Interdisciplinary Mindsets

May 23, 2011

It’s often said that fertile areas for innovation lie at the border of two or more disciplines. So it’s encouraging that the area of Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) is now formally recognized and is being actively promoted through projects and funding (see eg here).

From New Scientist:

Here lies the burgeoning world of interdisciplinary research: This is where two or more disciplines combine to create something more than the sum of their parts. It is about not being constrained by one way of thinking or tackling a problem. Instead, skills and knowledge are gained in a variety of disciplines and new applications for the research are sought. In short, it is the home of blue-sky thinking.

Take the challenge of climate change. “There’s the fundamental science – the physics, the chemistry and so on,” says Scott, “but there’s also the social science: how do we get people to change their behaviour? And the engineering aspects: how do we design more efficient power generation systems, and improve insulating technologies?” Having experts from many disciplines grouped into themes means that the challenges can be attacked from all sides simultaneously, making the process much more integrated and efficient than working in groups divided by subject.

Other ‘grand challenge’ areas where IDR may play an important role are quantum information processing, bioinformatics, the epidemiology of AIDS and sustainable development.

Apart from these major areas, IDR may also be useful in stimulating innovation in and between large commercial organisations. This will also help with galvanising knowledge silos and countering the ‘curse of knowledge’.

How can we better understand this fuzzy overlap activity? One group has produced visualisations of the ‘degree of interdisciplinarity’ based on an analysis of cross-citations from a set of publications. Two sample diagrams are given above and below.

However, as the authors point out:

Interdisciplinary research (“IDR”) is often trumpeted as essential for scientific and technological advancement. However, interdisciplinarity is an ambiguous and multidimensional concept: there are several legitimate perspectives on how to track it –and a lack of consensus on which are the most appropriate.

Picture credits: here.


Understanding Small Business

May 13, 2011

Biggest Challenges In The Last 12 Months

I recently came across an interesting review of small business in Australia provided by Flying Solo:

The survey was open for two weeks in February/March 2010. There were 1,330 participants, representing approximately 7.8% of the Flying Solo email database. Over half [59%] of the participants were females; and close to half [46%] were aged 40-54 years.

There are some revealing statistics in the report and two tables that especially caught my attention are given above and below. I would imagine that some of the insights are reasonably general.

Top Ways Of Finding Work

Smart Hires And Open Conversations

May 11, 2011

I recently bumped into a colleague who’s running a very successful and rapidly growing small company (6 to 26 staff over the past few years). They have a unique software offering and have done well in extending their business from the UK to the US. A consequence of this is that he has to make quite a few international trips so time is increasingly tight. In addition, as the company has grown so has the internal and external communication deluge, especially email.

We got to talking about approaches for handling such key and common business management problems. One was ’hiring people smarter than yourself’.

In building up a small company, the founders get familiar with all it’s aspects and along the way generate their preferred way of doing things (marketing, sales, administration, whatever). New hires are then often taken on to do this same job in the same way. As people are different this is rarely straightforward, so time has to be spent in coaching or discussing differences in views, but all aimed at doing just the exact same job.

He remarked that in their case he remembered the advice of a previous boss to only hire people smarter than yourself to make sure that the job gets done better and (almost certainly) differently!

As far as I remember, this was their process for their first new hire (a service support role):

1. Advertise in The Evening Standard on the ‘computing’ day – they got over 100 responses.

2. Go through all the applicants and give a phone interview to the promising ones – this left about 5 candidates.

3. Give each candidate a one-on-one interview with every member of the company – about 5 staff at the time.

4. Then, get all the staff together in a round table and openly discuss their views and impressions.

The key new aspect was that the round table conversation focused on whether they thought an applicant could do a better job than they could individually for that position and why!

So the emphasis was on exploring applicants real strengths rather than fitting them into a rigidly pre-arranged role. This obviously requires imagination as well as quite a bit of honesty. In fact it was a sort of ‘mini-knowledge cafe’ with an important decision as output.

They hired the person they thought could best do the job and (as hoped for) she has made major improvements to the support area by doing things her way and is still with the company 10 years on.

I’ve interviewed lots of staff and in all cases I needed to conform to the ‘company hiring process’ (as is common with most large organisations). This did have many good points but had the underlying weakness that it was tacitly assumed that everyone was (let’s be honest) a cog in a well-oiled machine.

Better results might come out of running such an ‘interview cafe’!

Putting Things Off

May 6, 2011

Nice quote, and it’s motivated me to rethink my plans and ambitions for the next year!

“If I could stop favoring short term gratification over long term happiness, I could resolve most of the problems in my life.”

Spotted here and the original post is here.

The Mischievous Art Of Selling Yourself

May 3, 2011

I’m currently re-reading ‘Life’s a Pitch…‘ by Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity. The strapline is ‘how to be businesslike with your emotional life and emotional with your business life’!

To get a feel for their approach, here’s an extract on this provocative topic by Bayley, taken from The Observer:

A certain audacity in conversation, a reckless promiscuousness with reference, are other elements of the self-invention package. It is said the recipe for happiness is good health and a bad memory, but a good memory works better. I learnt that powerful recall and an ability to quote quotes and cite dates gave a persuasive simulacrum of high intelligence. I discovered at university that a certain lecturer’s notes were taken verbatim from a standard work (I used to amuse chums by running my finger along the lines in synch at the back of the auditorium) and this taught me that very few people are truly in possession of the intellectual or academic authority they claim. This was an invitation to boldness. If you have the nerve to say it, something like, ‘There’s a charming little panel by Valdes Leal in the monastery at Elciego’ has an impressive effect. There isn’t, but who will refute you?

Stephen Potter advocated a similar device in the notoriously tricky area of wine snobbery. He recommended saying something completely meaningless, such as: ‘This wine has great corners.’ But the important thing is to say something interesting. There’s a wonderful self-portrait by Salvator Rosa in London’s National Gallery. It carries the inscription ‘Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio’. Shut up, or say something useful. They do a very nice postcard of it. I have used lots.

It is said that we are all three different people: the person we think we are (the one we have invented), the person other people think we are (the impression we make) and the person we think other people think we are (the one we fret about). You could say it would be a lifetime’s quest to reconcile this battling trinity into a seamless whole. Maybe, but for the time being I am convinced that, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words (there I go, quoting again): you are what you pretend to be.