Feature Article: Leadership is as Simple as A Child’s Game of Marbles

August 2011 / Feature Articles

Transdisciplinarity, Learning, and Complexity in Fairsies, Keepsies and Mibs

Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano

Recently I received an email through the Science-of-Team-Science mass mailer from my colleague Steve Fiore, PhD, at Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at Central Florida University. He brought to our group’s attention an interesting quote from John Lasseter, director and chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios that reaffirms why those of us in organizational and team science so emphatically try to better understand interactive social dynamics. The insight clarified for me how commonplace (and often unnoticed) transdisciplinarity, learning, and complexity are to leadership in the rapidly changing and demanding professional worlds we live in. Well, when I came in during that era, all of the computer animation out in the world was being created by the people who wrote the software. It’s like imagining a world where the chemists who mix up the paint were also making all the paintings. I was really the first Disney-trained animator to come in and actually animate with the computer in the world. Coming in, my approach was that I was going to need to learn computer programming. But all these other guys have master’s [degrees] and PhDs in computer science — I’m never going to know what these guys know. Then I realized, wait a minute, I was taught by the great Disney animators how to bring a character to life, and give it a personality and emotion through pure movement. That’s what I know, and they don’t know that. So instead of trying to learn what they know, I’m just going to sit next to them and we’re going to work in collaboration. That was totally unique at the time — to have a traditionally trained artist working side-by-side with these gifted computer scientists. That really became the foundation of Pixar and how the studio works: The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art (Young).


John Lasseter’s experience describes the eloquence and paradox of collaborations that test and encourage modern leadership in this age. Pre-professional training, inter-disciplines, advances in technology, changes in roles, and adaptive scenarios all describe leadership phenomena that require leaders to lead differently and to rely on more than one’s own abilities for progress and desired outcomes to emerge. This is what James Hazy has highlighted in what Katz and Kahn (1966) so famously implored in their theories of influential increments that move us “beyond the normal directives of the organization toward the context of the functions of leadership” (Hazy “Complexity Thinking and Leadership” 1 & 5)

Complexity theories challenge our traditional fixation about leadership as an individualized and measurable grouping of characteristics and behaviors that embody successful influences for a more interdisciplinary outlook focused on how influencing elements interact in teams, organizations, fields, and sectors (Volckmann 122). This results in modifications and changes to the social structures and organizational patterns to reinvent and change processes and de facto the outcomes these generate (Giddens). Since the height of the industrial age, models of leadership have continually promoted the individual as the primary agent of change—as if leadership was akin to players in a game of marbles, strategically choosing moves that ultimately displace others to the point of loss as the winner with the most marbles prevails.

From “great man” theories and trait approaches to path-goal and leader-member exchange theories to even more modern approaches like transformational and distributed leadership models, the individual remains the dominant actor in social networks. “The component most common to nearly all classifications is that leadership is an influence process that assists groups of individuals toward goal attainment” (Northouse 12).  This being the case, leaders have traditionally been promoted as individual catalysts that embody best practices. The training of, research about, and encouragement to become the iconic competent individuals these catalysts are meant to emulate has been a major preoccupation for many years (Weisbord) that has sometimes distracted from describing complexity leadership models and approaches that are focused on the essence of leadership in emerging social and professional situations. Training programs, consultant firms, corporate protocols and the historical models that promote these individualized behaviors have proven to be too constrictive in light of an emergent paradigm that encourages the value of “enabling characteristics” rather than the “determining or guiding” role of the individual ensuring organizational effectiveness (Marion and Uhl-Bien 389).

Theoretical challenges (inclusive of those above) often test our abilities to grasp how leadership can be measured outside of the actor context allowing for situational and contextual primacy. Where once stability, regularity, indifference, and order were the goals of good leadership in a new age of knowledge where transformation seems to outweigh transaction as a leadership enterprise, “the task that justifies the existence of all managers has to do with instability, irregularity, difference, and disorder” (Stacey xx) –in other words, dynamism. This shift in perspective is a realignment of the question “what is leadership?” It charges scholars and practitioners with identifying characteristics applicable to unique and complex needs where systemic and dynamic relationships are central over the peripheral search for individualized and static descriptions of purpose. Mandates such as these  require us “to include a more distributed concept of human interactions, we must add specificity to our models of social interactions, and we must continue to relate our theoretical and simulated models to the practices of human interaction” (Schwandt and Szabla 59). There are multiple implications to this shift in perspective and moreover deeply troubling barriers for leaders and managers where task achievement, strategizing, and replicable behaviors still serve as dominate elements over the enterprise of leadership.

This paper explores a shift away from individualized leader inquiry to one that thrives as part of a transdisciplinary (TD) arena of knowledge exchange, learning, and leading. A social learning approach is introduced that highlights the relationship between individual and communal development dynamics that contribute to leadership as a social and systemic enterprise.

The Complexity Leadership Concept

Complexity Leadership Theory (CLT) focuses on identifying and exploring the strategies and behaviors that foster organizational and subunit creativity, learning, and adaptability when appropriate complex adaptive systems (CAS) dynamics are enabled within contexts of hierarchical coordination” (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey 17). Leadership is the ‘influential increment’ that moves those led—and thus the systems—toward some purpose.” (Hazy “Parsing The “Influential Increment’ in the Language of Complexity: Unconvering the Systemic Mechanisms of Leadership Influence,” 8).

Envisioning complexity leadership expands our “locus of leadership from the isolated, role-based actions of individuals to the innovative, contextual interactions that occur across entire social systems” recognizable by elaborative “products of interactions among agents, rather than ‘caused’ by the specific act of individuals described as leaders” (Lichtenstein et al. 2-3). Dynamic interchange is made possible through leadership processes (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey) that navigate tensions between simplicity/complexity, insulation/hybridity, consensus/agreement, and universality/dialogue of the local-regional-global which are highlighted to illustrate the shift in dynamics and a need for investigation of the culture for which knowledge resides (Nicolescu “Towards Transdisciplinary Education and Learning” 7). The instabilities that these tensions create are key elements that challenge leader abilities to manage and influence knowledge creation and contextual elements. This dynamic tension is the driver of adaptive leadership (Lichtenstein et al.) that entices “recurrent shifts in the centralization and decentralization of decision-making, or functional specialization vs. cross-functional integration” (McKelvey 243).

The Transdisciplinarity (TD) Environment

Transdisciplinarity (TD) is the intellectual space where the nature of the manifold links among isolated issues can be explored and unveiled, the space where issues are rethought, alternatives reconsidered, and interrelations revealed” (UNESCO). “Transdisciplinarity is practicing knowledge in a reflexive manner that recognizes, not denies, the inherent plurality and complexity of the human condition (Klein).

Transdisciplinary (TD) environments are “open, evolutionary aggregates of components dynamically interrelated and cooperatively bonded by common purpose or outlook” (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey 302). These environments are related to the leadership intervention that responds and influences on multiple levels, ensuring that tensions are used to generate new understandings rather than serve as barriers to them (Hannah and Lester).

Until recently, envisioning leadership as embedded within open systems of interfacing knowledge lacked generalized theory to describe its dynamics. Much of the material about such environments has been generated by patching together various social systems theories about ‘crossing boundaries’ (Klein Crossing Boundaries : Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities), ‘boundary blurring’ (Becher), and identifying ‘zones of interdependence’ (Parsons) beyond mere knowing to include the interactive nature of knowledge on much more theoretical levels than has sometimes been useful to the practitioner. From these theories however, notions about TD [evolving from multidisciplinarity (MD) and interdisciplinarity (ID)] emerge as a new mode of governing knowledge “directed toward solving complex issues and addressing knowledge production proper, promising to circumvent the schism between expertise and policy-making by…the involvement of stakeholders [that] make sure the ‘right problem’ gets addressed ‘in the right way’” (Maasen and Lieven 401; Fine; Hannah, Woolfolk and Lord).

The Mechanisms of Transdisciplinarity (TD)

Transdisciplinary (TD) occurrences are much more common than our sometimes esoteric theoretical musings might lead us to believe. John Lasseter’s ability to participate in the evolution of Pixar’s emergence as a digital animation giant had as much to do with the fascinating technology advances and the professionals that harbored them as it did with animation as a rich artistic craft with a history and heritage. Theoretically speaking, TD experiences are those phenomena that occur when the conditions are ripe for innovation and discovery resulting from a multiplicity of agentic dynamics and interdependent relationships whose interactions produce a new and novel product otherwise unachievable.

Practically speaking, these types of seemingly intermittent occurrences happen all the time unnoticed and unanalyzed, though often as momentary conditional episodes in time. When one observes a symphony orchestra at play for instance, many instruments made of different materials with different means of sound production (some complex and other more simplistic), each with its own historical evolutions as well as player personal history, the diversity of cognitive, physical, and behavioral requirements somehow all contribute to a common goal—one that can not be completely replicable at another time in the same way. This is a TD phenomenon. It is slightly harder but no less TD when we consider how teams come together to solve crisis situations of life and death like the trapped Chilean miners in 2010 where drillers, engineers, psychologists, physicians, dietitians, and the like came together to each add perspective to the puzzle to be solved to secure safe rescue of the trapped miners. None of these examples provides an exact blueprint for replicable leader techniques; rather a leadership mosaic is at work, each element of the situation like a glass tile contributing to a set of situational circumstances.

Defining and achieving transdisciplinarity (TD) leads us to consider an “economy of knowledge” (Selznick) that transcends mere multidisciplinary (MD) and interdisciplinary (ID) functionality. Each exponentially more complex than the previous, MD and ID (as well as TD) assume some open system capacity (Buckley; Katz and Kahn; Nicolescu “Towards Transdisciplinary Education and Learning”) where information exchange is essential in defining the dynamics of the unique organizational system. Ludwig von Bertalanffy proposed that diverse elements of collective knowledge are at best when “complexes of elements [are] standing in interaction” with one another (von Bertalanffy 26) and thus are exchanged in ways that have an overall affect on the entire situation not passed from one agent to the next. This is an important understanding as not all knowledge exchanges possess the same potency pending on the economy of knowledge of a specific phenomenon.

Graybill et al. 2006, define MD, the lowest form of boundary crossing knowledge interchange, as an economy that involves two or more stakeholders (or agents) working in collaboration on a common problem (Graybill et al.). In both MD and ID economies, integration of knowledge emerges (Graybill et al.; Klein Interdisciplinarity : History, Theory, and Practice) as the agents represent their own discipline or set of specialty factors while sharing them with the interacting agent. However, MD interactions lacks the ingenuity to achieve greater overall understanding due to a focus on multiplication of methods over hybridization of approaches (Klein “A Platform for a Shared Discourse of Interdisciplinary Education; Klein Interdisciplinarity : History, Theory, and Practice; Klein Crossing Boundaries : Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities). MD situations are more cumulative and tend to prioritize goals that are the sum total of stakeholder methods and perspectives.

"Children Playing Marbles," Slate.com

One can imagine a child’s game of marbles where there are no losers and no winners; the players simply bring their own marbles, play the game, and at the end of the match everyone takes their original marbles back home with them. This is a game of fairsies were each player gets his or her marbles back after the good natured game. Everyone’s marbles are needed for the game and no matter if the play is good or bad, it all represents a collective interaction. The play is the sum of the interactions. The outcomes are low impact as a result of playing the game. There is little competition, exchange, or sharing of marbles, just a meeting of the players and a playing of the game for the sake of interacting on a playing field using everyone’s marbles as tools to the play. Currency in this case is in the marbles that serve like bits of knowledge that bounce around by the energy exerted by the players. Everyone has some, shares some, and at the end of the play takes their marbles back with them. Players might experience some change or adaptation of skills but there is no measured group level evidentiary outcome to prove this outside of individual behavior changes resulting from the play. Most importantly, the rules of the game remain the same, unaltered by the effects of exchanges generated by competition or loss. The game can be played over and over again in this manner and change is simply a happenstance of occurrence.

Epistemologically speaking, interdisciplinarity (ID) offers new ways of working and thinking. Individual actor epistemologies are diluted as hybridized styles of thought and conceptions of knowledge begin to emerge and overtake traditional methodologies and analytical enterprises generating new frames of knowing (Pirrie, Wilson and Elsewood). Shifts occur between paradigms resulting in novel perspectives (Thompson; Lawrence and Lorsch; Kuhn) that lack the ability to provide innovative frameworks fostering collaborations between actors that represent cross pollination or “boundary crossings” (Klein “Resources for Interdisciplinary Studies” 38). This context is a game of marbles with the addition of the tension that comes with the possibility of winning and losing (exchanging the knowledge currency), of having mastery over the rules of the game or not (skills in influencing the outcome of exchange). In this environment keepsies, or the owning of the marbles (knowledge) by the end of the game has most significance. Players are invested in the game because of what they can gain or lose, and by playing each actor exerts their own unique investment adding to the group dynamics that result in an exchange of knowledge about the game and the player’s individual investments (including their own unique knowledge contribution). In effect, the game is altered as the shared and challenged skills of each player contribute to changes to the protocol and intensity of the game even if not changing the game’s rules in toto. The more skilled the players, the more intense the play and thus more authentic the rules of the game become to the needs of the players who strive to influence exchanges in knowledge. The less skilled, the less important the rules become because of a lack of tension in the play. Outcomes that arise as a result of the exchange of learned skills and techniques increase the impact of participating in the play of the game and the need and value for future interactions.

A transdisciplinary (TD) state moves us away from bounded actors that have no need for intense interaction and leads us to more holistic schemas that consider the dynamics and development of entire systems of agents and concepts (Klein Interdisciplinarity : History, Theory, and Practice; Tress, Tress and Fry). Pregernig (2006) states that TD presumes an integration of agents providing a “synthetic reconfiguration of available knowledge regarding the social, economic, and ecological conditions” (Pregernig 446) which highlights TD’s “coexistence between complex plurality” (Nicolescu “Towards Transdisciplinary Education and Learning” 7). TD requires a reappraisal of integration and also a reconsideration of the systems that it brings together to achieve integrative properties making it able to respond to its environment (Lawrence and Lorsch). This process is recombination—taking existing coded compositions, breaking them down into constituent elements and recombining those elements to form new ones (Kerne). The marble game becomes much less focused on the players (the energetic influences) or the possession of marbles (the knowledge interchanges) and relies on the protocols of the game itself to ensure sustained interaction (i.e., sustained knowledge exchange and creation). The mibs, or the marbles being shot at in the center of the playing field are most important in this context as the collective energy from the play is focused on accomplishing a sustainable player interaction that has as its goal affect on the marbles in play.  These are both the knowledge and content of the problems to be solved and the marbles shot by the players used to break open their configured structure add to the complexity of the play which is dependant as much on each of the players as it is on the players and the rules that govern them.

It becomes through these pressurized dynamics that opportunities to learn about and affect the game, share and develop skill as a cooperative product, and create an influential social leadership enterprise become sustainable and achievable. Each player becomes more skilled as they

offer and collect knowledge about the game, thus leaving the game changed and in a reciprocal relationship with the other players who themselves are changed by playing with others in the community in a way that could not otherwise be achieved without playing at all. The game itself benefits as communal knowledge grows and potential for change is heightened.

A Social Interaction Approach

The interplay between stakeholder (or disciplinary) spheres highlights the social functions embedded in MD, ID, and TD phenomena. Katz and Kahn (1966) focus on motivation as it supports energetic input-output systems. They highlighted that all organizations “consist of patterned activities of a number of individuals. Moreover, these patterned activities are complementary or interdependent with respect to some common output or outcome” (Katz and Kahn 20). This exchanging of energy (interdependence) between actors of the system leads us to be able to identify their functions. The function of the organization is therefore 1) evidenced in the patterns of exchange that lead to a common output and 2) is sustained by the reactivation of these patterns episodically or over time. MD, ID, and TD interactions embody this interaction differently (Figure 1) and inasmuch possess different abilities to achieve change and transformation.

Figure 1. MD, ID, and TD Economies of knowledge (Lotrecchiano “Transdisciplinarity, Integration, and Interdependence: Theoretical Insights for the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (Lend) Program”)
Figure 1. Individual economies as part of a greater systematic whole. MD and ID economies are shown as similar entities (large circles) differing in proximity to a TD economy (interior square). They generally operate in similar ways (A&B), making connections from within or from without of their respective economy, in comparison to a TD economy (C) that is intrinsically different from the other two as it continually oscillates between the economies. Agents (arrows) interact with each other episodically and over time within or across boundaries. While MD and ID economies maintain a certain disciplinary driven character through exchange or dialogue, TD economies assumes novel outcomes through discourse, shared vocabularies and reciprocity with other stakeholders.

Active exchanges between agents from similar knowledge traditions will focus on coordination more readily because of a lack of apparent tension. Conversely, conflict has traditionally been seen as an impediment to knowledge exchange. This is one way that interdependencies may vary in function. Conflict had been a long standing preoccupation for the integrationists of the previous century who focused on its effects on social ‘exchange’ (Blau), societal ‘sewing together’ (Simmel), non-conforming behavior (Merton), perpetual social dysfunction (Coser), disciplinary contribution to change (Gouldner Reciprocity and Autonomy in Functional Theory; Gouldner For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today), and change mechanisms and their role in innovation (Fox; Eldridge and Crombie). For James Thompson, this coordination is a matter of hierarchical order. “Both the natural-system and rational models of complex organizations assumes interdependence of organizational parts” (Thompson, 1967, p. 54). He recognized that interdependence occurs on three different levels representing different, more expansive relationships. Each level of coordination promotes ever more increasing complexity to the task of collaboration (Simon) and supports a reordering of the collaborative function itself (Maasen and Lieven).


 Interdependence is a variable function of agents as they interface through adaptive phenomena. At the lowest end of the spectrum, generic or (pooled) interdependence is, like MD, coordination on a primary level. The “failure of any one can threaten the whole and thus the other parts” (Thompson, 1967, p.54). This level is predominantly concerned with “standardization.”  Protocol and playing the game take precedence over competition, motivation, and winning or losing. Interdependence is only a matter of reference as agents (players), look to each other for expertise while having a relatively low expectation of change or incompatibility.

A second more direct form of coordination is that of sequential interdependence. Assuming generic interdependence, intentionality emerges in planning and coordination. Here, in sequential interdependence, motivation is driven by a desire to contribute to the “throughput” (Katz and Kahn 23-24) or the process of the system, its outcomes and exchanges. Here, playing the game is paramount and motivations of the stakeholders are more pronounced as they hope to learn and contribute. Outcome results are based what one learns from playing.

Figure 2. An Interdependent Model of Disciplinarity and Open System Qualities (Lotrecchiano "Complexity Leadership in Transdisciplinary (Td) Learning Environments: A Knowledge Feedback Loop")

                Figure 2. Three levels of interdependency. Generic (or pooled interdependence) likened to multidisciplinarity is driven by standardization and a general investment into the entire system through unidisciplinary representation of one’s own profession. Multiple  closed   systems (¡) make up one larger organization (A). Coordination and planning and how the system can maintain itself drive sequential or interdisciplinary interdependence. Multiple systems contribute to throughputting (B). Reciprocal interdependence or transdisciplinarity is driven by goals that include integrated input/output and the affecting of other disciplines by reorientation. The systemic function is homeostasis (C).

The last form of interdependent relationship (and the form most influential in achieving a social TD environment) is reciprocal interdependence. Here outputs of parts of systems become inputs of others. The different parts of the organization are linked by the relationship of “homeostasis” (Katz and Kahn 26-29) that drives both the need to remain continually invested in the goals of the system (pooled interdependence), the rules of the game, as well as remaining intent on the goals of the individual or sub-group (sequential interdependence), one’s motivations to play and learn from other players. “Under conditions of reciprocal interdependence each unit involved is penetrated by the other” (Thompson, 1967, p. 55). In other words, as one continues to play the game, the whole field of competition and the game of marbles itself are transformed as knowledge is continually exchanged through cooperation. Replication of the play continually supports the generation of new knowledge and skill and thus supports the evolution of the game, the agents that interact, its rules, and its meaning. Note that competitive tension is a part of the exchange so winning and losing contributes to the exchange of knowledge for it binds skill to outcomes and thus affects the entire group of players. Without this tension knowledge exchange would be atrophied. Reciprocal interdependence becomes therefore the hallmark of complex adaptive systems (CAS) that rely on the interplay of knowledge (Thompson; Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey) as organizations change and adapt on both individual and organization levels. Figure 2 describes the various types of interdependencies and their function in crossing agentic boundaries.

"DYI Marble Runs:Part One," Kiddley.com

TD knowledge is therefore what Basarab Nicolescu (2005) has coined, in vivo knowledge. It “corresponds between the external world of the object [the situation] and the internal world of the subject [stakeholder or agent]” (Nicolescu “Towards a Transdisciplinary Education” 7). Ikujiro Nonaka and Noburo Konno (1998) described it as “a shared space for emerging relationships” (Nonanka and Konno 40) where learning occurs. Several challenges are present in the process of achieving and maintaining this environment.

The first is integration which by its very nature invites novel exchange.  Within its multiplicity, learners (stakeholders) are engaged within a realm of complexity as they surrender to situational immergence of unpredictable change. In other words, players of the game place “the game” and its benefits over traditional expectations about winning or losing their marbles and make learning about becoming a better player paramount. The result of this is, of course, a better player and better future games. “In order to navigate this exponentially growing complexity we need to develop…different logics, ones that include the subject and allow a wider view which can be used across all stakeholders, allowing strategic points and knots of communication to be located” (Henagulph).

Secondly, praxis (the intersection of theory and practice) becomes more normative as a model for integrating this multiplicity. Wickson et al. (2006) state that TD and praxis “should co-evolve to a point where they are integrated and/or resonant. How this process proceeds in practice is one of the integrative challenges” (p. 1053) which has yet to be fully understood.  Here, the challenge is to ensure that competition—skill, strategy, and knowledge of the game—are not surrendered for the sake of blind coordination without outcomes. What one learns is reapplied into the game in a cyclical pattern that ensures that with each new situation new knowledge is attained and reinserting into the interactive enterprise.

Lastly, another challenge for TD environments is how to ensure engagement of ideas. The challenge is to involve the learner in the theoretical, epistemological, and methodological evolutions that are the source and summit of TD learning. Put another way, it is the commitment of the learning actors (individually and organizationally speaking) that ultimately affects this process through means of intention, autonomy, and fluctuation (Nonanka), which all possess some level of dynamism. This is the challenge of ensuring that all stakeholders (each in their own capacity and with a diversity of skills) are able to affect the playing field either by their skill, testing of new means of achieving goals, ability to identify new goals, or even their own individual growth in awareness or self-efficacy. This in itself may be a source of tension but is a requirement if stakeholder values and motivations are to be shared and exchanged.

The challenge for both learner (the player) and leadership (the game) is “how to maintain some distance while working as an embedded [participant]?” (Wickson, Carew and Russell 1053) so that one might translate situational patterns into replicable tendencies that might be applicable in other scenarios. The answer to this question is indeed at the heart of what we can learn from TD and establish as leadership modalities steeped in an illusive but more fertile complex environment. Though studies that provide empirical evidence of this phenomenon are rare, characteristics of TD settings can be arrived at using a culmination of theory from multiple sources that are all identifiable aspects of TD environments.  

Transdisciplinary Social Learning Approach to Leadership

Interactions between stakeholders grounded in either knowledge exchanges or in social relationships rely on individual learning capacities for TD boundary crossing to occur.  The goal of the individual learner is to master the internal mechanisms of exchange through participatory interdependence (Thompson) or  “playing”,  recombination (Kerne) or “learning”, and  eventual novel outputs (Katz and Kahn) the outcome of “discovery or innovation”,  stemming from reorientation (Morin; Engestrom, Engestrom and Vahaaho) of the inherent “complexity” of the game. All this occurs in the midst of multiple (and intermingled) realities (Nicolescu “Towards a Transdisciplinary Education; Wickson, Carew and Russell). This homeostatic state contains a number of functional mechanisms that affect individual TD learning and the relationships between social learning functions and TD characteristics.

The human actor as an active agentic participant in the interdependent processes of TD learning is subject to and contributes to successful dynamics which are built on perceptions of the self in relation to the environment with which one is interfacing. “Internal personal factors and behaviors operate as reciprocal determinants of each other “ (Bandura Social Learning Theory 195). This reciprocal determinism is part of the learning dialogue that affects successfulness and the “behavioral repertoires” that will eventually be developed, activated, and repeated—a factor paramount to TD learning and application to leadership modalities. In order to achieve “mastery” in TD learning, a self-efficacious state grounded in the characteristics of the TD environments is required to allow for a certain level of control over the “network of socio-structural influences” (Bandura “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective” 24) that learners are faced with navigating. This ensures that the human participant is not simply an agent among inanimate agents.

The “supercomplexity” (O’Brien 6) often found in TD situations is one where knowledge,  action, and self are key (and interrelated) components. Therefore, in the quest to achieve knowledge awareness, learners enact social and active skills to develop their own ideas, “to inject something of themselves into their learning and to make and to substantiate…their own truth claims” (Barnett and Hallam 148) while at the same time “understanding field-related knowledge sets, methodologies, and applications that are complex hybrids of diverse domains” (O’Brien 5). The challenges that emerge from this observation (i.e., learning different stakeholder languages and cultures, operating between them, building relationships, etc.) are dependent on antecedent factors (trust, communication, team dynamics, etc.) all of which are individual personal modalities not simple protocols as if part of a game. “The challenges [of mastery] occurs at the intra-personal, inter-personal, and systems levels” (Nash 134), however. and thus some bridging between these levels is required.

The TD learning environment provides a unique platform for considering the role of human agency and self-efficacy and ultimate mechanisms in TD environments. It values the abilities of learners to disembody themselves from their own stakeholder tenets which at times serve as barriers to crossing boundaries into a social environment while simultaneously serving as the means by which dialogue can occur on an organizational level. Cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors are in tension or “reciprocal” relationship and affect each other bi-directionally (Wood and Bandura; Bandura “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective; Bandura Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory; Bandura Social Learning Theory).

"Children Playing Marbles, 1970," Manchester Daily Express/Science & Society

Triadic reciprocal causation highlights the bidirectional function of behavior (B), the external environment (E), and cognitive and personal factors (P) as simultaneous proximal determinants in the process of determining psychosocial functioning (f) (Bandura “Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory; Wood and Bandura).  Jill plays marbles with others (B) because the game is where that can be done (E) and she believes and knows she can learn and become better at the game by playing it (P).  The interplay of these determinants conspires to instill self-efficacy in Jill’s endeavors.   The factors are not symmetric but rather vary by activity, persons, and circumstances and may be only marginally replicable. Jill’s playing marbles (B) may be more or less dependent on the intensity of the game (E) which has more or less impact on her belief that she can actually play marbles well (P). The different components play on Jill’s perceived self-efficacy over time as she continues to be motivated to reinsert herself in the process. As these differential contributions are inconsistent, similarly so too are the temporal dynamics disproportionate. “Although each of the segments reciprocally involve bidirectional influence processes, the mutual influences and their reciprocal effects do not spring forth all at the same instant” (Bandura Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory 25). Numerous reciprocal activity systems can occur at any given time, allowing for a multiplicity of questions amidst a myriad of replies all occurring on different time sequences.

The ability to persist in continual learning is dependant on the perceived self-efficacy of the learner and the motivation that this perception supports. “People act on their beliefs about what they can do as well as their beliefs about the likely outcomes of performance” (Bandura “Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective” 28-29). In other words, people’s expectations ultimately affect their behavior that in turn affects their future expectations. To be continually confident or motivated to continue along a learning process (especially across boundaries of knowledge), instances of self-belief and self-efficacy must become apparent so that as new environmental factors become introduced, the learner’s ability to manage them amidst new and previously experienced behaviors and cognitions will be successful.

The theoretical characteristics of transdisciplinary settings serve as means by which reciprocal activity between the external environment (E), personal cognitive factors (P), and behavior (B) is engaged. In situations where learners are introduced to variables in need of integration within the goal of embarking on newly crafted spheres of understanding, the dynamic tension between functions serves as a means for self-efficacy when coupled with mastery experiences that ensure incremental successes in achieving truly transdisciplinary outcomes.

Characteristics of TD settings can be arrived at using theories from multiple sources. These have been more implicitly offered throughout the paper. Here we can conclude that complex problem solving, praxis perspective, interpenetration of epistemologies, methodological pluralism, collaborative deconstruction, stakeholder involvement, open system and different (shifting) levels of reality are all identifiable aspects of a TD learning environment. Within these operational characteristics, we can also suggest some situational components operatively imbedded within psychosocial functioning around these characteristics. They assist in addressing the challenges imbedded within the TD model as different spheres of knowledge intersect and exchange stakeholder-bound characteristics and bridge the gap between agentic interactions and actor-based behaviors and/or approaches (see Table 1).

Table 1. Characteristics of Transdisciplinary (TD) Learning Mechanisms (Lotrecchiano “Social Mechanisms of Team Science: A Descriptive Case Study Using a Systems Perspective Employing Reciprocating Structuration Theory in the Creation of Transdisciplinary Knowledge”)

Psychological functioning and its relationship with mastery and goal attainment can be formalized. In TD environments, complex problem solving, for instance, can serve as an arena by which multidimensional, human and natural systems interface, in the world and ‘actual’ versus ‘conceptual’ frameworks come into contact. Psychological functioning (f) within this arena may be espoused through the dynamic interplay of evolving sources of knowledge (E) as they interface with multi-“cognitive” approaches (P) through cross-stakeholder skills (B). The challenges in achieving mastery in this area are paradoxically based as the learner copes with the details of negotiating ever-evolving variables while participating in control and influence. Self-efficacy is achieved through events of mastery that show success in solving some complex problems within this arena. This alternatively supplies the pattern for further determinism that continually secures goal-attainment. This is applicable with the other characteristics in mind. Figure 3 depicts this relationship between TD activity and this dynamic learning model.


Figure 3. Triadic Reciprocal Causation in relationship with Mastery experiences in Transdisciplinary learning environments: Complex Problem Solving (Lotrecchiano "Mechanisms of Transdisciplinary Learning: Characteristics of Crossing Boundaries ")

Summary and Implications

This paper has attempted to bridge generalized theory about complexity and transdisciplinarity with social learning theory mechanics so that leadership may be considered as a social, emergent, and adaptive construct. Further attention is needed to describe the micro components of learning process and more specifically, the mechanisms embedded in the behavioral, environmental, and cognitive functioning as it relates to leading in complex adaptive systems. The accomplishment of this paper, however, it is believed, has been to provide an initial comprehensive relationship between the setting of TD environments and psychosocial functioning specific to this phenomenon. It may serve, as a means to attain more sorely needed empirical study and measurements of the mechanisms of this understudied area. The implications of providing models that allow for further study and application for leaders in the field calls for more appropriate research endeavors that can clarify how this activity occurs and what are the variables for analysis.

Baiyin Yang’s description of learning environments that accept the social dynamism embedded in knowledge transfer is in concert with TD environments and is useful for a discussion on bridging the gap between systemic leadership and individual leader behavior and organizational learning. It supports an expectation that leadership is an enterprise of change, learning, and influence by multiple agents, not all of which are human actors. TD learning, with its social, conceptual, and psychological facets, hints at describing settings where “knowledge is defined as human beings’ understanding about reality through mental correspondence, personal experience, and emotional affectation with outside objects and situations” (Yang 108) not solely focusing on  behavior or traits.  The mechanisms of how this dynamic can be observed and operationalized on the individual level may well inform collective efficacy and communities of practice once uncovered in more detail. Some work has been conducted already in this area. The structural relationship between personal self-efficacy and collective efficacy have been studied in light of change, socio-economic status and communal activity resulting in empirical conversations about the role of individuals in collective work groups (Fernandez-Ballestros et al.). “Micro social order” has been proposed as a link to collective-oriented behavior, positive affect, and group perceptions into a network that generates recurrent patterns of exchange (Lawler, Thye and Yoon). Research into collective efficacy, and its measurement has been taken up by Roger Goddard who, while focusing on collective belief, has also begun to consider the individual in light of collective efficacy (Goddard, Hoy and Hoy; Goddard). And some studies have been conducted that attempt to show the impact of individual interactions on collective efficacy with teachers and principals (Wahlstrom and Seashore Louis) in leader verbal behavior (Sims and Manz) and in multi-agency work settings (Daniels, Leadbetter and Warmington; Stokols; Stokols, Fuqua et al.; Stokols, Hall et al.; Stokols, Harvey et al.; Stokols, Misra et al.; Stokols, Taylor et al.).

Another theoretical area in need of research attention is that of the role of cognitive dissonance within triadic reciprocal interactions. This is of particular importance as amidst the profound and apparent environmental, personal, and behavioral exchanges embedded in the psychosocial functioning of the individual, the role of dissonance, and more importantly the consequences of gravitation toward psychological consonance has a direct effect on the achievement of TD learning with its requirement for maintaining multiple realities and conversations. As Leon Festinger, the father of cognitive dissonance has claimed, “the reality which impinges on a person will exert pressures in the direction of bringing the appropriate cognitive elements into correspondence with that reality” (Festinger 11). Scholars in the area of cognitive dissonance have been more active in their attempt at focusing on how dissonance affects individual learner social psychology and empirical studies range from intragroup studies on agreement/disagreement dynamics (Matz and Wood; Glasford, Pratto and Dovidio), to workplace learning behavior (Dechawatanapaisal and Siengthai), and to behavior regulation through devaluation of positive stimuli (Veling, Holland and Knippenberg). Even in these rigorous studies, a match between research on individual learning mechanisms and TD settings is lacking.

For a truly context specific research paradigm which focuses on individual learning mechanisms in the context of TD settings, research scholars will need to construct their endeavors in ways similar to the tenets of TD settings themselves: interpenetration of epistemologies, methodological pluralism, shifting realities, etc.  In fact, most of the work in dissecting TD has been conducted in the realm of research paradigms and the TD characteristics suggested in this paper stem from those inquiries. For learning environments and a continuation of the stratification of TD in light of individuals and their psychosocial functions scholars need to asked questions of the problem with phenomenological and cybernetic lenses (Nicolescu “Cybernetics: The Bridge between Divided Knowledge and Transdisciplinarity; Brier) that by their very nature, are more well equipped to harvest the multilayered data that described the intersecting phenomena that are in constant dynamic flux. Social mechanisms may serve well as dynamic variables to these sorts of studies where changing interactive indicators are used to establish codes and themes more suited than static variables for research (Hëdstrom; Hedström and Swedberg). Worth noting are the successful attempts of scholars like Grandon Gill and Eli Cohen of the University of South Florida who has recently proposed research techniques on individual coping with complexity and its affect on information processing that are highly adaptable to TD settings (Gill and Cohen).

If individual learning in complex TD settings is to be understood for the purpose of enlightening practical leadership, a variety of contributions to the generalized discussion will need to be harvested and centralized focusing on real-life TD situations. At the moment, these are limited or at least underdeveloped. However, many sectors like cancer research (Croyle; Hiatt and Breen; Sellers et al.), tobacco and substance abuse research (Abrams et al.; Morgan, Kobus and Gerlach; Provan, Clark and Huerta; Unger et al.), aerospace technology development (Jeffrey, Allen and Seaton), and translational team science (Morrison; National Center for Research Resources; Hall et al.) are paving the way. The conclusion to any conversation about TD learning must ultimately return to the question of the models, structure, and characteristics of TD environments but also must include the individual psychosocial functioning that provide individual access to these sorts of social and conceptual interactions.


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About the Author

Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano

Gaetano R. Lotrecchiano, EdD, PhD is an assistant professor of Clinical Research, Leadership and Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He is a member of the Center for Neuroscience Research within the Children’s Research Institute at Children National Medical Center. He is the Principal Investigator of the District of Columbia Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (DC LEND).and Director of Education for the Khalifa Bin Zaven al Nehavan Foundation initiative to create a sustainable rehabilitation center and professional education in the United Arab Emirates. As a member of the education faculty at Children’s and teaching faculty at the George Washington University School of Medicine he teaches in multiple clinical and translational science graduate venues as well as within the the Innov@N (Innovation) for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers initiative at George Washington University, and the Maternal and Child Health funded Pathways Program at Howard University. His research interests include complexity leadership, transdisciplinary team science and blended learning and these areas of interest make up his unique contributions to theory and  practical application. He has served in a number of positions administering disabilities and rare disease programs throughout his career including the (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC), Rare Diseases Clinical Research Center (RCDRC). Dr. Lotrecchiano’s recent published material is in the International Journal of Transdisciplinary Research and VINE: The Journal of Information and Knowledge Management Systems, Integral Leadership Review and Formamente: The International Research Journal on Digital Future. Presently, he is working on the 7th Edition of Batshaw, Roizen, and Lotrecchiano, Children with Disabilities, Baltimore: Brookes Publishing, scheduled to be completed in 2012. Dr. Lotrecchiano serves on numerous advisory councils including The Center for Applied Developmental Science and Neuroeducation in the Graduate School of Education & Human Development at George Washington Unniversity, the Maternal and Child health-funded Howard University Pathways to Health Professions Program and the Children’s Academy of Pediatric Educators.