By Annemarie Horn and Eduardo Urias
How do teams engage in interdisciplinary knowledge integration and how can they be supported in doing so? Why does simple sharing and questioning of knowledge not necessarily lead to interdisciplinary knowledge integration? And what does it mean to act as both an expert and a non-expert in interdisciplinary teamwork, and why is it hard?
In a five month course, we supervised a team of eight master students in the integration of insights and concepts from their individual, discipline-based projects into a joint work about circular economy. Based on our earlier research, described in our i2Insights contribution on four typical behaviours in interdisciplinary knowledge integration, we expected that if we helped the students to share their own knowledge and to engage with each other’s knowledge, that integration would emerge. We therefore had students prepare and give presentations about their individual projects, background, and conceptual underpinnings to share their knowledge. And we implemented activities in which students asked each other clarification questions in order to stimulate engagement with others’ knowledge.
But the outcome was mixed. On the one hand, the students became more inclined to share their own, and to engage with each other’s, knowledge. On the other hand, this often did not lead to an interactive conversation, a back and forth exchange between their knowledge bases. This made us aware that knowledge integration not only relies on whether collaborators share and engage with knowledge, but also which knowledge they share and engage with.
In interdisciplinary teamwork, collaborators hold expertise on some of the topics that are relevant to the joint work, but rely on the expertise of others for things that they themselves are not knowledgeable about. We thus argue that interdisciplinary teamwork requires of collaborators that they act as:
- an expert – sharing knowledge, explaining concepts and methods, and indicating certainty levels – in relation to their specialism, and
- a non-expert – asking questions, indicating not knowing, listening, trying to understand – in relation to the expertise of their teammates.
In collaboration they should dynamically navigate and switch between these two contrasting roles.
In our student team, we saw that this is not easy, however. We saw that some students leaned more heavily towards one role than to the other. When switching roles, we saw that they often did the opposite of what we expected or what we considered supportive of knowledge integration. We identified two patterns in their behaviors that illustrate that. We call those the conformative and the performative dynamics.
We observed that the team often quickly gravitated towards agreement, and that this agreement was often not substantiated. For example, in defining concepts, the students did not explore and compare alternatives, but rather accepted the first suggestion that was made, without even raising other options. We termed this the conformative dynamic.
In terms of contributing knowledge, this meant that, rather than sharing expertise based on their own projects, students often shared general, widely-accepted and uncontested knowledge. And in terms of engaging with others’ knowledge, this meant that they did not ask critical questions and did not challenge others’ contributions. So you could say that they acted too little as an expert, and took on a non-expert stance in relation to their own as well as others’ knowledge.
On other occasions, we saw that students relied on non-expert knowledge as ‘expertise’. For instance, when contributing knowledge, they often did not tap into their own specialized knowledge, but rather shared insights from common sense or popular media. So they acted as an expert, about non-expert knowledge. In engaging with knowledge, they asked questions about things that they were already somewhat knowledgeable about. So instead of focusing on the topics of their not-knowing, they stayed close to what they already knew, preventing learning and integration. We termed this dynamic the performative dynamic.
Moving between expert and non-expert is hard
Surprisingly, we saw that although some students leaned more towards one set of behaviors than the other, conformative and performative tendencies were present in the same individuals. It was not the case that each individual student adopted either the role of expert or non-expert. Instead, they demonstrated expert and non-expert behaviors, but not necessarily at the most constructive moments and in relation to the ‘right’ knowledges. This demonstrated how challenging it is to unite those two roles and to dynamically navigate between them. We thus argue that this is something that requires training and support for students, and possibly also in other interdisciplinary teamwork contexts.
There were several factors that played a role in shaping the students’ behaviours. We were working with master students, so their grounding in their fields of training was still underway. Therefore, there were instances when they held limited expertise to bring to the teamwork and sometimes they lacked confidence in their knowledge, and in their awareness of their own knowledge.
Besides their personal competencies, there were also assumptions about teamwork at play. Students repeatedly expressed that they wanted to be a good teammate, which prevented disagreement (feeding the conformative dynamic) and which underpinned pressure to make contributions and show their worth (feeding the performative dynamic). Moreover, power imbalances and lack of psychological safety also affected the extent to which students generally felt comfortable in speaking up, or in sharing contested insights.
These findings provide lessons for those engaging in, facilitating, leading, and teaching interdisciplinary teamwork:
- dynamically navigating and switching between the roles of expert and non-expert is essential for effective teamwork and is an important skill that should be explicitly targeted in training.
- conformative and performative dynamics are a useful lens for recognizing team interactions that are hampering interdisciplinary knowledge integration and provide a starting point for intervention.
- assumptions that teamwork is ideally characterized by agreement and that not-knowing makes one a weak teammate need to be challenged in training and collaboration.
Do our findings resonate with your experience? Are there other dynamics that you have identified? Have you developed techniques for overcoming these dynamics?
To find out more:
Horn, A., Urias, E., Klein, J. T., Hess, A. and Zweekhorst, M. B. M. (2023). Expert and non-expert at the same time: Knowledge integration processes and dynamics in interdisciplinary teamwork. Sustainability Science. (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-023-01365-6
Biography: Annemarie Horn PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Science in Society at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Her research is about inter- and transdisciplinary research and education, including knowledge integration and integrative methods, research policy for inter- and transdisciplinarity, and collaborative practices in large research consortia.
Biography: Eduardo Urias PhD is an assistant professor at the Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His research focuses on the institutionalization of participatory and transdisciplinary approaches to research and education; inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge integration; and the drivers, dynamics, and implications of bottom-up initiatives in sustainability transitions.