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Fostering Multidisciplinary Collaboration in Drug Discovery
Fostering Multidisciplinary Collaboration in Drug Discovery

Fostering Multidisciplinary Collaboration in Drug Discovery

By Professor Zeynep Erden, et al.
Spring 2019

Drug discovery teams combine specialists with in-depth knowledge from a variety of scientific disciplines. Such diversity in thought worlds poses a challenging exercise in cross-disciplinary collaboration and project coordination.

Based on a longitudinal field study of five projects in a leading pharmaceutical company, we present a framework outlining the conditions for effective cross-disciplinary collaboration in drug discovery teams. We show that knowledge creation in multidisciplinary teams relies on a combination of formal team structures and informal co-ordination practices. Formal team structures set the boundary conditions for cross-disciplinary co-ordination.

Within these boundaries, self-managed sub-teams draw on informal coordination practices involving cross-disciplinary anticipation, synchronisation and triangulation, to overcome knowledge boundaries and high uncertainty. We identify five key insights and two questions which are important for managers to consider for fostering multidisciplinary collaboration in drug discovery.

The challenges facing members of diverse teams are well known (1-3). Multidisciplinary teams, in particular, include individuals with vastly diverging thought worlds, scientific practices, approaches to problem solving, communication patterns, timelines and technologies for knowledge creation. An additional source of complexity is that drug discovery teams are always in flux: as scientists push the knowledge frontiers in human biology, unpredictable findings and emerging obstacles require that the team composition is continuously modified. Turning such diversity into complementarity demands is an ongoing effort of team leaders and project members (4-6).

Effective team co-ordination across different disciplines is essential for successful drug discovery. Yet high task uncertainty and complexity involved in this process makes it very difficult to design an optimal formal team structure (7-9). The changing nature of the scientific questions and unpredictability of its evolution challenges team co-ordination (10-13). In a recent field study (20) we analysed how project members performing complex knowledge creation activities collaborate across knowledge domains and which organisational structures help successful teams defy knowledge boundaries and facilitate progress.

To answer our research question, members of five drug discovery projects in a global pharmaceutical company were interviewed and observed during project team meetings, lab work and other day-to-day interactions for a period of more than 18 months in 2011 and 2012. The project teams included specialists from medicinal chemistry, structural biology, preclinical safety, translational medicine and project team leaders, among others.

Our data included 68 semi-structured interviews (lasting between 60-90 minutes) with scientists and senior managers directly involved in these drug discovery projects and non-participant observations of 55 instances of interactions of team members during project team meetings, sub-team meetings, during their bench work and informal discussions. We took extensive field notes on site after each observation. The final data consisted of field notes and the transcribed interviews, which in total consisted of 1,097 pages of single-spaced text. We analysed the data by doing an axial coding with NVivo 9 software (14).

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