Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Connecting the Dots - Interdisciplinary Thinking In the Third Sector

One of the reasons we started IssueLab was to help connect the dots. What does this mean? Well, we wanted for instance to connect the dots between research being done on senior housing with research being done on issues facing older LGBTQ folks. We wanted to connect the dots between practitioners developing after-school programs using video with researchers who are studying digital literacy. And we wanted to connect the dots between advocates using one kind of policy intervention with other activists using a similar intervention in service to a totally different social cause.

For the most part that is exactly what we do. Whether it's through cross-referencing research on the Issuelab web site or for instance disseminating research about felony disenfranchisement to researchers focused on open source voting technologies, we are pretty busy connecting dots.

But we have also identified some rather persistent structural reasons (and some very entrenched psycho-social reasons) for why people don't want their derned dots connected! Some of this is certainly about the ways that networks work and the tendency for "birds of a feather to flock together". (This was only reinforced by John Kelly of Morningside Analytics's recent presentation at NTen. MA does some amazing visualizations of how networks of bloggers do and do not overlap in the topics they discuss but also in the language they use to discuss those topics.)

But I think it's about more than just the structure of networks, it may also be about (and these are just theories mind you):

  • The structure of foundations, which for the most part continue to organize their grant making along program area lines. Often times when we talk to foundations about the work that IssueLab does there is confusion around exactly how they might support a project (or research) that crosses over multiple program areas.

  • The seeming lack of a professional identity for policy analysts and nonprofit researchers that extends beyond the specific issue they work on. This means that they most often circulate in issue specific silos and have very few venues to share more general questions about methodology or funding for research.

  • The possible bias that tools like Twitter and StumbleUpon present in connecting individuals with other individuals based on keywords. Obviously these same tools offer real potential for cross-pollination but you have to be pretty intentional about it.

  • The necessary exercise of defining our audiences pretty narrowly when we start communications, networking, or marketing efforts. This is of course a critical piece of any successful communications practice but it also has its consequences. What if we made cross-pollination a goal as well?

We could go on and on with examples of how this all gets articulated -- affinity groups, information clearinghouses, sector wide portals organized by issue areas, or even IssueLab's own targeted dissemination efforts to niche groups. But the point is that there is a lot of talk in the sector about cross-sector collaboration, coupled with a clear understanding of the interconnectedness of social problems and social solutions, and yet we continue to travel the same network paths over and over again.

It all begs the question -- does inter-disciplinary thinking even matter? There is no doubt that we all need to be part of smaller, niche groups in order to thrive and function but at IssueLab we continue to believe that we also have an enormous amount to learn from people working on related (and sometimes even unrelated) issues and that we have an enormous amount to gain from cross-pollinating our ideas. But what is the right venue for this and whose responsibility is it? Are tools like Twitter helping or hindering this work? What role can foundations play in facilitating these kinds of collaboration? Can/do nonprofit professionals who carry their skill set from one cause to another play this role? Are they encouraged to do so? Or are intermediaries like IssueLab, consulting firms, or bloggers by default taking on this role?

What do you think?

[picture courtesy of antares]

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