The Challenge of Building Positive Boundary Objects

Silos can create significant barriers to progress and even everyday function in organizations.  How often have you said, “They [Dept A]  have no idea what we [Dept B] do!”

Despite differences in organizational roles, we can connect over shared experiences and challenges. This is where boundary objects come in.

Boundary objects

Boundary objects are objects that “both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the information requirements of each of them” (Bowker & Star, 1999). Boundary objects aren’t necessarily physical constructs. They can include symbols or metaphors with “the power to ‘speak’ to different communities of practice” (Fox, 2011, citing Arias & Fischer, 2000; Star & Griesemer, 1989: 412–3). Boundary objects allow different groups to share:

  • Common meanings
  • Different perspectives

In ideal cases, such sharing can generate new learning constructs and new approaches to solving problems, making more fluid connections between communities of practice possible.

Technology-Enhanced Boundary Objects (TEBOs)

Boundary objects  can be enhanced by technology and  techn0logy-enhanced boundary objects (TEBOs) can include artefacts of communication (Atwell, 2011). Given this description of a TEBO, you might imagine that  a shared communication platform like Sharepoint, or any other type of content management system (CMS) you’re familiar with, has the potential to serve as a TEBO. You might also be noting that it often does not function this way. People may use a  CMS in a given organization to access and  share documents, but they may not be using it to reach the loftier goals we’ve ascribed to TEBOs.

What causes a boundary object to fail?

Fox (2011) notes that TEBOs can be positive or negative  depending on their design and context. More universally user-friendly boundary objects will be shared by more groups than ones which require a significant learning curve to use. Further, the more adaptable a boundary object is to the needs of a specific group, the more likely it will be used by that group.

However, a boundary object fails when it’s assumed that the intrinsic properties of the boundary object ensure it’s optimized use. Take the example of our hypothetical CMS. It includes a way for workers to create personalized profiles, to blog, microblog, and to share on a community wiki. It’s used by diverse communities of practice (e.g., sales people, researchers, writers, marketers). Why isn’t there more sharing then?  Why is the CMS devolving into a very expensive shared server system? Often, it’s because it was assumed that merely deploying the technology would create an impetus to use it and that this impetus would be sustainable.

As Fox notes, technology is not neutral. It is “imbued with ideological content” and what’s required “is an acknowledgement of the social and power relations that a technology or a technological object mediates. The success or failure of an innovation depends on the reception of this meaning and these social relations”  (Fox, p. 82).

Creating positive (i.e., useful) TEBOs  requires:

  • Understanding the diverse audiences who will use them
  • Identifying shared language and communication patterns and understanding differences
  • Understanding the different work flows in which a given TEBO fits
  • Including a way to adapt the TEBO to different use cases without destroying its share-ability
  • Creating conceptual tools that help employees use the TEBO to cross boundaries
  • Providing employees with the time to use the TEBO  to interact, reflect, and cross boundaries
  • Rewarding employees who share with meaningful rewards
  • Demonstrating potential long-term impact on ROI to management

(Fox, 2011; Atwell, 2011).

As you might surmise from reading the list above, understanding user interactions is critical to the creation of a successful boundary object and, as you might guess, the work isn’t over when the object is deployed.  As noted by Wood et al. (1998, pp. 1734-35),  innovation is “neither natural nor inevitable, but constantly negotiated and aligned…. within an assemblage of organisational and behavioural factors.” This includes continually revisiting and revising the type of facilitation we mediate as learning developers/community organizers.


Atwell, G. (2011). Technology Enhanced Boundary Objects and Visualising Data. Pontydysgu-Bridge to Learning. Retrieved from

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out. Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fox, N. (2011).  Boundary objects, social meanings and the success of new technologies. Sociology, 45,70-85.

Wood, M., Ferlie, E., & Fitzgerald, L. (1998). Achieving clinical behaviour change: A case of becoming indeterminate. Social Science and Medicine, 47, 1729–38.

2 responses to “The Challenge of Building Positive Boundary Objects

  1. .The term boundary object is attributed to Susan Leigh Star who used it to describe the translationary function of objects between CoPs…Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.

  2. Pingback: Learning Through Boundary Crossing | Instructional Design Fusions

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