Director of the Organizational Dynamics Program and Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Oklahoma, Tulsa Graduate College
“Effects of Heterogeneity in Interdisciplinary Research Teams: A Quantitave and Qualitative Research Approach,” Brigitte Steinheider and Petra Saskia Bayerl, The National Academies, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Convocation of Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Washington, DC, Jan 29-30, 2004, p. 26-27.
Interdisciplinary teamwork is becoming increasingly common in a wide range of areas such as industrial and knowledge development fields. Bringing together expert knowledge of different domains is associated with synergetic effects and a decrease in product development time. This requires that teams develop a shared understanding of the problem and the approaches to solve it. Different technical languages, different approaches to problem solving and a lack of familiarity with other disciplines, however, hinder the development of a shared understanding, resulting in team members’ complaints about ineffective work. To be productive and to communicate effectively, interdisciplinary team members must develop consensus about the project’s goals, have a clear understanding of the team members’ diverse professional areas of expertise, and acquire a meta-knowledge connecting the different areas of needed expertise as they relate to their project. This process is called knowledge sharing.
We analyzed the relationship between functional heterogeneity and outcome factors in interdisciplinary research teams. We hypothesized that functional heterogeneity is associated with increased communication problems and conflicts within the team, and negatively related to team performance and individual work satisfaction. We assumed that these effects are mediated by knowledge sharing and that strategies like non-sanctioning reactions to misunderstanding and a balanced communication structure are positively related to knowledge sharing.
We studied the effects of heterogeneity by videotaping and analyzing two subsequent team meetings of seven interdisciplinary research teams. In addition, we gathered questionnaire data from team members and their superiors. Functional heterogeneity was operationalized as the diversity of educational background of team members (R = 2 — 5 disciplines per team); team size varied between four and fifteen members (M= 6.7 persons per team).
Functional heterogeneity shows an overall negative relationship with team performance in supervisor ratings and is associated with an increasing number of observed communication problems. The number of problems appears to be directly related to the diversity of disciplines. No correlation is found with overall performance in self-ratings and individual job satisfaction. Knowledge sharing is positively related to overall performance for both self and supervisor ratings as well as to dealing with misunderstanding. Effectiveness and quality of the teamwork seem to be primarily associated with knowledge sharing.
Qualitative analyses of video data revealed that team effectiveness is reduced by inappropriate and unaccepted decisions concerning discipline-specific methods as well as by a lack of acceptance of discipline-specific expertise and overly simplistic interpretations of models and terms by other disciplines. Early clarification of technical terms and the conveyance of knowledge about team members’ disciplinary background, and accordingly their interests, limits, and possible contributions for the team, are identified primarily as positive behaviors in highly heterogeneous teams.
The combination of qualitative and quantitative methods in this study allows for a deeper insight into the effects of functional heterogeneity in interdisciplinary research teams: Our quantitative results reveal that heterogeneity impairs the efficiency of team performance, but not the quality. Qualitative analyses provide reasons for this negative relation as well as strategies and behaviors facilitating interdisciplinary teamwork.