Side by side on separate islands

Jonas Søderlund

Different understandings of shared words prevent learning between neighboring research disciplines.

Knowledge specialization is an important trend in many sectors and industries. At the same time, different research disciplines need to interact to answer complex questions and create new products. This creates a fundamental problem.

In a recent paper, BI professor Jonas Söderlund, together with Stephan Manning and former BI Professor II Andrew Davies, question the focus on a common language in collaboration across research disciplines.  Although different disciplines may use the same words about the same topics, they often fail to engage with each other about the different meanings of these words.

The paper, published in the journal Research Policy, looks at two competing disciplines studying the same subject. Both innovation studies and project management research evolved to study large-sale innovation projects during the Second World War. They also share an interest in how to manage novelty and uncertainty. Despite having so much in common, there has been little to no engagement between them.

Söderlund and colleagues describe a process of ‘encapsulation’, which creates an illusion of shared concepts, while in fact preventing collaboration across disciplines. An example is the word ‘project’, which has very different meanings in innovation studies on the one hand, and project management studies on the other.

Innovation studies use the term ‘project’ to describe the adaptive and highly dynamic organizational structures necessary to respond to technological and market change.

Project management research, on the other hand, has regarded projects as complex, one-off endeavors that need to be managed with standardized tools, structures and techniques. Informed by a universal approach to management, every project, no matter what context, faced the ‘triple constraint’ of time, cost and quality specifications and progressed through a project lifecycle from project definition, through execution to commissioning, start up and operations.

Meta-theories and community building

The problem of too little engagement, the authors show, can be solved using two mechanisms: meta-theories and community building activities. Meta-theories allow scholars to overcome narrow ideologies and search for patterns and problems that cut across disciplines. Through scientific conferences and workshops, researchers from different disciplines can meet and discuss topics of shared interest. In the case of innovation and project management scholars, topics include ‘temporary organizing’ and ‘learning’.

Only a small number of academic publications ranks as the best in their field world-wide. ABS4* journals are considered among the highest in terms of impact factor and have the highest requirements of data and rigour in theory. In this series, we focus on BI faculty published in these journals, their research and its impact on society.

Reference: Andrew Davies, Stephan Manning, Jonas Söderlund, When neighboring disciplines fail to learn from each other: The case of innovation and project management research, Research Policy, Volume 47, Issue 5, 2018.

Published 17. February 2020

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