icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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All change, all change - for brevity!

About how good is "good enough" interdisciplinarity

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). All change, all change - for brevity! About how good is "good enough" interdisciplinarity. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 9.1 (January). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-1.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). All change, all change - for brevity! About how good is "good enough" interdisciplinarity. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 9.1 (January). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-1.html

An old pond!
A frog jumps in -
the sound of water.
Matsuo Basho

London, 27th January - I was just pondering on brevity when I read the news that Trump’s lawyers rely on brevity in first day of impeachment defence, pointing out its strategic importance. How true! Brevity is my new year (and new decade) resolution for this publication.

Why do obvious decisions take so long?

Past icm2re articles have been very long to read. I have also had the suggestion I should write in academic journals, because of the density of the information offered and the salience of the subjects considered.

To change things we have to make them new but also change perceptions about what they are, and what they represent for us.

Truth is that icm2re has offered me for several years the marvellous challenge of practicing interdisciplinarity and deliver my own editorial agenda, talking about a variety of case histories and investigations, considering information and communication technologies in different contexts.

I have done this taking into consideration as many facets as possible of a certain problem - as I would do as a consultant and problem solver - without any worrying about the length of the articles.

Practicing interdisciplinarity as an independent scholar, author and freelance journalist is in a certain sense a privilege: I have so far enjoyed indulging with it, with some excuses for not aiming at more concise outcomes. One of these excuses is that having a more structured and predictable format would influence, and not for the better, my way of investigating and reflecting about a topic.

Can I now afford to make the exercise easier to produce and easier to read as well, with a maximum length of 1500 words per article, without loosing in quality, insight or salience? I hope I can! The reader will have a chance to finish reading an article before their train come to the final destination.

The quality argument

My fear is that to be short means to loose focus and salience. But this is in fact just a fear.

Interdisciplinarity means to me first of all the precise identification of what matters beyond the walls, overlaps, limits and corridors created by disciplinary divisions or current commercial, dominant narratives.

My focus on a certain subject may swing up and down, forwards and backwards among arguments and sources, until I find acceptable a certain representation of an idea or a problem. In this regard, Australian researchers have called for a specific type of competence: to be prepared and able to do interdisciplinary work in academia, researchers should be able to manage this sort of pendulum in a team, aiming at constructive dialogues that eventually overcome the need to affirm one’s own discipline and point towards co-creative solutions (Brown 2015). In sum, it is like making a cake - solid and liquid ingredients must blend well. Sorry if it looks like I am comparing myself to Leornardo da Vinci (or Nigella Lawson?), but I do believe that single individuals can do very well at making such a cake.

When I started this publication, ten years ago, interdisciplinarity was still a solitary call in academic and public funded programmes (Horizon 2020 for instance) and among circles of special advisers. Ten years on, many voices from both the public and the private sectors support it, but not without concerns for superficial outcomes, waste of resources, and disappointment for the missing results. There is a lack of permanent, systematic practices integrated within the disciplines (for instance, see Villeneuve 2020) in the direction of what Fuller - very effectively in my opinion - called “knowledge integration” (Frodeman, 2017).

The idea that many socio technical problems are better dealt with through an interdisciplinary approach is now often banalised and echoed in public debates, comprising arguments of equality, diversity, freedom of speech and so on that we risk to water it down as fashion instead of an infrastructural idea for a knowledge based economy.

Unfortunately, the better is not always necessarily the best available solution or idea.

“The better” can just be the first or the most convenient approach a group of people adopts at a certain point in time, a “good enough” result that satisfies everybody and then leaves behind unanswered questions of effectiveness, quality, ethics, governance and leadership.

The concept of Kakonomics or weird preference for low-quality payoffs was investigated by Giorgia Origgi and Diego Gambetta in the late 2000s, reflecting on why some social innovations do no go through a culture of amoral familism. In some way, they reframed 1995 Christensen’s concept of “good enough”, still at the time quite popular: Christensen, who then deeply reviewed if not regretted his juvenile discourse on the idea (as I have mentioned in icm2re 5.9, IOT waiting for Godot), had proposed that some mediocre solutions become actually huge disruptive innovations in media and publishing because that is, in fact, the way in which new ideas get through, unnoticed by the incumbents.

By turning the notion of “good enough” from an attribute of clever new kids on the block to a recurrent characteristic of parasites individuals or lazy communities, Origgi and Gambetta have convincingly argued that everybody can play Aunt Sally games with knowledge! This is exactly the risk of any interdisciplinary project: it all starts with good intentions of progress and cooperation but the difficulties along the way may lead to inevitably low payoffs, making everybody profiting in the short term from those littles spaces of ambiguity, conflicting interests, superficiality or genuine ignorance at the intersection between two or more disciplines. In sum, mediocrity gets easily into the swing of things, to the detriment and not at all in the interest of the next generations.

An emotionally driven debate around the disruption theory took place internationally few years ago. There is plenty of evidence that it does not explain fortunes and misfortunes of digital businesses. But many academic programmes and public projects still look at it with hope and faith, advocating the need of young and disruptive interdisciplinary teams, agile and separated from the mainstream organisation, to move things forward. The reality is that the disruption theory has become just a squabble over semantics (Rose, 2016) and standards of design and convenience have advanced to the point that people expect more, not less (Gobble, 2015).

Landing on my feet

From a system engineering point of view - that is the one I have often applied and I would rather keep it in this column - the concept of workable, operational “good enough” solutions is horrific and unacceptable. In fact, it originates situations in which quality and continuous improvements are overlooked and sacrificed in the name of a superior need for some sort of more efficient compromise, often purely ideological and instrumental (profit, political gain, equality of treatment, you name it). In sum, for me, knowledge can never be “good enough”, by definition.

From the errors made in the production of the polio vaccine in the 1950s (the Cutter incident in the USA laboratories) to the loss of a British aircraft in Afghanistan in 2006 (see the Nimrod Report), not to mention the increasing number of cases of iatrogenic deaths in spite of goals of international clinical governance, modern management and project management practices are plenty of evidence that accuracy and quality of data and information are overlooked because nobody would consider them as a priority within their own remit, science, art or values: there is any specific process looking into it, there are not enough resources, etc etc.

Advocates of interdisciplinarity are now everywhere! This consistent trend, investigated since the early 2000s (Jacobs and Frickel, 2009), has produced great fragmentation in funding and more proliferation of organisational units and projects without any substantial innovation in the way in which disciplines are organised and taught.

It seems that the call for interdisciplinarity in academia is still very often extremely instrumental: the risk of “good enough”, mediocre outcomes very high.

With icm2re I have the ambition to publish ideas and solutions that advance the public understanding of technical, engineering and scientific matters: I will make the final outcome of these articles shorter, but without changing my method of work that I believe is what ensures quality and salience.

Hurrah! The new brevity idea has jumped in the old pond

Well done then! I have now a new commitment for brevity and I will hopefully stick to my old rules of quality. I hope you find useful this reflection about interdisciplinarity. If not… could poetry help? I leave you with a suggestion: may a haiku be a source of inspiration for all frogs interested in studying and practicing interdisciplinarity and change management in the new decade, no matter the sector or the discipline they leap out from!

References

Brown, R.R. et al. (2015). Interdisciplinarity: How to catalyse collaboration. Nature 525, 315–317 (17 September 2015) Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/news/interdisciplinarity-how-to-catalyse-collaboration-1.18343

Gambetta, D. and Origgi, G. (2009). L-worlds: The curious preference for low quality and its norms. Oxford Series of Working Papers in Linguistics (2009) 1, 23. Retrieved from https://www.politics.ox.ac.uk/materials/centres/oxpo/working-papers/wp_08-09/OXPO_WP08-09f_Gambetta.pdf

Gobble, M.M. (2015) The Case Against Disruptive Innovation. Research-Technology Management, January-February. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5437/08956308X5801005

Frodeman, R. ed. (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. Second Edition, Oxford University Press.

Jacobs, J.A. and Frickel, S. (2009). Interdisciplinarity: A Critical Assessment. Annual Review of Sociology. Vol. 35 (2009), pp. 43-65. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/27800068

Villeneuve, D. et al. (2020) What is Interdisciplinarity in Practice? Critical Reflections on Doing Mobility Research in an Intended Interdisciplinary Doctoral Research Group. Sustainability 2020, 12(1), 197. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3390/su12010197

Rose, F. (2016) Disruption Disrupted. Milken Institute Review 18 (Third Quarter 2016): 34. Retrieved from http://www.milkenreview.org/articles/disruption-disrupted