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Managing the Matrix

A new management method encourages faculty researchers to interact across disciplines.

- By Randolph W. Hall

“Quantum Information Sciences.” “Information Technology.” “Sensing Networks.” Few engineering departments have these cross-disciplinary titles, yet they are all major university research initiatives and offer strong funding opportunities. National Science Foundation cross-disciplinary programs such as “Biocomplexity in the Environment” and “Nanoscale Science” are enjoying large increases while core programs like engineering are slated to grow at less than the rate of inflation.

Successful research universities are adapting to the changing research environment by following matrix management principles, wherein one dimension of the matrix is defined by teaching and the other by research. In the matrix model, faculty members are encouraged to develop and participate in research programs that span multiple departments.

Yet matrix management is easier to conceptualize than implement in universities. Even when a university is doing well at cross-disciplinary research, hiring, promotions, and space are typically the prerogative of departments, weakening the power of the research dimension.

The dean's office plays a critical role by ensuring that faculty positions do not become department entitlements or, even worse, entitlements of subdisciplines. Positions should be awarded to the best recruits from the entire school, so that departments are encouraged to search more broadly, and nontraditionally. That said, joint appointments are not the panacea. A school is truly cross disciplinary when faculty research flourishes across departments independent of their appointments.

To nurture research, schools must facilitate interactions among faculty. Relationships frequently begin through informal contact in the hallway, so schools need to pay attention to building design and space allocation. The University of Southern California's new Tutor Hall of Engineering will have no assigned academic departments. It will instead contain research laboratories organized along cross-disciplinary themes.

It is important for schools to regularly appraise the state of cross-disciplinary research by defining the areas in which faculty are already collaborating as well as areas of opportunity. At USC, “research clusters” are used to target information about research opportunities for faculty, organize workshops, and create new centers. We have also established an “interdisciplinary fellows” program, which gives one year of teaching relief to faculty who wish to organize new research activities.

Finally, cross-disciplinary research can be nurtured through institutes or centers with full-time research staffs. USC's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) provides glue for faculty working on IT research. Likewise, ISI has been integrated into departmental missions through research faculty appointments, course instruction, and Ph.D. student supervision.

The reward that comes to faculty members for cross-disciplinary research is intellectual, and financial in the sense that it makes them more competitive in attracting funding. But cross-disciplinary research can also be risky, so it is important for schools to create environments where faculty members are encouraged to take chances. This means substantial rewards for success—space, salary, or recognition—minimal penalties for failure, and some degree of patience.

We have seen the payoff that comes from working across disciplines in terms of our ability to attract outstanding faculty, initiate cutting-edge research, fund new centers, increase our research volume, and elevate our academic reputation. Empowering the research dimension of the organizational matrix is the key.


Randolph Hall is Senior Associate Dean for Research in the School of Engineering, and chair of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at University of Southern California.


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