Part 2: Boundary spanners & shifters

by | Nov 24, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

By Doctors Suzana Sukovic and Kerith Duncanson

This blog post continues the previous post Observing, spanning and shifting boundaries in data work. Both are based on our study findings published as Sukovic, S., Eisner, J. and Duncanson, K., 2022. Observing, spanning and shifting boundaries: working with data in non-clinical practice. Global Knowledge, Memory and Communication, (ahead-of-print).

Most of us want to do our job well and resolve issues within the scope of our role. Some, however, have an ability to understand problems in a broader context or from a different perspective, and to regularly reach out to other professional groups or teams to resolve them. People who do it often become boundary spanners and connectors modeling new problem resolutions and, over time, new possibilities. When boundary spanning becomes inadequate for needs and opportunities, and when suitable conditions exist, boundary shifting starts to happen. At this stage, a broader circle of people is involved in negotiations and modeling new ways of working. 

How does boundary work happen?

As we described in the previous post, data is often the medium for working across boundaries, which is usually considered to be positive and constructive. However, while necessary for establishing new ways of working, boundary spanning is normally resisted. In our literature review, we considered a number of studies which discussed this tension. 
The concept of boundary objects was used by Star and Griesmer (1989) to explain how the tension is resolved in practice. According to Star and Griesmer, boundary objects, abstract or concrete, are used as a means of translation although their meaning is different in different social worlds. In our study, records describing drugs were examples of boundary objects used to establish connections between teams of pharmacists and IT specialists. In other instances, data extracts required for financial reports became highly political boundary objects as different units had different understandings of what they should be. It reflected a deeper difference in how these units saw business needs and their role. Attempts to establish new practices were framed by discussions and negotiations around data extracts. In this and other instances, boundary spanning and shifting often happens in the work on and around boundary objects. We also reiterated the importance of boundary clusters which, according to Rehm and Goel (2014), are artefacts that may not be boundary objects in their own right. They are used, however, to aid boundary work.
Boundary process emerged from our study as another key concept defining boundary work. In the Discussion section of our article, we explained boundary process this way:
An important aspect of the boundary process is that work with artefacts is combined with attempts to negotiate new communication channels and collaboration opportunities. The thrust of transformational work and realisation of Carlile’s ‘political capacity of a boundary object’ is in boundary processes. Boundary processes include different boundary objects, clusters and communication channels aiming to achieve immediate and long-term goals. Boundary shifting is a result of continuous work across boundaries. 

Who are boundary spanners and shifters?

Boundary spanners and shifters work in any way that is available to them by blurring and bridging boundaries. Their work concerns small teams as well as large and ambitious projects with far-reaching influence.
Whether early career professionals or top managers, boundary shifters tend to have some similar characteristics. They describe themselves as curious and problem-oriented. They tend to have knowledge and skills in more than one disciplinary domain, frequently holding degrees in two or more disciplines. ‘Speaking the language’ of other professional groups helps them to understand problems from a different perspective and communicate across boundaries. Boundary spanners and shifters look at issues and solutions outside organisational divisions. Typically, they don’t compartmentalise their work and rely on a range of experiences to initiate change. One of the participants explained, ‘I started working life as a clinician, then program manager, and now I’m managing an analytics performance team. So really, for me, it should be seamless’. 
In the article, we created three vignettes profiling boundary shifters. Below is one of the vignettes.

Participant 3/3 is a graphic designer, gamer and coder who studied programming at college. His role is to design reports from data provided by data analysts. When he started, graphic designers produced visualisations separately from data sources. Every change in data was replicated manually in reports. Participant 3/3, however, understood data work enough to interpret what the analysts were doing, but not enough to do it himself. When he began asking for data to automate data visualisation and reduce double-handling, he described being pushed into the ‘designer corner’.

The participant saw opportunities in collaboration and was supported by his supervisor, but convincing others was difficult. Accessing data was not in scope for his role. He had to demonstrate his ability to ‘data custodians’ to overcome trust issues around the perceived risk. Over time, by connecting with analyst, he produced examples of automated visualisations, which were successful. As a result, he introduced a new consultation process to model the type of practice he wanted to achieve. New reports and closer collaboration between analysts and designers served as a boundary object and boundary process that ignited discussions and further negotiation. When asked what he would tell a new person about the most important aspects of the role, he said, ‘It’s really understanding the data and how to build something from that data that’s visual’. It is a different area of work from traditional graphic design. 

In the course of their work, boundary shifters start shaping new roles, often hoping to make them formally recognised. The need for new roles is also acknowledged by some experienced managers. For example, the manager of a unit which connects the health system and a large data bank has an educational and work background in nursing and  IT. She identified the role of ‘translator’ between users (i.e. employees in other parts of the health organisation) and the digital systems as the main gap in her area of work. Establishing this and many other roles, however, requires broader organisational support.
The health sector generally agrees on the potential of advanced data use to improve health care. It is not controversial to suggest that this requires connection between clinical and non-clinical parts of a health organisation. However, capitalising on boundary spanning and shifting capabilities in practice is much more complex. It requires a better understanding of boundaries, particularly hierarchies, in the health sector. Further research in this area is needed, especially in relation to the ever-increasing volume of data being collected in health. Some improvements in practice can happen anyway by supporting constructive boundary processes. A good starting place is recognising boundary work and its champions.
References Rehm, S.-V. and Goel, L. (2014), “The emergence of boundary clusters in inter-organizational innovation”, Information and Organization, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 27-51, doi: 10.1016/j.infoandorg.2014.12.001.
Star, S.L. and Griesemer, J.R. (1989), “Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology, 1907-39”, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 387-420, doi: 10.1177/030631289019003001.
Dr Suzana Sukovic is the Director of Research and Library
Services at PLC Sydney. 

Dr Kerith Duncanson is the Rural Research Manager at HETI, NSW Health, and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle.

Co-author of our original articleJamaica Eisner, is Senior Content and Experience Designer at Deloitte Digital Australia.


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