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A Question of Perspective


by Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

NSF Funding Helps Workshop Participants Collaborate Across Disciplines

Several blindfolded people are examining an elephant. One, positioned by the animal’s front leg, believes it’s a tree trunk. Another, feeling the elephant’s trunk, thinks it’s a type of serpent, and so on. The familiar story illustrates how different perspectives change our understanding of the world.

This idea has long driven scientists in their explorations, and it motivated SIOP Fellow Alicia Grandey, Professor at Pennsylvania State University, to organize a cross-disciplinary workshop for psychology, management, and engineering scholars.

The “Workshop on Work Climate in Organizations” at Pennsylvania State University on May 12-13, 2016 was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation Science of Organizations (SoO) and Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) Programs. A pre-workshop event about emotional dynamics at work received additional support from Penn State’s interdisciplinary Emotions Research Network (ERN).

Read the recently released report on NSF’s website.

An international group of 46 scholars working in the fields of business, engineering, and science attended the event. Several of the invited presenters and participants were SIOP members, with Sigal Barsade providing a keynote address.

The workshop’s specific focus was work climate, but its overarching goal was to help participants learn more about the challenges and opportunities of studying organizational innovation and effectiveness across disciplines.

Workshop organizer Grandey maintains that opportunities for researchers to mingle with others doing work “outside our usual pathways” is critically important for advancing the science of organizations.

Sam Hunter, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania State, and Scarlett Miller, associate professor in the School of Engineering, Design, Technology, and Professional Program (SEDTAPP), discussed their collaborative engineering experiences as part of the panel “Benefits and Challenges of Cross-disciplinary Work in Psych and Engineering.” Their NSF-funded research on quantifying the creative process began a few years ago, after they met at a similar cross-disciplinary event.

Grandey believes the panel on cross-disciplinary work, which “really focused on the centrality of a personal connection,” revealed one of the key takeaways of the conference. She said the panelists “spoke of getting along and trusting each other—and having fun—as colleagues, which outweighs the differences between their fields.”

The workshop was deliberately structured to support the camaraderie needed to build successful cross-disciplinary collaborations.

“Spending time at the beginning to develop connections and interpersonal trust among the groups, rather than diving right in and talking about our differences, was really helpful,” Grandey said.

The workshop began with team-based activities and a shared meal. Breakout discussions and free time were also scheduled to help create positive energy and reinforce personal connections.

“I think that permitted us to feel more comfortable asking questions and admitting ignorance to each other's areas,” Grandey said. “And honestly, one error occurred that may have helped, too.  On the first morning, there was a scheduling error such that there was no coffee prior to when we were starting 8:30 am.”

People from several disciplines worked together to arrange a do-it-yourself coffee bar and Grandey highlighted the effort in her opening comments to “really focus on both what we have in common, i.e., the need for coffee, and how working together solves problems faster!”

The workshop highlighted striking similarities in research themes pursued by scholars in the different disciplines and discussions revealed many opportunities for knowledge sharing and collaboration. A partial list of topics is included as an appendix to the final report, as is the workshop agenda.

Grandey used work on facial recognition and emotion expression as an example of the parallel efforts.

“Engineers are developing cool facial recognition software, but are unaware of years of emotion expression research by [Paul] Ekman. And of course,” she continued, I-O psychologists “tend to be fairly unaware of the engineering technology and algorithms that permits objective assessment of behavior.”

“We all have our lenses we see the world through, Sam Hunter said.

As he and Scarlett Miller were examining the creative process of software designers, they agreed a camera would be helpful.  But they soon found they had different expectations about what the camera should be recording.

“I expected the camera to face the person and she expected the camera to face the screen to see what they were up to,” Hunter said. 

“By having conversations about overlapping phenomena, it’s possible to gain genuinely new and fresh insight into how and why things are operating or even how to study them.,” he concluded.

Hunter and Miller’s work quantifying creative performance resulted from a realization that the assessments used in different disciplines created divergent assessment outcomes.
“Without cross-disciplinary conversations,” he said, “I’m not sure we would have made that discovery.”

Researchers seeking NSF funding for their own projects can take several steps to make their proposals more likely to succeed. Hunter said.

“Serving on panels for NSF, this goes a long way,” he explained. “They’re excited by differing expertise coming together.”

He pointed out that while I-O psychologists might not typically apply for NSF funding, researchers in other disciplines “have great knowledge about what projects are most likely to be funded.  Moreover, they often welcome the addition of a social scientist and I-O psychology in particular.”

Grandey suggested that researchers “work closely with your program director!”

She expressed gratitude to her program director, SIOP Fellow Mo Wang, professor in the University of Florida Department of Management, and said his feedback on early ideas really helped “shape the submission so that it met the current NSF division goals.”

NSF Funding Opportunities

SIOP members can find news and calls for NSF and other related funding on the SIOP Government Relations page.

A recent call for NSF funding on the topic of Cyberlearning for Work at the Human-Technology Frontier, with a deadline of January 8, 2018, was recently posted. Visit the SIOP website for information about how to apply!


Alicia Grandey via LinkedIn.
Sam Hunter via LinkedIn.

All photos are courtesy of Alicia Grandey.