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Viewing Trading Zones Developed to Advance Health as Complex Adaptive Systems Ann E. Mills, Mary V. Rorty, Lynn Isabella, and Donna T. Chen The concept of a trading zone is particularly important today in the health-related research world, where the seeming scarcity of publicly funded health research dollars has resulted in calls for concrete deliverables: useful products and information that is relevant to actual clinical or policy decision-making needs (Sung et al. 2003; Tunis, Stryer, and Clancy 2003; Woolf 2008; Zerhouni 2005). The trading zone concept highlights the importance of people coming together and working synergistically toward a shared goal. What happens when people work for a shared purpose can also be conceptualized as a “complex adaptive system.” The idea of complex adaptive systems is especially gaining attention in the organization and business literature, and many definitions of complex adaptive systems have been offered. For instance, Plsek defines a complex adaptive system as “a collection of individual agents that have the freedom to act in ways that are not always predictable and whose actions are interconnected such that one agent’s actions change the context for other agents” (Plsek 2001, 312–313). UhlBien and colleagues speak of complex adaptive systems as “neural-like networks of interacting, interdependent agents who are bonded in a cooperative dynamic by common goal, outlook, need, etc.” (Uhl-Bien, Martin, and McKelvery 2007, 299). While the second definition emphasizes that a common goal is shared by those in a complex adaptive system, both definitions highlight the interdependence of people or institutions in such systems and the instability of the interactions of persons or institutions involved. But this instability need not result in inappropriate outcomes. The interactions of people in a complex adaptive system might instead result in positive outcomes that may be surprising or innovative (Plsek 2001). But because interactions are hard to predict in complex adaptive systems, outcomes too are hard to predict. The concept of complex adaptive systems explicitly recognizes that human beings, even those engaged in cooperative enterprises, have individual motives and values. 13 266 Ann E. Mills, Mary V. Rorty, Lynn Isabella, and Donna T. Chen Differences in motives and values will affect how the system functions and so can affect the outcomes produced, just as the system itself will affect individual and institutional behavior. Thus, people working together in trading zones should be consistently monitoring the goals, the values, and the outcomes of a trading zone. Goal, values, and outcomes will affect interactions because they provide feedback that affects the motivations and behavior of individuals involved in the trading zone. This, in turn, will affect future interactions as well as outcomes. Paying attention to these features of a trading zone can be particularly important to its success. This is particularly true when a trading zone has been created to promote activities and to advance goals that important stakeholders within it, and at times outside of it, consider to have a fundamental normative dimension, as is the case for trading zones that come together for the purpose of advancing human health and well-being through interdisciplinary research or action. In what follows, we highlight certain features of trading zones by viewing them as a type of complex adaptive system. Specifically, we focus on the goals and values of trading zones and the individuals that constitute them, and show how these features fundamentally affect the trading zone’s evolution, and thus its perceived or actual success or failure. We argue that viewing trading zones as complex adaptive systems highlights the need for consistent monitoring and explicit managing of a trading zone’s goals and values to help it evolve toward its overarching goals and produce appropriate outcomes, which is particularly important when fundamental normative dimensions are at stake. We conclude by identifying some strategies to this end. Trading Zones Peter Galison uses the concept of a trading zone to explain how scientists and engineers from different disciplinary cultures manage to collaborate across apparently incommensurable paradigms. Collaborating across disciplines often involves the development of a jointly understood pidgin or creole between individuals or groups of individuals, which allows them to communicate meaningfully. Trading zones occur when there is a need for interdisciplinary collaboration in the pursuit of a goal that cannot be reached by collaborators within a single discipline. During World War II, for example, the military, engineers, and scientists needed to collaborate across seemingly incommensurable disciplinary paradigms in order to develop the weapons needed to defeat the enemy (Galison 1996). Trading...


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