Managing Cross-Disciplinary Research : A Case Study

Gale Moore

Ontario Telepresence Project

c/o CSRI, University of Toronto

Toronto M5S 1A1

(416) 978-1977


The increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of the design process brings new challenges both for management of the design team and for team members. This is especially true in the university setting where status hierarchies are discipline and department based. Using the Ontario Telepresence Project as a case study the author, head of social science research for the OTP, explores some of the challenges faced in managing research in this environment.

KEYWORDS: Cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, management, design teams, case study


In the 1970s human-computer interaction (HCI) emerged as a new area within the field of computer science. As computer science matured as a discipline and access to computers extended beyond a core group of technically sophisticated users, the issue of access for non-technical users became a priority. This emerging field drew on methods and techniques established in psychology, by borrowing, modifying and extending this work. In many cases psychologists were added to design teams, and courses in HCI were added to the curriculum in computer science. In the 1980s the increased coupling of computer and communication technologies and development of groupware brought a growing recognition that the development and use of technology is an inherently social process. The need to understand the multiple contexts of design and the role of the end-user in this process takes on increasing importance as communication technologies penetrate more deeply into organisations. One response has been the addition of anthropologists and sociologists to design teams.

The increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of the design process brings new challenges both for the management of the design team, and for members of the team. In this paper I will explore some of the issues raised in the literature of cross-disciplinary management using our experiences in the Ontario Telepresence Project as a case study.


While there is considerable research on the management of cross-disciplinary teams,[1] the lack of accepted definitions for terms such as cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary has resulted in some confusion, particularly in the distinction between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research - the terms most commonly used to describe work carried out by individuals from more than one discipline. To study the organisational issues involved in managing cross-disciplinary projects greater precision is required It is necessary to distinguish and keep analytically separate the nature of the task (cross-disciplinary) and the organizational structure in which the task is carried out (multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary) . Epton et al describe the situation as follows:

"There are tasks that require for their objective completion contributions from more than one discipline. Such tasks are defined as cross-disciplinary. Cross-disciplinary tasks can be carried out using either of two different organizational forms:

The 'pure' multidisciplinary form - in which portions of the task are carried out by organizationally separate units each of which includes practitioners of only one discipline [or] the 'pure' interdisciplinary form - in which the elements of the task are carried out within a single unit that: (a) Includes practitioners of all the disciplines necessary for the completion of the task. (b) Has an internal structure such that transactions between members can take the form described ... as consulting[2]" [5, p. 6-7].

The solution to many important technological issues requires input from a variety of perspectives. A cross-disciplinary approach is now common in industry, government and university sectors, and in some cases across sectors. Both the organisational context and the disciplinary composition of the team will condition the ways in which the team can be organised - each setting providing both unique advantages and constraints.

Some general observations can be drawn from research in this field:

* there is general consensus that the major challenge in managing cross-disciplinary teams extends across problem areas and organisation settings, centering on the need to cope with constant change and complexity.

* the most relevant organisational theory is contingency theory - the 'it all depends' theory of organisations which recognizes the danger of prescribing an organisational structure suitable for all cases. The variation in disciplinary mix, institutional setting, etc. suggest the wisdom of this approach, but do not provide guidance to the manager of a cross-disciplinary team, a manager who may also be a team member.

* a common structure for a project team is some form of a matrix. In the university setting team members frequently have both departmental and project responsibilities

* organisational goals are frequently dynamic, changing at various stages during the life span of the project, and the organisational form or structure appropriate at one stage may not be appropriate at another, e.g., in the transition from research and development to beta testing.


The university would seem to be a natural environment for fostering cross-disciplinary research as a variety of experts, with the autonomy to define their research interests, are readily available In some cases there is also special funding for cross-disciplinary efforts - e.g., for research, travel, and graduate student support. This takes on increasing importance as departmental budgets shrink. In addition, granting agencies cognizant of the need for a more broadly based approach to many problems now explicitly favour cross-disciplinary proposals.[3] This will undoubtedly encourage more scholars to move in this direction. But the very concept of cross-disciplinarity flies in the face of traditional university structures, values and reward systems all of which center on the department, peer evaluation and disciplinary recognition, both local and international. Cooperation is also conditioned by disciplinary hierarchies. The relative power of disciplines varies both within and across universities and will affect such things as the willingness of individuals from different disciplines to cooperate, how research is defined, what methods are preferred and how conflicts are resolved.

At the individual level there are cognitive and personal barriers to cooperation. Tenure provides job security for faculty venturing beyond their home discipline reducing the personal risks involved. But other factors temper this process. The home discipline remains the primary reference as the source of power and prestige, cross-disciplinary research is not always recognized by colleagues or promotion committees, and it may be difficult to get papers published outside traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Cognitively, there is distance between disciplines which is not a constant,[4] and there is a question of whether there is "enough of a common intellectual background to understand each other's approaches and potential difficulties" [7, p. 136].

Personal barriers are considered to be more significant than cognitive barriers in communication and in conflict resolution. [1] Personal barriers include personality, social and cultural differences. Klein and Porter suggest the following ideal characteristics for personnel: "flexibility, patience, a willingness to learn, sensitivity toward and tolerance of others, and a willingness to venture into uncharted waters" [3, p. 13]. Communication problems, not unique to cross-disciplinary groups, may be exacerbated by them.


Since it is not possible to explore in a short paper all the management issues that emerge, I will focus on a small number that appear most salient for others working on a short term, cross-disciplinary project in a university.

Establishment and composition:

The Ontario Telepresence Project is a 3 year joint government, university and industry pre-competitive research project with the following goals:

* to conduct research into novel methods of integrating computer, video and telecommunications technologies to enable social proximity despite geographic distance, and

* to evaluate the use of these technologies in the workplace.

This project builds on the work of the CAVECAT Project [6]. The specific challenge for the Telepresence team is to move an enhanced media space design from the laboratory to the workplace in order to gain organisational insights into the adoption and use of this new technology.

The research team consists of:

* Twelve full-time staff:

(the managing director, head of social science, a technical research associate, administrative assistant, and three computer scientists in Toronto, and an engineer (the lab manager), two computer scientists and two systems engineers in Ottawa.)

*Ten faculty:

(three from computer science (including the scientific director of the project, and a specialist in HCI ), two from sociology, and two from industrial engineering at the University of Toronto, an engineer (the director of engineering) , and two psychologists from Carleton University in Ottawa)

*A number of graduate students in computer science and sociology working as research assistants and/or to meet academic requirements - e.g., course paper, thesis, etc.

* A number of visiting scholars who carry out research relevant to the their interests and the interests of the Project

The team is co-located in two sites in order for team members to experience working in the type of environment they are designing- i.e., a media space. Faculty, staff, students and visitors are divided between two cities, among buildings in each city and between floors within buildings wherever possible.

Financial arrangements

The project receives its major funding from the Provincial government. The industrial partners contribute through cash and in-kind donations. The project is sponsored by two Centres of Excellence - the Information Technology Research Centre and the Telecommunications Research Institute of Ontario - both of which are mandated to sponsor research within universities and to foster exchange with industry with the goal of improving the industrial competitiveness of Ontario in a global context.


The scientific director of the project is a recognized world-wide as leader in media space design. This has greatly enhanced our ability to meet the goals of awareness, recognition and information dissemination, e.g., conferences, demonstrations, media coverage. The managing director handles external relations, e.g., contracts with industrial partners, issues of intellectual property. thereby freeing staff researchers and faculty from these responsibilities. In the last half of the first year a head of social sciences and director of engineering were hired, and the project gradually evolved a more formal structure. Currently, the team is organised into three primary work groups as illustrated below.

Figure 1 Click here for Picture

Membership in each group is open, but in practice the applications group consists primarily of computer scientists and the engineering group primarily of engineers and computer scientists. The social sciences group is mixed, bringing together computer scientists interested in interface design and evaluation for the field studies and sociologists interested in organisational and communication issues. Each group meets on a regular basis, at least biweekly, and the directors of each group meet at least monthly. To support team building and group process a series of seminars to introduce social scientists to the technical environment was launched in the fall of 1992, and a series of weekly seminars on work in progress presented by group members was started in the summer of 1993. In the terms discussed earlier in the paper the project organisation is primarily multidisciplinary in form. Within the social sciences and field studies team the structure is interdisciplinary.

Managing a cross-disciplinary team - issues and experiences in year one

The project built on research in carried out in the Department of Computer Science. The new and explicit goal of studying the social impacts of this technology in an organisation external to the lab turned the focus to the coordination of a field study. This had several effects:

1. Adding a discipline

In CAVECAT one psychologist, using experimental methods, was a member of the team. In OTP three sociologists (and a number of graduate students) were added bringing research methods and designs less familiar to the technical members of the team. The longitudinal research design necessary for studying social impacts of the technology requires a long period of time before even preliminary results are available. The sociologists, on the other hand, had to become familiar with the Telepresence technology and understand the constraints and complexity of technical issues as they affected social science research design.

2. Deploying Telepresence technology outside of the lab

i. Managing external relationships

To deploy the technology outside of the lab meant that a field site had to be located and negotiated. The goals of the field organisation for whom real costs were involved, and the goals of the researchers had to be accommodated. Issues of training and support increased responsibilities for an already small team.

ii. The internal technical challenge

The technology transferred out of the lab required a degree of robustness not necessary in a community of technical users. This required a shift in goals for the technical staff experienced in design in a research environment. Familiar with rapid prototyping, the rapid production of robust prototypes proved particularly challenging. Simultaneously, research continued on the development of new applications, and modifications continued to be made to the underlying software.

iii. The development of the research agenda for the field study

The field studies staff includes the head of social sciences and a technical expert whose responsibilities are to liaise with the technical groups, to be a member of the interface design group and to carry out activities associated with equipment selection, installation, training and maintenance of the field site. The amount of time individual faculty members could be expected to commit to OTP varied. Direct financial support came from the project through buyout of teaching time, equipment, travel, etc. Two of the faculty members held research grants from external funding agencies that commited them to research in this area. Initially, it was planned that the staff sociologist would carry out much of the field research, in cooperation with faculty and graduate students. However, a great deal of time was required to build the social sciences group, define a research agenda, negotiate a field site and manage the relationships at the interfaces of the three work groups. Since the only other human resources available were faculty or students, a management committee consisting of faculty members from sociology and HCI and the head of social science research (a sociologist) was established to design the research for the field study. In this way the faculty would have a vested interest in the research and the graduate students would be encouraged to participate. This consensual approach was only partially satisfactory because the conflicting goals of the faculty, students and the project could not always be aligned or successfully negotiated. Role ambiguity is a recognized problem in a matrix form of organisation, and conflict negotiation among competing views is difficult to mediate in a university environment where faculty autonomy is normative. This aspect of conflict was more problematic than the negotiation of the disciplinary differences between the sociologists and HCI. It was especially problematic when conflict occurred on the critical path of carrying out the project's mandate.

3. Working at a distance

The literature on cross-disciplinarity suggests that physical proximity is an important aspect of team dynamics [3, p.15]. In this project the team was deliberately not co-located but given access to a variety of videoconferencing technologies. For many formal communication activities this worked extremely well and informally increased our awareness of each other. However, when decision-making was constrained by time it was more difficult to fully enfranchise remote team members. This deserves attention as a research issue.

Year one summary

At the end of year one a robust prototype of Telepresence technology had been deployed in a site outside the lab, modified in response to user demands and a series of social studies are close to completion. We start year two with a better understanding of the nature of the task, and the institutional, cognitive and personal barriers we face in working as a team. More effective management of our resources is the key challenge as we move towards our second field study.

Towards year two - taking advantage of what we have learned

As the literature suggests, a defining feature of cross-disciplinary research is that organisational goals are dynamic and shift over the life span of a project. With little over a year remaining in the OTP it is essential to review the outcome measures by which the success of the project will be evaluated in order to ensure that the multiple goals of government, university and industrial sponsors are met. We need to re-evaluate the organisational structure in light of this review. The focus in year two will be on carrying out our second field study in site outside the university.

1. The technical challenge

The need for robust technology for the field study suggests that the emphasis on the software engineering and applications side will need to shift from the development of new technology to refinement for field testing. The innovativeness of many of the new designs will make the system more attractive, and aid us in securing a field study site.

2. The social science challenge

A new organisational structure for field study research is needed for year two. Given the short time remaining and the twin goals of the production of scientific research and the demonstration of the benefit of the project to industry and government, the social science team needs to move from a consensual to a cooperative model of research and development. The scientific objectives will continue to be met through staff, faculty, and student research. Tasks on the critical path of meeting the objectives of industry and government, which may not align with the goals of scientific research will be carried out by staff, or contract researchers directly responsible to the head of social science. The objective is to create an environment in which both sets of activities are mutually supportive, but not mutually dependent. The result is that the scientific studies will be primarily by discipline, but an interdisciplinary form of organisation will again be used in designing the interface for the next field site.


Cross-disciplinary research creates new challenges for management especially in a university environment where the department structure reinforces the disciplinary status system of rewards and power. As many of the problems in computer-supported cooperative work and HCI require multiple perspectives and an understanding of group process, the management of cross-disciplinary research will be an increasingly important issue for the HCI community.


For research support the author is indebted to Technology Ontario, Information Technology Research Centre and the Telecommunications Research Institute of Ontario. Special thanks to Bill Buxton, Marilyn Mantei, Barbara Whitmer and Ron Riesenbach for comments and suggestions on this paper.


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[1] See for example [2] [4] [5].

[2] A 'consulting' mode implies that while A has the role of client and B of consultant their interaction and decision making involves an iterative process whereby both A and B have input into and influence upon each others decisions. This is distinguished from a 'contracting' mode where A and B operate at arms length, and from a 'partnership' mode where A and B retain their disciplinary identities [5, p. 7].

[3] For example in the five year planning document from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada states:

"We must intensify our efforts to promote excellence in research. We must also quickly and systematically broaden our research infrastructures to promote collaboration among researchers in the social sciences and humanities, the medical sciences, and in the natural sciences and engineering. Researchers in these disciplines must become more adept at working together to analyze and suggest new approaches to specific problems of national concern" [9, pp. 10-11).

[4]Rossini et al have attempted to measure this [8].