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INTERDISCIPLINARY COOPERATION AS A TOOL FOR PUSHING BOUNDARIES

…some of the key skills of how to work in a team seem to be preferred more than in common cooperation. Digitization has somewhat different demands.

Author: Tomas Chochole, Ladislav Sutnar Faculty of Design and Art, University of West Bohemia, Czech Republic

Contact: chochole@fdu.zcu.cz

Introduction: Interdisciplinary cooperation is a phenomenon of recent years—especially in culture, art, and design. When you manage to work with people who specialize in other things and are good at what you are not, and you end up working on a joint project, it is one of the best things you can experience. Your natural boundaries will shift and you know that you have become part of something that has exceeded your possibilities, and although it has not been easy, you have managed it together. I call it breaking down borders!

As a person in charge of projects and their implementation at the faculty of design and art, I create natural conditions for interdisciplinary cooperation of our departments’ students with students from other faculties of our university, but also with students of other faculties of foreign universities. Especially in the field of product and industrial design, it is quite easy. After all, if something new is to emerge, it is necessary to work in a team with students from other disciplines. The topics of sustainable development, ecology, modern technologies, and many others enter the work of designers, which they can share with their colleagues from IT, engineering, mechatronics, healthcare, or agriculture. It is good to see that our students enjoy working together, although working in a team is not always easy and in addition to expertise, you also need soft competencies to work together effectively. Without physical contact and with only audio-video conferencing platforms, interdisciplinary collaboration is even more complicated. So, I was interested in what kind of soft skills product design students will consider most important for successful cooperation during 2020. This created international research in which students from two Chinese universities also took part, because the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic was similar in our schools. In addition, I compared the results of the student research with the experience of professional product designers, who also had to work online within their teams. This paper is a summary of this research.

Research Design: The international survey concept was during year 2020 focused on group of 98 product design students from product design and at the same time professional product designers, who had experience with interdisciplinary teamwork. Teamwork leads students to critical reflection and can prepare them very well for professional design practice (Findlay 23). All respondents had to work online in recent months, and the aim of the study was to map their experience with the use of soft competencies in the distance form of interdisciplinary teamwork using digital technologies. We can consider as an “interdisciplinary team” a group of experts (students), who are from several different fields (designers, engineers, economists, technologists, medics etc.) and who work together toward a common research goal or project (Nancarrow et al. 2). Teamwork can significantly support the development of student skills, not only professional, but especially soft skills (Meizlish and Anderson 2). “Soft competencies” help people in their self-development, that is, at work and in their personal lives. Most of them are, for example, competencies focused on communication, problem solving, time management or flexibility and thus indicate social interaction (Matteson, Anderson and Boyden 73). The research was based on the principle of a case study with “journalist’s investigative methods” (Walker 685) as an innovative approach with a combination of quantitative and qualitative data analysis. The survey covered 86 participants from three different universities: 1) Ladislav Sutnar Faculty of Design and Art, University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic, 2) School of Design of East China Normal University, Shanghai China, 3) College of Engineering and Design of Hunan Normal University in Changsha, China and also and 12 professional product designers. The aim of research was to describe their preferred key skills and different reflection of their experience with design work at teams. 

Case study: The reason why this research was aimed at students in the field of product design and also at professional product designers was that these experts often come into direct interaction with other experts when developing new products and thus work in smaller or larger teams. In addition, the global pandemic situation has made contact teamwork impossible and has made it only in digital version. Research of the competencies needed for this type of collaboration by product designers was more or less logical.

All respondents were selected for the research on the basis of predetermined parameters, such as that in 2020 they were involved in interdisciplinary teamwork, actively used digital communication platforms, worked on real projects, the output of which were at least functional prototypes. The research methodology worked with a questionnaire, which included the Likert scale and data analysis. The results of the preferred competencies were analysed and summarized. In addition, an online structured interview was conducted with some respondents, the aim of which was to map the designers’ experience with interdisciplinary cooperation. The results of the international survey were systematically recorded, as well as written records of interviews with respondents.

The graph shows the most preferred soft skills for students and professional designers—these include teamwork, effective communication, problem solving, critical thinking, or time management. Slight differences in preferences are influenced by the greater level of experience that professionals already have.

Figure 1: Results of international questionnaire survey of student and professional designers.

Here are the comments of 4 respondents on the choice of preferred competencies:

  • “I never thought it could be that difficult. Although we talk, see each other, it also takes a long time to clarify all the details and understand some of the things in our work. Misunderstandings are actually our everyday life.” (Lucy, student of product design, online interview, June 28, 2020)
  • “I perceive it positively. We will arrange everything you need online, and communication is simple. Definitely more than ever before.” (Carl, student of product design, on-line interview, June 30, 2020)
  • “Effective communication and clear division of labour.” (Peter, professional product designer, on-line interview, June 24, 2020)
  • “It depends on the composition of the team and the communication we lead with each other. Being able to meet would be faster. From my point of view, all competencies are therefore very important.” (Lukas, professional product designer, on-line interview, June 25, 2020)

Conclusions: Soft competencies form one comprehensive group of skills. They are important for team interaction, and the research described above shows that their importance in the digital age is no less than in the face-to-face time. Tools for interdisciplinary creativity may vary, shift, and evolve with respect to digitization (McIntyre and Watson 4), but some of the key skills of how to work in a team seem to be preferred more than in common cooperation. Digitization has somewhat different demands. The results of research were quite surprising—the most preferred competencies were identified as teamwork, problem solving, communication, and time management.  This is also a big opportunity for university’s study plans, because they do not always offer courses in which young designers could develop their soft competencies. This creates an imbalance in the skills that designers have and need for their teamwork. It can stimulate a wider interest of students and motivate them to work in a team (Yanamandram and Noble 56).

Keywords: Interdisciplinary teamwork, soft skills, product design, case study

Works-Cited List:

Findlay, Robert A. The Bauhaus and The Collaborative Critique. Gropius, 1997. https://www.acsa-arch.org/chapter/gropius-the-bauhaus-and-the-collaborative-critique/.

Matteson, Miriam L., Anderson, Lorien and Boyden, Cynthia. Soft skills: A phrase in search of meaning. Libraries and the Academy vol. 16, no. 1, 2016, pp. 71–88.

McIntyre, Simon and Watson, Karin. Online teamwork and collaboration. Learning to Teach Online, University New South Wales, 2011.

Meizlish, Deborah and Anderson, Olivia. Teaching in Teams: A Planning Guide for Successful Collaborations, 2018. http://crlt.umich.edu/sites/default/files/resource_files/CRLT_no 37.pdf

Nancarrow, Susan., Smith, Tony., Ariss, Steven and Enderby Pamela M. Qualitative evaluation of the implementation of the Interdisciplinary Management Tool: a reflective tool to enhance interdisciplinary teamwork using Structured, 2014. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269726573

Walker, Kevin. A systems approach to design innovation, 2018. https://www.cumulusassociation.org/cumulus-conference-proceedings-paris-2018-to-get-there-designing-together/

Yanamandram, Venkata and Noble, Gary. Student experiences and perceptions of team-teaching in a large undergraduate class. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, vol. 3, no. 1, 2006.