A Recipe for Collaborative Research

Mixing faculty across disciplines may be the formula for research that’s more relevant and ready-made for real-world business.
A Recipe for Collaborative Research

Business schools have strayed from their purpose—to provide companies with the graduates and the research to solve real-world problems. This is a refrain frequently voiced by high-profile educators ranging from Warren Bennis to Jeffrey Pfeffer to Lex Donaldson. These educators each may trace the problem to different sources, but they agree on one important point: Collaboration among many disciplines may well be part of the solution.

As we often find when we examine businesses in all industries, the most difficult problems are interdisciplinary in nature. They come with no ready-made answers and encompass not just traditional business subjects like accounting, marketing, or finance, but also those such as psychology, graphic design, and science. To solve these problems, a company requires a team of specialists from multiple disciplines, which few consulting organizations are equipped to supply. The few consultancies that have the resources to offer multidisciplinary teams charge a premium for their services.

So, if companies value interdisciplinary problem-solving so highly, why don’t business schools place more emphasis on promoting it among their own students and faculty? Why not provide companies with the cross-disciplinary solutions they need to succeed?

That’s the question we asked in 2001, when administrators at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, launched an initiative to encourage collaborative research that cuts across traditional departmental boundaries. Their aim was to encourage faculty in the business school and across the arts and sciences departments to share knowledge and work together on pressing business problems. To track the results of the initiative, we formed Bentley’s Social Networks Analysis Project, or the SNAP team, which comprised faculty from the management and mathematics departments. We tracked how many collaborations our faculty made across disciplines, inside and outside the business school. Our aim was to boost the number of interdisciplinary connections and to create a truly collaborative arena where faculty and students learned to work well on interdisciplinary teams.

Interdisciplinary research better reflects the realities of modern businesses, where people from different specialties cooperate with each other, rather than compete.

Breaking Down Silos

We knew we had some work to do. Many of our faculty were accustomed to working within their traditional silo subjects, or at least primarily within the business school itself. In fact, in the 2000–2001 academic year, we counted only four connections between business school faculty and faculty in other departments.

In 2001, our administration decided to provide internal funding, through a call for Requests for Proposals (RFPs), to interdisciplinary projects related to the school’s strategic initiatives. It was estimated that each project would cost between $30,000 and $80,000 per year for an average duration of two to three years, although proposals that fell outside that range were also considered. 

During the three-month period between the issuance of the RFP and the proposal due date, the administration encouraged extensive discussion, not only among faculty seeking collaborative opportunities, but also between proposal teams and those making the final selections. This discussion provided further opportunities for teams to refine their structures, introduce faculty with overlapping interests, and choose a project leader. Well-established researchers were encouraged to assume roles of leadership. We knew that such discussion would be a vital step in the process and would better ensure that team members and their objectives were well-matched.

In the inaugural year of this initiative, ten proposals were submitted, of which three were selected for full funding. Several others received limited funding to launch pilot projects. Projects launched as a result of Bentley’s interdisciplinary RFP program have been wide-ranging, delving into multidisciplinary research areas such as the following:

  • Data analytics in marketing and foreign direct investment, which led to collaboration among faculty from the economics, international studies, marketing, and mathematics departments.
  • Information availability and visibility through networks of interconnected firms, which linked faculty from accountancy, behavioral and political sciences, computer information systems, management, and marketing.
  • Women in leadership, which linked faculty from economics, English, management, and philosophy.
  • Enterprise risk management, which brought together faculty from accountancy, behavioral sciences, computer information systems, economics, finance, law, management, marketing, mathematical sciences, financial planning, and taxation.
  • Ethics and social responsibility, which involved faculty from accountancy, behavioral and political sciences, management, and philosophy.

In the 2003–2004 academic year, we counted 16 interdisciplinary connections, inside and outside the business school —a 400 percent increase. In addition, the number of interdisciplinary publications within the university—which included journal articles with at least two authors from different departments—rose from seven to 36. Even better, the increase in interdisciplinary publications outpaced the increase in the number of publications overall, rising from 3.61 percent to 13.79 percent.

Much of this activity can be attributed to the creation of the first official interdisciplinary research team at Bentley, DART (Data Analytics Research Team), one of the successful initiatives in the RFP program. It was co-founded in 2001 by a marketing professor and a statistician and currently consists of these founding members as well as a computer scientist, an economist, and a geographer. The team has published five papers in refereed journals and has several other projects under way. The team takes advantage of its strong analytic capacity in areas of interest to team members, such as database marketing, foreign direct investment, and studies of the digital divide.

This increase in interdisciplinary research better reflects the realities of modern businesses, where people from different specialties cooperate with each other, rather than compete. In this framework, people understand the importance of building a network of colleagues and potential clients, so that they can better understand differing points of view. They understand that employees or consultants who retreat into their own isolated disciplines, except in very specialized environments, will often fail in their objectives—to solve problems for their companies and their clients.

Many corporate leaders have realized that very few business problems are confined to the traditional business school disciplines. Most also encompass issues of mathematics, engineering, design, psychology, sociology, and even philosophy.

Faculty Take the Lead

As our RFP program has evolved, it also has created a level of faculty “middle management” within the school. That is, many faculty have acted upon their own initiatives to establish research centers in specific areas of institutional interest. Today, these faculty even hold their own internal RFP competitions for various projects within the scope of their research centers. They also link with other centers, jointly funding collaborative projects. 

We are fortunate that the layout of Bentley College’s physical campus facilitates our interdisciplinary collaborations. Although it has separate departments with separate deans, all departments are located near one another. In many cases, they are intermingled in the same buildings and hallways. Such proximity encourages faculty to meet informally and builds a culture that shuns traditional, isolated “silo” behavior. In fact, when the faculty and staff dining room was renovated recently, faculty insisted on a community table, which is now regularly populated by a wide variety of professors, young and old, from all disciplines. Still, even business schools that may be more physically separated from other university departments can, and probably should, take advantage of the variety of skills and perspectives that faculty from other disciplines have to offer.

Perhaps the most important result of our RFP program is that our research faculty are having fun! Through their internal and external collaborations, they are learning new techniques and alternative perspectives for examining business issues. For example, one research team, comprising four individuals from economics, finance, management, and mathematics, is investigating the gender gap in executive compensation using theories from labor economics and management. Team members are conducting their research via traditional analytical methods and new advanced statistical software to identify and account for complex interactions. In the process, the team members enhance their own skills through exposure to faculty with expertise very different from their own.

The Cross-Disciplinary Advantage

It’s true that, to some extent, collaboration on a college campus is inevitable. We realize that some of the collaborative efforts described here probably would have taken place even without the motivation of the RFP initiative. Many, however, would never have been conceived without it. Through the initiative, Bentley College has been able to change the dynamic within our faculty into one that runs counter to the “silo effect.”

Our new cross-disciplinary approach to research has given the business community an improved perception of what our faculty and school have to offer. As a result of increased recognition and funding, Bentley faculty have achieved greater visibility in the business community, receiving invitations for faculty to speak to a wide range of groups, from financial executives to women’s leadership associations. These projects have, in essence, provided the business community with a resource that was desperately needed—a business school that takes a cross-functional approach to problem-solving.

Today, many corporate leaders have realized that very few business problems are confined to the traditional business school disciplines. Most, in fact, also encompass issues of mathematics, engineering, design, psychology, sociology, and even philosophy. As a result, we can no longer limit our thinking, or our research, to business disciplines alone. Crossing disciplinary boundaries for research projects doesn’t just benefit academic journals—it makes professors more valuable to their schools and helps them provide a richer, more expanded perspective to their students. Perhaps more important, an interdisciplinary approach to research provides more creative, thorough, and readily applicable solutions for the increasingly complex problems of real-world businesses.

Susan M. Adams is an associate professor of management; Charles Hadlock and Dominique Haughton are professors of mathematical sciences; and Nathan Carter and George Sirbu are assistant professors of mathematical sciences at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. They all are members of Bentley’s Social Networks Analysis Project.