How Transdisciplinarity Will Help Workers Thrive in a Complex World
By James M. Fraleigh
If anything can be said of the future, it’s that it will become exponentially more complex on all levels. On the global scale, issues such as climate change, dwindling energy supplies, and public health crises will require teamwork across disciplines to pool talent and find solutions. Even those not engaged in such high-level work will have to manage growing amounts of seemingly unrelated information, as 21st-century jobs cease to be single-function tasks and require workers to integrate and interpret data from outside their immediate experience.
The ability to understand and integrate concepts across multiple disciplines has been called transdisciplinarity. As a product of our data-driven computational world and the need for workers to anticipate multiple careers over longer lives, it’s one of 10 key workforce proficiencies described in Future Work Skills 2020, a report by the Institute for the Future for Apollo Research Institute: http://apolloresearchinstitute.com/node/52.
Transdisciplinary thinking has the potential to foster innovative solutions that go beyond simple problem solving. When experts from two or more fields join forces to brainstorm a challenging problem, the results can be unexpected, and even beautiful. For instance, to solve an engineering problem in a new building, an architect might consult a biologist to understand how bone structures support an animal’s weight or guide a bird’s flight, then collaborate with a materials engineer to craft a striking, but safe, infrastructure. Transdisciplinary teams will use theoretical thinking and disparate skill sets to make the mental leaps that take ideas from sketches to marketplace.
Individual workers will also need to become conversant in disciplines that lie outside their degree program or work experience as they plan for a long, multi-employer career. They will become “T-shaped workers”: people who possess deep knowledge in one field, but are also familiar with a broad, lateral sweep of other disciplines that complement their primary proficiency. If you hum a few bars of one of those disciplines, a T-shaped worker’s curiosity and knack for cultivating multiple talents will help him or her finish the tune.
Higher education institutions, long oriented toward preparing students for careers via a single-major paradigm, are slowly beginning to provide transdisciplinary programs. Intercollegiate partnerships and interdepartmental programs in which instructors from multiple fields share experience and solutions over a single course of study are appearing in response to the need for well-rounded workers.
Equally important to transdisciplinary development is the habit of lifelong learning. People are remaining productive over longer life spans, and careers will lengthen to match. Open-minded, curious workers who absorb and meld experiences from multiple careers will find themselves better able to handle the cognitive demands of future jobs and will have less trouble finding new employment as transdisciplinary competency becomes a highly sought-after trait.
Learn more at www.apolloresearchinstitute.com.
James M. Fraleigh writes on a wide range of topics for Apollo Research Institute.