Driven by the assumption that multidisciplinarity contributes positively to team outcomes teams are often deliberately staffed such that they comprise multiple disciplines. However, the diversity literature suggests that multidisciplinarity may not always benefit a team. This study departs from the notion of a linear, positive effect of multidisciplinarity and tests its contingency on the quality of team processes. It was assumed that multidisciplinarity only contributes to team outcomes if the quality of team processes is high. This hypothesis was tested in two independent samples of health care workers (N = 66 and N = 95 teams), using team innovation as the outcome variable. Results support the hypothesis for the quality of innovation, rather than the number of innovations introduced by the teams.
In many areas of work today, tasks have reached a level of complexity that requires a wide breadth of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA). Therefore, organizations more frequently rely on multidisciplinary teams. For example, project teams charged with automotive design are often not only staffed with engineers from research and development units and experts from the manufacturing plant, but also market researchers and purchasing managers. The adoption of multidisciplinary teams is, however, not only seen as a task-driven necessity but also used as a strategy to increase team performance. The higher the degree of multidisciplinarity, that is, the higher the number of different disciplines represented on a team, the broader the range of KSA available to the team should be. Having a more varied set of task-relevant KSAs is assumed to translate into a greater variety of perspectives, which should, in turn, increase performance in terms of quality of decision-making or innovativeness of problem-solving.
Research in the field of diversity, however, suggests that multidisciplinarity may not always benefit a team's performance. Findings in the realm of team diversity have been inconsistent with studies reporting both positive and negative effects of diversity in task-relevant KSAs (Milliken & Martins, 1996; Williams & O'Reilly, 1998; cf. the meta-analysis by Webber & Donahue, 2001). For example, top management teams' functional diversity was found to be positively related to organizational innovation (Bantel & Jackson, 1989; Wiersema & Bantel, 1992), while functional diversity of new product teams negatively affected performance (Ancona & Caldwell, 1992).
The inconsistent results suggest that the effect of multidisciplinarity may be contingent upon other variables. Scholars from the field of diversity have suggested more strongly incorporating contextual aspects into the study of the diversity-performance relationship and adopting more complex models (Williams & O'Reilly, 1998). This proposal will be applied here to the study of multidisciplinarity. We go beyond the assumption of direct effects of multidisciplinarity on outcomes to test the extent to which the effect of multidisciplinarity depends on the quality of team processes.