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Using the Interdisciplinary Lens to Improve Public Sector Strategy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Alan Young
June 27, 2022

Examining a topic using various disciplinary lenses can promote engagement and help develop knowledge, insights, problem-solving skills and self-confidence toward efficacy, while generating an overall appreciation for learning. We also know interdisciplinary-orientated instruction advances cognitive abilities with many benefits from multidisciplinary understanding, for example: recognizing and mitigating bias, applying critical thinking, developing tolerance for ambiguity and recognizing ethical considerations. With interdisciplinary approaches seeming to be a natural pursuit knowing people create their understanding (and knowledge) through their experiences and self-reflection, any channeling of learning and understanding to a compartmented, single discipline seems less effective. However, this is the case for many public sector practices regarding strategy.

With the learning experience reflecting real life, a multi-faceted approach, any experience becomes more authentic and considerably more helpful to those practitioners trying to fit strategy into their daily work. Real-world problems are complex and no single discipline can adequately describe and resolve these issues. The implications for failing to close the academic-practice gap have increased significantly with recent administrative laws and statutory requirements directing federal agencies to improve services and outcomes through more scientific, rational, evidence-based approaches. Such legislative actions were codified in the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act (2015)Federal Data Strategy (2018) and Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (eff. 2019). While the obligations are clear, practitioners are missing how options map toward achieving this mandate, particularly those with more operational missions and less research-orientated missions.

The perceptional divide between academic theory and professional practices often suggests the cause to be differences in anticipated value. The difference between what researchers produce and what practitioners understand is significant, often resulting in researchers developing a theory for practitioners who, in turn, reject it because it seems to have no basis in reality. Such a scenario beckoned a call for increasing those multidisciplinary methods supporting a qualitative approach to inform improved organizational outcomes and, in the end, produce evidence-based strategic decisions in service to the public. Throughout my interventional research conducted at a federal government agency, having applied the reflective multidisciplinary learning lens proved most beneficial while leading a leadership team to build an operating strategy for their future.

Beyond the de rigueur of interdisciplinary studies growing in number and status at the college and university levels, executive education also reflects the benefits of multidisciplinary understanding. Consider digital storytelling, simulations involving sense-making in virtual operating environments and cultural intelligence in practice, each reflecting the value of interdisciplinary contributions.

There is evidence that generalists most often prevail in a specialized world. Ross Arnold and Jon Wade claim that systems thinking centers around a holistic notion that complex systems will continue to evolve into even more interconnected domains, forming “systems of systems” and transcending many disciplines in unintuitively, yet highly impactful ways. One response to this unintended interdisciplinary overflow is the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, offering expert future-focused job analyses to anticipate changes to existing jobs and the emergence of future jobs that do not yet exist. Another example is the $100 billion retailer, Target, which integrated organizational psychology into its cultural approach to automation and platform design in development, security and operations. Within the holus-bolus of today’s complex world, practitioners putting on a part-time strategic thinking cap need to analyze and plan more broadly with a deeper, multidisciplinary toolbox. Our team found it constructive to have organizational leaders explore how the analytical framework of the baseline discipline, strategy in this case, could be extended to account for insights from the other fields such as change management, communications, cultural and emotional intelligence. After all, a new strategy requires changing something at some level in the enterprise and when it involves people, it’s often messy.

The development of alternative perspectives forming a more comprehensive analysis framework was encouraged to facilitate a deeper toolbox. Analyzing collected observational and narrative heuristic-based interview data required clarification of undeclared assumptions and inferences. It was beneficial to identify such mental models and investigate how topical discussions were bolstered using this interdisciplinary analysis. Finally, we had the leaders drawing connections between seemingly unrelated domains to the fullest extent reasonable with the explanation of strengths and weaknesses. Practitioners have a bias for strategic action, so constructively transitioning from the strategic conversation stage is critical. Such an initiative offered an opportunity to demonstrate how multidisciplinary knowledge can be organized and assimilate newly integrated concepts to make sense at the individual and group level.

Preliminary findings throughout this interventional research supported efforts to develop understanding by simultaneously identifying those domains associated with strategy and the process-based, step-by-step towards experiencing evidence-based practice in action. As a result, declarative and procedural knowledge was acquired. These aspects are fundamentally needed to solve complex, strategy-orientated organizational challenges in the holistic context of reality.

Given the obligation of leaders to synthesize multiple viewpoints on given topics, including an appreciation of the differences between disciplines and especially their approach to complex, strategic challenges, the multidisciplinary conversations and perspectives make sense. Adding, interdisciplinary approaches lead to complex, internalized organization of knowledge. Such is a benefit when integrating conflicting views and paradigms after having encroached into the leader’s domain of subject matter expertise. New attitudes toward problem-solving may surface when ideas from fields are absorbed into the conversation.

Author: Robert Alan Young is senior advisor for Security and Hazardous Materials Safety at the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, DC. He is on the adjunct faculty at Trevecca Nazarene University and the managing principal at Baypointe Analytics LLC, providing corporate clientele with independent service-level assessments to evidence compliance with internal controls and the branded delivery of services. He may be reached at [email protected].

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