Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?

By Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell

Dena Fam (biography)

What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.

Tanzi Smith (biography)

Here we focus on:

1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,

Dana Cordell (biography)

2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.

Six categories of skills and dispositions

The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below.

(Source: Dena Fam)

Some categories are operational, such as communication, while others, such as creativity and curiosity, develop primarily through experiential learning and/or are innate characteristics of an individual. In brief:

  • Critical awareness is a form of reflexive thinking and openness to others’ suggestions
  • Communication is required both to clarify one’s own perspective and to work successfully together with others
  • Commitment needs to be paired with an ability to “challenge the status quo”
  • Connectedness is needed to synthesize diverse perspectives of thought
  • Creativity comes into play in designing novel approaches/methods and thinking laterally through a puzzling challenge
  • Curiosity involves a flexibility and willingness to explore new insights beyond one’s own expertise.

While there was limited consensus among interviewees as to which of these skills and dispositions might be successfully taught and which were innate qualities, it was overwhelmingly agreed that a transdisciplinary researcher does not just ‘appear from heaven’ but rather requires nurturing and skills development.

Rather than prescriptively demarcating these six categories into those that can and cannot be taught, it is more constructive to perceive of these skills and dispositions as interconnected and overlapping characteristics in which a transdisciplinary researcher might aim to develop knowledge and competence.

The necessary skills and competencies are illustrated in the following figures:







There are distinct links and overlaps among the skills and disposition in the different categories. Compare, for example, Communication and Connectedness, as well as Creativity and Curiosity. For the last two, the lack of certainty and methodological structure often associated with transdisciplinarity require imagination and creativity to navigate the uncertainty. Curiosity was perceived to enable “…finding ‘alternative approaches’ and being able to develop enough of a nuanced understanding to apply them in ways that are consistent with the way in which they were developed but that bring that explanatory power into a broader realm.

As well as strong implications for skills training and capacity building, these categories can be useful for planning research design, recruitment, funding and development of institutional structures to support transdisciplinary projects. For example, they could be used to recruit members of transdisciplinary teams as well as to guide processes embedded in transdisciplinary projects.

What do you think? Do these gel with your experience? Which skills and dispositions do you think can be taught (eg., through courses)? Which are best fostered and stimulated (eg., through appropriate and aligned institutional structures, mentoring and/or practical experiential learning spaces)? How might supervisors, mentors and institutions design their programs and projects to foster excellence in transdisciplinarity? We look forward to hearing your thoughts, experiences and comments!

To find out more:
Fam, D.M., Smith, T. and Cordell, D. (2016). Being a transdisciplinary researcher: Skills and dispositions fostering competence in transdisciplinary research and practice. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell. (Eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom: 77-92.

Biography: Dena Fam is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability) institutional (policy analysis), technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.

Biography: Tanzi Smith is a current Director of the Burnett Mary Regional Group for Natural Resource Management in Queensland, Australia and special projects officer at the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee. Her research interests include community engagement, natural resource management policy and practice and the application of systems approaches to achieve sustainable outcomes for people and the environment. She holds an Honorary Associate position in the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Water and Environment Trust and a recipient of the Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop Fellowship.

Biography: Dana Cordell is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. She leads and undertakes international and national research projects on sustainable food and resource futures. Many projects involve high-level stakeholder engagement to improve societal relevance and foster mutual learning. She co-founded and leads the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative – the first global platform to undertake transdisciplinary research, policy and public engagement to ensure food systems are resilient to the emerging global challenge of phosphorus scarcity. She has been awarded an Australian Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, and listed in the Australian Financial Review/Westpac 100 Women of Influence.

11 thoughts on “Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?”

  1. Your work resonates with our ongoing action-research whereby we mentor researchers in evaluation and communication together. Each field brings ‘hooks’ that invite the other field: for instance in utilization-focused evaluation we place much emphasis in clarifying who “owns” the evaluation design and for what set of “purposes”. In communication planning we seek to define stakeholder groups and engage them, which requires some audience analysis; join steps often emerge; others are complementary. What is interesting is how each field uses terminology that may be ‘loaded with baggage’ in the other. So, we would add a ‘sense of humour’ to your list (not sure where it belongs). We also noted “creating readiness” which is paramount in our work. Much to share.

    • I am in total agreement with the need for ‘humour’ and I’m so glad you brought this up Ricardo….in all engaged research (and in everyday life) we are after all dealing with human beings and what better way to connect with each other than through humour. It reminds me if a great paper by my colleague Alison Browne at Manchester University wrote, “Can people talk together about their practices? Focus groups, humour and the sensitive dynamics of everyday life”

      The idea of ‘Readiness’ actually came up in our research (see: the image of commitment in the original blogpost and the need to ‘create readiness’). Readiness was described as necessary to evaluate at the exploration stage of a project where we need to deliberately engage with an organisation to determine ready there are to proceed. Preparing organisations to engage in a project requires describing what the project and its implementation looks, describing in some detail what goes on and common issues that might arise… in this way there is assurance there is mutually informed consent to proceed. One interviewer in our research described the process as:

      “….getting an organisation ready to walk on hot coals and to get to the other side and have [them] supported… then we are ready to go… we’re making a judgment about them, but we want them to make an informed judgment about us…. are we the type of people that they want around every month? Are we the kind of people that they have some faith in that we could help them through those difficult times and many others that we describe?”

      Readiness from my perspective is really an agreement to proceed and there may be more or less resources or more or less need, but there is enough commitment by those involved, and enough resources to actually get started so we can together begin down the path to improve the situation in some way.

  2. I think the most influential and effective workers across boundaries have a sort of ‘magnetised connectedness’, which attracts potential collaborators and partners to them. They can do this because they possess skills and qualities which are much sought after by those with which they are most likely to need to collaborate. These skills may be hard or soft, or it may simply be that they have access to valued people and resources: acting as gatekeepers that can open and join-up pathways. Whatever is valued, it will be because it is perceived as relevant to people’s needs. For what is it worth, here are some of my thought about the skills and qualities needed by a collaborative worker: There is a definite read-across to the aspects you identify, but also one or two differences. I think effective collaborators need to move beyond simple critical awareness to, at times, being assertively selfless. I also think that anyone seeking to work collaboratively across disciplines needs to gain expertise in creating the collaborative systems and processes people can engage with and use. This is touched on, I think, under your ‘Communication’ heading (leadership to manage process and reflecting together), but I think it is a bit more than that.

    Thanks for your 6 Cs; they have been stored in my mind for future use!

    • Hi Charles

      Thanks you for your comment, and I really like the idea of ‘magnetised connectedness’, and something Ive been aware of in the work I do, is that the most successful TD projects and collaborative processes are those that have participants who are already familiar with each each other, have existing working relationships and therefore trust in each other which reinforces connectedness. That doesn’t help in developing ‘new’ projects and starting from scratch in developing a collaborative process…

      I appreciate you sending the link through to your work which very clearly aligned with what we found in our interview data…

      the idea of being ‘assertively selfless’ seems idealistic to me, especially when working with industry and government partners where agendas, expectations and interests are involved, I think perhaps a more realistic approach is to at least provide the opportunity to openly air these interests, expectations and agendas in a critical way so at least participants are aware of these….

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

      • Hello Dena,

        Yes, being assertively selfless does seem idealistic — at the moment, but the way that the human world is becoming ever more interconnected and interdependent and ever larger and more complex (so much so that very soon, if not already, one person or organisation will not have a hope in hell of comprehending what is going on) may mean that it becomes less so in the future. Not every agenda, expectation or interest can survive, or indeed have the right to survive, in our ever evolving world. Perhaps being assertively selfless will be the next step in some sort of behavioural evolution. Or I am talking nonsense, which wouldn’t be the first time.

        I agree that providing the opportunity to openly air interests, expectations and agendas in an honest and critical way is probably the most practical approach for the types of businesses, industries and government partners we most commonly work with now.

        In terms of magnetised connectedness, the way it would help with new projects, as I see it, is that magnetised individuals or ‘brokers’ in the system (whatever that system may be) would possess skills, knowledge, resources and access to contacts that potential partners and new collaborators would value and be attracted to. Once attracted, they can be incorporated by the brokers into existing networks and collaborations, or indeed encouraged to create new ones. In fact, this is happening very successfully all around us all over the world: the ‘system’ of organised crime is excellent at it!

        Thanks for your thoughts too…


  3. Thanks for sharing – and yes they align with my experience in transdisciplinary efforts. Do you see room for “comprehensiveness”? or is that assumed? I think these ‘recipe cards’ should be given out at the beginning of every transdisciplinary effort.

    • Hi Tim,
      Thanks for your message!

      These 6 C’s were structured as our way of making meaning of the large volume of data collected from the interviews.

      ‘Comprehensiveness’ is an interesting one…Do you mean ‘comprehensive’ in regard to the breadth of perspectives sought in TD research/practice?

      Would be good to know what you mean by ‘comprehensive’ in regard to TD research and practice

  4. thank you for this useful and insightful piece of work… I have enjoyed and appreciate it… it does connect with much of the philosophy of participatory action research… Just some thoughts… I would suggest to change transkillery into transskillery … some people my put the hyphen in the wrong place (i.e. trans- killery…) and I would appreciate some thinking around the ‘centrality’ of DaVinci’s human in the figure… there’s nothing ‘external’ about the external environment and ‘we’ are in the middle of nothing… ‘de-centring’ of the human and re-thinking us as part of the ‘humus’ – I think – is essential… I love Donna Haraway’s ‘Staying with the Trouble’ (2016) as well as Karen Barad’s earlier ‘Meeting the Universe half-way’… My own thinking and work has very much ‘sat’ in that ‘trans’-space for a while now and I do appreciate your very useful attempt to bring it closer to action/practice/the everyday… All the best
    Jacques Boulet

    • Hi Jacques,
      Yes, ‘transkillery’ definitely needs some work and thanks for your suggestions…

      Your comments about the use of the term ‘external environment’ and the centrality of the figure has made me realise what we are really talking about is the ‘context’ in which a TD project exists and the researcher/practitioner finds themselves having to negotiate…things you might not be able to influence or emergence of the unexpected…whether its ‘context or environment’ it does require some more thinking and I look forward to following up with the references you’ve suggested

      Kind Regards


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