Multidisciplinary approach

Multidisciplinary approach

A multidisciplinary approach to problem solving involves drawing appropriately from multiple disciplines to redefine problems outside of normal boundaries and reach solutions based on a new understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinary working is often seen as revolutionary by skill-centred specialists but it is simply a fundamental expression of being guided by holism rather than reductionism, as described by Jan Smuts in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution. One of the major barriers to the multidisciplinary approach is the long established tradition of highly focused professional practitioners cultivating a protective (and thus restrictive) boundary around their area of expertise. This tradition has sometimes been found not to work to the benefit of the wider public interest, and the multidisciplinary approach has recently become of interest to government agencies and some enlightened professional bodies who recognise the advantages of systems thinking for complex problem solving.

The use of the term 'multidisciplinary' has in recent years been overtaken by the term 'interdisciplinary' (a Google ratio of 86:214 in mid-August 2006) for what is essentially holistic working by another name. The former term tends to relate to practitioner led working while the latter term tends to carry a more academic overtone.


Historically the first practical use of the multidisciplinary approach was during the Second World War by what became known as the military-industrial complex. Notably the Lockheed Aircraft Company set up its own special projects operation - nicknamed the skunk works - in 1943 to develop the XP-80 jet fighter aircraft in just 143 days.

In the 1960s and 1970s the multidisciplinary approach was successfully employed in the UK by architects, engineers and quantity surveyors working together on major public sector construction projects and, together with planners, sociologists, geographers and economists, on overseas regional and urban planning projects. Three London based professional practices led the field: Ove Arup & Partners, Colin Buchanan & Partners and Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners (RMJM).

Most recently the multidisciplinary method of working has been adopted in the specialist field of computer security by practitioners such as Gene Spafford and Sarah Gordon.

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