A Eureka! Moment

Bringing people together from multiple disciplines for both brainstorming and training can lead to powerful collaboration, innovation, and knowledge sharing.

When one silicon chip manufacturer several years ago couldn’t eliminate the bubbles in the wafers’ polymer coating—which prevented them from being etched for circuit boards)— it found the solution in the champagne industry.. .not by sipping a few flutes of bubbly, but by reverse-engineering the process of natural carbonation. Looking outside IT to an industry based on bubbles led to a “Eureka!” moment that solved a serious problem.

The University of Michigan’s mission to innovate took a similar multi-disciplinary path several years ago when it designed cross-functional research laboratories. The Biointerfaces Institute locates materials scientists, chemical engineers, biomechanical engineers, and medical researchers near each other. The resulting collaborations led to the creation of a blood test that both captures and cultures cancer cells for speedier cancer diagnoses. The cross-fertilization results were so successful the university launched another lab last fall, the $46 million Center of Excellence in Nano Mechanical Science and Engineering.

More and more organizations today are realizing that bringing people to gether from multiple disciplines for both brainstorming and training—whether it’s leadership development or new product training—can lead to powerful collaboration, innovation, and knowledge sharing.

Feeding an Idea-Driven Economy

“The innovation economy is driven by ideas that are generated by thinking about problems in new ways,” points out Katy Tynan, partner and co-founder of MindBridge Partners. “Innovation is a big deal in corporations because we’re competing globally. In such a competitive market, companies must be innovative to serve their customers better, faster, and less expensively.”

As Tynan, with her IT background, recounts, “When technical people discuss product development, they talk to each other in terms of technical limitations, while marketers talk with users and interpret the results for developers.”

Companies are trying to change that by insisting their scientists and engineers also talk directly with users. By removing the middlemen, product developers gain a deeper understanding of the pain points and their importance to users, enabling them to develop better, more successful products.

MEA Thrives on Cohort Learning

Bringing together people from multiple disciplines for leadership training is equally effective. The MidAtlantic Employers Association (MEA) uses that approach when providing training to its member companies.

“We had been conducting ad hoc training, where people attended various training sessions in any given series at ran dom times,” notes Marian Vallotton, director of Training and Organizational Development. In that approach, the specific session was the focal point of the learning environment and the goal was to complete the series.

“We realized, however, that for the learning to be most effective, it was critical to keep the group together throughout the training series. This fostered relationships, so discussions had continuity. Participants learned each other’s businesses, trials, strengths, errors, and successes,” Vallotton says.

In some ways, by accessing information from other industries, employees may learn more from each other than from any class. “The ability to talk with people and hear a common thread across industries is very powerful,” Vallotton continues. In fact, many participants have remained connected after their training series concluded, expanding their networks with learning partners in other industries or professional functions who have relevant insights.

Multidisciplinary Tradeoffs

While multidisciplinary learning is powerful, it isn’t always the best option. Involving multiple disciplines brings broader perspectives to issues, but training personnel based upon their function or industry fosters deeper insights. The goal is to ensure that training is relevant to all participants in a given class, Tynan notes.

A cross-disciplinary approach to learning is most effective in leadership classes and in situations in which other industries or segments of a company may lend alternatives.

“Pulling together five different departments that each need something different from the training will be frustrating for everyone,” Tynan says. So for technical training, it’s often better to group people by function so they can concentrate on the specific information they need to be successful—for example, learning the features of a new application that apply specifically to them—and thereby maximize their classroom productivity.

Teambuilding may be another tradeoff. The teambuilding that occurs naturally when department members train together doesn’t necessarily occur in a cross-disciplinary environment, but it often can be fostered. “There is always an internal customer service aspect to consider, along with communication breakdowns between departments,” Vallotton points out.

Classic disconnects occur between sales and production, and among upper, middle, and front-line management, Vallotton notes. As a trainer, she counteracts those breakdowns in communication and understanding by pulling together cross-disciplinary teams. “Although they have the common goal of selling a service or product, they have different priorities. They haven’t walked in the other’s shoes, so to speak.”

As such, Tynan advises, “be very thoughtful about how and why disciplines are brought together for training. When people from multiple disciplines are together, focus on how they can work together to accomplish the larger goal.”

Succeeding with cross-disciplinary training also requires L&D personnel to consider the often-disparate learning styles by discipline. “Obviously, different people learn differently regardless of discipline,” Tynan says, but there are some commonalities within functions. For example, “HR personnel expect to talk with each other first and then focus on the purpose of the meeting, while scientists learn in a factual, detail-oriented, logical manner and are less concerned about how others are experiencing the same process.”

Making It Work

“You can’t simply put 20 people in a room and expect magic to happen,” Tynan stresses. “But when you have a problem or a specific issue to address, cross-disciplinary teams can develop new approaches, test novel ideas, and learn from the exposure to other ways of thinking.”

The benefit of cross-disciplinary learning is that “by filling a room with people with disparate ideas, those people don’t limit themselves to how things were done 20 years ago. They bring fresh ideas,” Tynan says. Not all of those ideas and insights will be viable for specific situations, but they may spark other ideas. “You just must eliminate the frustration faction of ‘That won’t work here, and here are 100 reasons why it won’t.’”

Bringing disparate groups together for learning can be healthy, but the notion must be championed by a leader within the organization. “As a consultant, I can give people the tools, but an internal champion is necessary to keep it alive,” Vallotton notes.

Manifestations Throughout the Workplace

The cross-fertilization of ideas is spreading through organizations in many ways. For example, Tynan says, there is a trend away from cubical farms and departmental seating. Instead, organizations are moving toward flexible, collaborative spaces. “Hot desks, white boards, modular furniture, and open conference room-size spaces allow teams to work together easily,” she says. Importantly, the flexibility of the work space also allows teams to form and re-form throughout a project’s lifecycle as needs change.

The trend is so pervasive, Tynan says, that “office manufacturer Herman Miller commissioned a study on seating trends in 2013, and developed new lines of furniture based on collaborative spaces.”

Is It Working?

The goal for cross-disciplinary learning and collaboration is increased innovation, but, as Tynan says, “creativity is hard to measure. The correct metric may be failure. “Tracking the number of times and ways groups can fail is one measure of their creativity. Cross-functional teams will be challenged, struggle, regroup, and try again. The metric for success is whether the groups are still trying.”

To quote inventor Thomas Edison, “To invent, you need a good imagination...” Cross-disciplinary learning feeds that imagination.


  • Be thoughtful about how and why different disciplines are brought together for training.
  • When people from multiple disciplines are together, focus on how they can work together to accomplish the larger goal.
  • Consider the often-disparate learning styles by discipline.
  • Keep in mind that not all ideas and insights generated during crossdisciplinary learning will be viable for specific situations, but they may spark other ideas. The key is to eliminate the frustration faction of “That won't work here, and here are 100 reasons why.”
  • Make sure cross-disciplinary learning is championed by a leader within the organization.

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