A military pundit talking about a big geopolitical issue recently observed that, "Regional specialists rarely understand military capabilities and options well enough to make an argument for or against, and those who understand military capabilities and options rarely understand the regional dynamics well enough to make an argument for or against." In other words, unless people can get out of their silos and talk to each other, nobody knows anything. This problem is hardly limited to military affairs.
Take the banking crisis: in retrospect, the financial sector had grown grotesquely fragile by 2006 or 2007. Yet the knowledge that would have been necessary to spot the vulnerability was distributed across many different kinds
of people, from academic economists to legal experts, and from finance 'quants'
to systemic regulators. These people did not realise they had good reasons to talk to each other, and if they had tried, they would have found it
hard to translate between incompatible and highly technical ways of speaking. In academia, the advancing frontier of scientific knowledge poses a particular challenge.
Once, all it took was a single Isaac Newton type and vast progress could be made.
But now scientific fields are narrower, and measurably so. Economist Benjamin Jones has gathered evidence from
a vast database of patent awards and citations to show that scientific teams are getting larger, with typical team members becoming more specialised. Clearly, collaboration is essential.
One interesting model for collaboration is the Oxford Martin School. Designed to foster cross-disciplinary projects at the University of Oxford, the School has many success stories that large businesses might learn from. For example, funding and career progression both matter. If a large organisation wants generalists, it must make sure that generalists know they can be promoted.
A second lesson is that shared tools can help people work together. The School's researchers collaborate on
the tools for analysing
gigantic datasets, a field with applications in finance, climate science and astronomy. A final lesson is that a focus on particular problems, rather than a particular intellectual
or disciplinary toolkit, helps to break down silo barriers.
The Martin School makes me feel optimistic for the future of cross-disciplinary work. If the secret of success is promotion for generalists, tool-based communities of practice and
a focus on whatever it takes to solve a problem, then practical businesspeople will have the edge over the inhabitants of the ivory towers.
Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist
and author of Adapt: Why Success Always
Starts With Failure (Abacus, £8.99).
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