

The third model for collaborative efforts is based on the core idea that members from each discipline, while still the experts in their particular field of knowledge, move beyond their individualized responsibilities and participate at all levels in the contributions of the other disciplines within the group. Daniel Stokols, from the School of Social Ecology at the University of California describes transdisciplinarity:

“A process by which [collaborators] work together to develop a shared conceptual framework that integrates and extends discipline-based concepts, theories, and methods to address a common topic. Transdisciplinary [collaborations] are intendend to achieve the highest levels of intellectual integration across multiple fields and yield shared conceptual formulations that move beyond the disciplinary perspectives represented by team members” |Stokols, 2006|.

This explanation may seem rather esoteric, however it points to the main features of the model: developing from the very beginning a shared perspective for framing all decisions made by the group, and to rise above — or transcend — the feeling of ownership of any particular process or expertise by members of the collaborative group. If multidisciplinarity has the attitude “I do this first, then you do that,” and interdisciplinarity has an attitude of “We’ll get together at these three times,” then transdisciplinary collaboration fosters a feeling of “We’re all in this together.”

Cross-disciplinary work groups exist both in the corporate world and in the academic setting, the former as a means of maximizing success for the brand and the latter as a means of preparing the soon-to-be careerist for their role in that brand-success process. Once in the industrial setting, any training or education required by the employee is largely directed by the desires of the company for which they work. This re-education of employees is rarely free, however.