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Cross-departmental collaboration for innovation and impact

March 1, 2022

Paula Mills

Chief of Staff and Operations, College of Agricultural Sciences, Colorado State University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

At Colorado State University, we’re interested in solving the world’s biggest problems, many of which show up in agriculture. Doing this well will require more than simply attracting and growing top talent—we need to design and sustain a more inclusive, collaborative and agile way of working.

Motivated by my longstanding interest in working horizontally across organizations for better solutions, I looked to EAB for strategies for formalizing, incentivizing and supporting interdisciplinary collaboration as a catalyst for game-changing innovation and impact.

Universities require an entirely new set of capabilities to successfully embark on grand challenges

Persistent year-over-year declines in federal funding have forced a fundamental change in activity. In the current era of big bets, institutions have shifted to competing for outcomes-focused funding directed to large-scale collaborative research projects with a clear social benefit. Modern students are also seeking the type of societal impact that spans disciplines.

However, higher education has yet to meaningfully overcome the fundamental structural problem driving increasing tension between university (or college) imperatives and departmental priorities. Tenure evaluation still relies primarily on department-level achievements, which can hinder faculty involvement in grand challenges. In a survey of 129 universities, only nine percent of research institutions include public impact of research in P&T considerations[1].

Cultural and structural change must be part of the long-term solution

Referencing Kezar and Lester’s (2009)[2] model of intra-organizational collaboration as a useful framework, our college has succeeded in building a commitment to cross-departmental collaboration on grand challenges through our recent strategic planning process.

Our next-and most important-step is sustaining collaboration in both cultural and structural forms.

From a continuum of potential solutions, our college has identified cluster hiring-hiring faculty across multiple departments with a shared, interdisciplinary research interest-as a first step toward a robust long-term vision of interdisciplinary collaboration. To realize the potential available from this strategy, EAB’s Playbook for Effective Cluster Hiring recommends investment in faculty support mechanisms, as well as critical physical and staff infrastructure.

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As we mobilize to support cluster hiring waves over the next few fiscal years, we will allocate leadership attention and staff time toward moving complex collaborations forward. Early activities could include developing statements of expectations, enhanced networking opportunities and mentoring in process skillsets beyond intellectual leadership (ex. negotiating compromise). A cross-disciplinary P&T process and incentive fund may be future considerations. Throughout, we’ll need to consistently communicate the long-term benefits associated with the short-term compromises required to work differently.

Among the many benefits available from this approach, the collateral impact on our DEI goals is of special interest to our college. Cluster hires and grand-challenge focused programs have proven to increase the diversity of both faculty and student applicant pools.

I want to extend a special thank you to EAB’s David Attis for his personal insight and Transcending Departmental Boundaries Series, as well as my capstone partner Nina Bates at The University of Arizona for her ideas, feedback and friendship throughout this project.


[1] Alperin, Juan Pablo, et al. “How significant are the public dimensions of faculty work in review, promotion, and tenure documents?” Humanities Commons, 2018

[2] Harris, D “Interdisciplinary Strategy and Collaboration: A Case Study of American Research Universities,” Journal of Research Administration, 2010

See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Paula Mills and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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