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As we approach the dawn of a new millennium, it is essential that we equip our students with the necessary skills to cope with the challenges of a knowledge-based economy. In this issue of CDTL Brief on the theme of ‘Preparing Students for the 21st Century Workplace’, we present several perspectives of how various NUS departments have modified, or perhaps should modify, their curricula and teaching methods to achieve this goal.

November 26 1999, Vol. 2 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Wither Cross-Disciplinary Classes?
Mr Edmund Kwan
Human Resource Management Unit
Faculty of Business Administration

In December 1998, I visited Philips’ design lab in Eindhoven, and came away dazzled by its Vision of the Future project. Already one of the world’s biggest electronics companies and Europe’s largest, with sales of US$ 33.9 billion in 1998, Philips wants to take a crack at the world’s corporate summit by looking to beyond-the-horizon ideas that will shift contemporary paradigms. The project aims at forward research into possible future technologies for future lifestyles and workplace. Its talented cross-disciplinary teams—work groups that comprise varied departmental experts with different but complementary skills and various job functions—lighted up a firestorm of mind-thrilling concepts.

Cross-disciplinary teams are put together for swift complex problem-solving or integrating new products with a sharp customer focus. Companies use cross-disciplinary teams for software development, human factors, technical documentation, and marketing. They have also been utilised for business mediation, complex systems study, biocomputation, remote sensing and geriatric mental health care. Indeed, the integration of various functionalities has recently been emphasised as one of the most important success factors in Japanese product development (K. Kusunoki and T. Numagami. 1998. ‘Interfunctional Transfers of Engineers in Japan: Empirical Findings and Implications for Cross-functional Integration’. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 45, no. 3:250)1 .

To prepare students cross-functionally for a technically driven knowledge-based business environment, engineering schools have expanded and enriched their curriculum by adding topics that were previously offered only in business and industrial design schools. Business schools have developed courses that attempt to expose business students to the practice of product design. Liberal arts schools have packaged social science and information technology programmes for greater employability of their graduates.

In NUS, students have a wide choice of cross-faculty modules. For some, they attend courses alongside students of the guest faculty. Certain programmes are ‘exported’ from one faculty to another. There are also courses jointly conducted by two or more departments, such as Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, which involve colleagues from business administration, arts and law. With the commencement of the Core Curriculum programme, arts and science students are able to encounter each other in the modules they select.

Unfortunately, the attainment of inter-functioning effectiveness through employees who had been job rotated or cross-functionally taught and trained may not, per se, be adequate. The attainment of cost and quality competitiveness will continuously rely on economies of scale and role specialisation. Manpower shortage in Singapore prevents job rotation of considerable duration. Acquiring many skills and multi-tasking may cause detriment to core competence in the long term.

We should facilitate the mix and interaction of students from diverse faculties through ownership of a common hands-on project as a prelude to cross-disciplinary teams in the workplace. This mirrors a firm’s attempt to enhance its value chain through a greater integration of critical and secondary functions.

Shared class discussion or written assignment may be insufficient because students retain strong identification with their home faculty and the total duration of tutorials/workshops is short. There is consequently little satisfaction with or commitment to their cross-faculty groups. One solution to build habits for cross-disciplinary collaboration is the installation of a joint project or joint internship during the final year.

At the University of Houston, a Shell-sponsored programme, which draws on law, engineering, business and physics, looks at new technologies, analyses possible markets, researches law and prosecutes patents. The ‘Building Virtual Worlds’ class at Carnegie Mellon brought together 50 students from art, design, drama, and computer science.

Boeing and NASA funded a joint preliminary design of a hybrid rocket booster for future space efforts at the University of Alabama. Mechanical and electrical engineering students designed and prototyped the hybrid rocket; finance students estimated overall costs; whilst liberal arts counterparts contributed their skills in improving the quality of the written reports and presentations.

The intention of these programmes is to promote a migration from a parochial view of the world—in which one’s own function, values, and goals are paramount—to a culture that says, “We’re all in this together.” Hopefully the approach will contribute towards reducing inter-departmental conflicts that are common in some workplaces.

However, the cross-disciplinary approach is not a matter of just putting together a class. The administration and students must be sold on the idea, and support it. Staffing, funding and facilities are key issues that must be resolved. The course must be properly structured and a mechanism is embedded to enable reflection of the teaming process. Conflicting guidance from a joint faculty team and overloading students with materials that exude expertise of a particular area are common, and should be addressed.

Some departments in NUS may have experimented with the described cross-disciplinary classes. Is it time to ponder and percolate the concept further?


1 The US Department of Defense’s Test, Systems Engineering and Evaluation Office is another major user of cross-disciplinary teams, which they label integrated product teams.

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Wither Cross-Disciplinary Classes?