Cross-pollinators and the risks of specialization. The screw and the knife. (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)
(new comments at the bottom. updated 12 Feb 2014)
Recently, a new term has caught my attention: “Cross-Pollinator“. Based on my experience in Aerobiological studies, I assumed its meaning to be related to vectors inducing cross pollination between plants. But I was wrong.
The term is applied by Tom Kelley in the book “The Ten Faces of Innovation”. Tom has observed a number of roles that people can play in an organization to foster innovation and new ideas while offering an effective counter to naysayers. Among these approaches are the Anthropologist, the person who goes into the field to see how customers use and respond to products, to come up with new innovations; the Cross-Pollinator, who mixes and matches ideas, widely disparate people, and technologies to create new ideas that can drive growth; and the Hurdler, who instantly looks for ways to overcome the limits and challenges to any situation.
“Cross-pollinators” are defined as those people that can create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts. They often innovate by discovering a clever solution in one context or industry then translating it successfully to another.
Those aptitudes described to play the role of a cross-pollinator inside organizations such as Kraft, Samsung, and Procter & Gamble, are also recognised, valued and even desired when building up teams aimed to confront environmental issues. The aptitudes expected in the person to play the role are drawn together as multidisciplinary thinking. However, this role not only involves the ability to see connections between disciplines but also to have broad and well-formed foundations.
Academic and non-academic formation (education, trainning) are being designed to achieve specialization in the shortest period of time despite of compromising the strength of their foundations. I see a contradiction between an increasing awareness for the need of multidisciplinary thinkers or cross pollinators and a fast-paced urge for specialization and the risks associated to it.
The risks of specialization.
These type of aptitudes are being increasingly valued and demanded since it is becoming more evident than ever that, like in many different sectors, in order to understand how our environment works, it is not good enough to define separate disciplines of study looking for building specialised fractions of knowledge. Since our environment is the result of multidisciplinary processes interacting, isolating bodies of knowledge allows specialisation but put at risk understanding the interactions playing in the whole. It is like creating specific disciplines of study for each individual tree of a forest, leaving in second place the forest as a whole. And that seems to be a direction reflected in the way how formation has become structured in all the sectors from academia, electronics, mechanics …
Using my own experience as an example, I remember that I wanted to study Biology because I wanted to understand the world in which we live. And oh my, it was hard but I was right. We had to undertake several annual modules in general Biology for 3 years going through every aspect being part of the environment and 2 more getting specialized choosing between Molecular, Animal and Environmental fields (if anybody is curious I leave the relation of modules at the bottom). As a result, any Biologist would be suitable to understand multidisciplinary issues (a molecular biologist would understand about climate change issues and an environmentalist would understand Genetic Manipulation matters) and see connections between fields. Not only would be able of formulating approaches in a broad spectrum but with the enhanced capacities of adopting new skills based on multidisciplinary foundations. Like a mechanic whose formation allows him to understand general mechanics but also to recognise and incorporate tools and skills from different disciplines independently of the field of performance.
Nowadays, it is very common to find that University degrees like Biology [BSc-UK] takes 3 years where it is advertised that in the course content for year 2 “you will continue your studies in greater depth and begin to specialise”… I suppose that this policy of promoting fast specialization at the expense of building strong multidisciplinary foundations is based on trying to increase competitiveness. However, it comes with the same risk that we face with Genetic Modified organisms in food production. That is reducing biodiversity and resilience in the “DNA code” of our academics.
The screw and the knife.
Losing biodiversity means that we may end up with a discipline uncovered due to a lack of specialists in the field if it loses its attractiveness for young students. Since we are starting to need a specific individual for each specific problem, who is going to have the knowledge to identify the problem in the first place in order to recognise who is the specialist to deal with it?
Reducing resilience means decreasing the capacity to cope with changes. Focusing on specialised skills and tools limits the versatility of the performance to confront a situation. Once it happened to me that being at home, a friend and I needed a screw driver to unscrew a screw but we did not have one. So I suggested to use a knife. He looked at me and asked, can you really unscrew a screw with a knife? … Don´t judge any of us, just take the situation to understand my point here.
In a different situation, I was asked about how to understand the controversy around GMO’s. I said that the DNA is like a toolbox. For the same amount of money, as many more tools you have in it, higher are the chances for you to confront any situation. Otherwise, you might spend the same amount of money in a very specific pair of tools and depend on spending more money getting help from others. The DNA is a code to make many tools. When you reduce the amount of functional DNA or restrict its functionality towards a specific performance, you lose the versatility of those plants to develop tools accordingly with their needs. The concentrated presence of a single cultivar, genetically adapted with a single resistance strategy, presents a situation in which an entire crop can be wiped out very quickly by a single opportunistic species. An example of this would be the potato famine of Ireland in 1845–1849.
Specialization vs Multidisciplinary knowledge. The battle.
Debates about Climate are one of those places where specialization becomes easily apparent. Everyone talks and defends its own tree, or field of expertise. Everybody is either defending or searching for the right answer and yet, I haven´t seen somebody analysing which is the right question. It feels like each one involved in the topic of “Human development impact in the Global ecosystem” is looking at his/her own tree and nobody moves out to look at the forest. Are being formulated the right questions in order to answer our worries? What are we looking at and trying to find treatment for, symptoms or cause? (link to previous post) Every protocol followed to study the impact of the development of any individual specie in a closed ecosystem (Australia, Galapagos, Yellowstone …) seems to be thrown out the window as soon as we talk about the human species. And we must remember that the earth is a closed environment.
I don´t know who is right or wrong but there is just one think that I am convinced about and that it is that sooner or later the development of the Human species is going to have an impact in the ecosystem of the same scale as the distribution of the specie in the ecosystem, global. Since the first time that it was recognised the impact of a single species in the equilibrium of an ecosystem it feels missing those studies proposing and hypothesising which would be the symptoms and causes based on the trends of development for the human species (link to previous posts). The data obtained in our present should have already some hypothetical approaches to play against. I would like to know what would need to happen in each discipline of research to identify the impact of human development in order to have some data to play against the actual observations. I believe it would make a good starting point to allow “cross-pollinators” to study connections out of the box. Same applies to Genetic Engineering in food production (link to previous posts). Every product getting introduced through official channels for our consumption need to pass numerous tests and evaluations previously. It seems that there is more concern and research about what the plant of cannabis can do to harm human health in the long and short term than feeding entire populations with genetic modified crops, exposing at the same time entire ecosystems to genetic contamination. The empirical and hypothetical approaches of evaluating risks should be before and not after exposure.
This battle might well be the result of cultural cognition and the role it plays in polarizing debates. A study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project (link to post) looked at “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks”. Their results suggest that public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare. Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest.
Surviving the battle
At this point, it might be also relevant to mention the pressure which the scientific community faces. The risks of being exposed to isolation from the rest of the community due to differences in opinion, or from funding resources due to conflict of interests, makes many scientific minds to avoid raising hypothetical approaches based on scientific criteria and to play safe and wait for undeniable proof before speaking their minds.
These are examples where specialization has the risk to divide efforts diminishing functionality despite of enhancing competitiveness. Experts in each discipline discuss the validity of their approaches and the right interpretation of their data. So, in every speciality everybody is busy dealing with their own paradigms and those specialists moving out of their safe zone trying to find connections expose themselves of being discredited. This is not the place where to think out of your box.
Just a thought
In today’s world it seems to be an increasing awareness for the need of “cross-pollinators” and “multidisciplinary thinkers”. However, specialization has become a priority since the lack of it reduce your competitiveness. Therefore, I wonder if the strategy based on fast paced specialization would put at risk losing quality foundations. Ultimately, not only decreasing versatility in the creative potential to develop innovative ways of thinking, but furthermore, to understand others and to find common ground to move forward.
If anybody is curious about the annual modules that used to be part of the university degree in Biology (1996 Spain – “Licenciado”):
1st year: Vegetal Biology, Biostatistics, Physical Chemistry, Geology, Biochemistry I
2nd year: Histology and cytology, Zoology, Cryptogams, Biochemistry II
3rd year: Microbiology, Genetics, Plant physiology, Animal physiology, Phanerogams
Second Cycle. Speciality: Environmental
4th year: Ecology, Edafology, Phytopathology, Evolutionary Genetics, Physical Geography
5th year: Ecology II, Geobotany, Plant physiology II, Genetic improvement, Oceanography