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?
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.