Monday, January 18, 2010

Tilting at Silos

Dan RichardDan Richard

Office of Faculty Enhancement

Do you work in a silo?
In higher education research, a silo is an enclosed community of scholars who focus on research problems with a singular orientation. Physicists might study global warming with other physicists, for example, or sociologists might study poverty with other sociologists. Steve Kolowich in a recent article published in Inside HigherEd ( discusses the impact of these silos on the coordination of resources at institutions of higher education.

The benefits of working in silos include the ability to progress quickly in one direction, facilitated by a common language and perspective. Very focused programs can secure funding from focused initiatives with less competition, and focused departments can attract quality students who are seeking out signature, productive programs.

Many problems like global warming and poverty, however, are complex. Funding sources are increasingly recognizing this complexity and are interested in funding projects that take an interdisciplinary approach (e.g., NIH and NSF).

One of the major challenges in moving toward interdisciplinary work is the established culture at the institution. Kolowich points out that promotion and tenure guidelines sometimes do not recognize interdisciplinary work on the same level as research by a single author.

What are your thoughts?
Does UNF encourage interdisciplinary work?
Should UNF move toward recognizing and supporting interdisciplinary work, for reasons of gaining extramural funding or for reasons of IT infrastructure?
Should we stay in our silos to promote focused, signature programs?

Click the "Post a Comment" link below.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dan
Great article. The only way I was able to survive in the research world was to collaborate with those at research universities. It is tough sometimes because what drives scientific research is funding and graduate students and without something to offer the collaborations fall through. I have thought for a long time that research is funded in a competitive environment to some extent which makes cooperation across universities difficult and in some big universities between laboratories impossible. However, so many projects demand interdisciplinary and peer reviewers want to see this approach. Not any one lab can have all the equipment and expertise to address scientific questions these days. Cindy Battie

Anonymous said...

Since coming to UNF I have found that the Universities leadership understands that most important work being done these days is interdisciplinary. In contrast, the Departmental level is highly parochial, in part driven by the promotion and tenure process led by a cadre of "publish or perish" survivors. Fortunately, I have not been subject to that process, but it is clear how "silos" develop given the process...
Just remember...silos make silage.
I second Cindy Battles comments as well.

Anonymous said...

Industrial management gurus tackled this problem a good two or more decades ago. Examples abounded in Detroit of auto designers and engineers wielding their wizardry and arrogantly tossing their creations over successive "walls" to the next stage of production -- without giving any thought whatsoever to whether or not their grand creations could, in fact, ever be produced along an assembly line. Similarly, in 1992 or 1993, I chaired a day-long seminar in Newport, RI, on "design for manufacturing and assembly." Its focus was the same dilemma, and covered a wide variety of products. I don't recall the specifics of the solutions and case studies, but nobody left early. I don't see much difference in what industry pondered from what this researcher ponders now. If you can't share what you know and spread it around, what good is what you know?

In early 1994 as Chief Editor of an industrial management magazine, I spent part of an afternoon with GE's Jack Welch, then in his heyday. During the interview, he observed (with conviction) that his job was really pretty simple: Find the great ideas within GE, "spread 'em around with the speed of light," and put resources behind them. Regardless of what one may think of Welch or GE today, it still strikes me as sound advice.

But what do I know?

Chuck Day

OFE Faculty Blog said...

The Human Services industry reached this same conclusion in about the 1970s and 1980s. States now require professionals working with individuals in a "case management" setting to work on interdisciplinary teams. They do not have a choice to be in a silo because the industry recognized the fallacy of seeing a problem from one perspective.