Interdisciplinary Thinking

2023 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish intellectual Adam Smith. Smith is today known primarily as the author of a seminal book on political economy titled The Wealth of Nations. This book, celebrated in particular by those who favor free market capitalism, introduced Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand”, which represents the concept that through individual self-interest and freedom of production and consumption, the best interests of society are automatically fulfilled.

Because of the fame of The Wealth of Nations, and the invisible hand principal in particular, Smith today is thought of primarily as an economist and the “father of capitalism”. In fact, Smith was learned in and taught many disciplines, including moral philosophy, logic, rhetoric, politics, jurisprudence and literature. He was the head of the moral philosophy department at the University of Edinburgh, and his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiment, puts forward a comprehensive theory of morality; some scholars consider it his best and most important work.

Today, we live in a far more specialized world than the one Smith inhabited. University professors who have positions covering two or more disciplines or departments are the exception, not the rule. University students select majors, and spend near majority of their course work focused on studies within the major. The work world is also trends toward high specialization, in particular (and not surprisingly) in large organizations. For example, the sales team in a high growth software business might have ten or more separate roles.

A trend toward more interdisciplinary research, thinking and work is beginning, and this is good. Ever more expensive universities, struggling to produce graduates who meet the requirements of employers, are now offering many more interdisciplinary courses and degrees than they did a generation or two ago. These offerings promise to create students with more diverse bases of knowledge, but also students who can both better understand how disparate ideas interconnect, and collaborate with other people. Employers are better recognizing the pitfalls of departments within the organization that doe not collaborate effectively together. The engineering team needs to collaborate of course with the product team, but both both of those teams must also understand how the sales and marketing teams position and sell the products they are building. For example, a flexible, feature-rich software product may indeed be great for the end user, but if its complexity makes it difficult for the sales team to communicate the value proposition to the customer, then a business challenge is created. This challenge can be avoided by bringing sales leaders into the early stages of the product development process. And, to continue the example, sales leaders who themselves have educational and professional backgrounds that are interdisciplinary and collaborative, will have both the skill set and the confidence to engage effectively in this process.

My professional education is in law, and I’ve practiced law for more than 25 years. Many lawyers are very careful to provide only legal advice. I’ve intentionally been a generalist advisor since the beginning of my career. I carefully study my clients’ businesses. I read broadly, with emphasis in areas important to my work, including economics, management and leadership theory, technology, and accounting and finance. (The internet has been a true marvel for curious people). I do this because I enjoy it, but also because seniors leaders of businesses I work with do not face legal decisions. They face decisions, with legal elements. They need advice and support from a well-rounded thinker and problem solver.

All this is not the say that we are returning to the enlightenment era of John Locke. Our world is bigger, moves faster and is more complex than his world. Specialist knowledge is real and important. But, I’m excited to see the trend toward interdisciplinary education and work grow, and believe a premium will be placed on people who can think and act across disciplines.