How to become a successful interdisciplinary team: Te Pūnaha Matatini (the meeting place of many faces)
February 1, 2016
Last week I attended the Te Pūnaha Matatini Investigator Hui in Christchurch. While this is not the first time the group of academic investigators have come together at such events since the launch of the new Centre of Research Excellence in February 2015, it was my first time meeting the full team of Investigators and Whānau since joining Te Pūnaha Matatini earlier this year. So, on Thursday 3rd December, a group of over 50 academics and students descended on Canterbury University (who graciously hosted our rowdy crew – thank you!) for two days filled of intellectual stimulation, innovation, networking, debate, fun prizes, and good food and beer!
Although I came to the hui with some ideas about the work being conducted by Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators, I left with a much richer appreciation of what makes it pretty unique in today’s world and the opportunities afforded by being part of Te Pūnaha Matatini.
I have been an academic (post PhD) for nearly 5 years and one of the main issues I have noticed during this time is that, as academics, we are often constrained in our thinking and research by the disciplinary boundaries within which we are employed and evaluated. These boundaries are artificially constructed – nature does not operate within disciplines – and can be troublesome when trying to tackle some of the key environmental, social, and economical problems we’re seeing in the world today.
Interdisciplinary and integrative research is absolutely vital if we are to better understand and guide socio-technical and socio-ecological transitions toward more sustainable futures, and a key part of Te Pūnaha Matatini’s uniqueness is that the academics involved have interests and expertise spanning various aspects of the environment, economy, and society – from knowledge and innovation in business to the evolution of the universe, from environmental management to bed-bugs. And more so, these creative minds are actively seeking out conversations, research topics, and methodologies that span the traditional disciplinary boundaries that so many shy away from.
In my own research I am lucky enough to work with an interdisciplinary research team, inclusive of engineers, computer scientists, physicists, sociologists, psychologists, economists, and modellers. Since our research program kicked off just over three years ago, I have observed our team go through the four stages of development – forming (transitioning from individual to team member), storming (intra-team conflict and resistance of self-change), norming (acceptance of team norms, personal roles, and idiosyncrasies of fellow members), and finally performing (diagnosing and solving problems, making decisions).
All too frequently teams try to rush through the non-productive form, storm, and norm stages. While this may be a seductive idea to get to the performing stage more quickly, it is ultimately dysfunctional. Groups, just like people, need time to develop and find maturity to tackle complex problems. The Investigator Hui allowed Te Pūnaha Matatini’s teams to share concerns, ideas, and expectations; providing the space needed to develop trust, and gain individual and interpersonal insights – key building blocks to establishing highly performing research groups. And while perhaps not much work was directly achieved, the time spent together engaged in team conversations, celebrating each other in the award ceremony, drinking and eating, and learning about patent data, sexism in science, and bed-bugs in New Zealand Department of Conservation huts has served to strengthen our relationships, provide an opportunity to network, and enabled future planning; ultimately creating the space for the magic to happen.
As I reflect back on our two days in Christchurch, I am grateful to be part of such an engaged, interesting, and open community; Te Pūnaha Matatini really is ‘the meeting place of many faces’ from many backgrounds and with many interests, and I look forward to observing and contributing to the unfolding future of the Centre, working together to tackle some of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) complex problems across environmental, societal, and economical issues.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!