Category Archives: innovation

Learning Through Boundary Crossing

In a previous post I described the ideal of a knowledge ecosystem in which knowledge is distributed amongst individuals, social groups, and technology platforms. I noted the important role of the instructional designer/learning developer (ID/LD)  as someone who helps mediate boundary-crossing interactions.

Boundaries as opportunities

As described by Akkerman and Bakker (2011, p. 132), a boundary is “a sociocultural difference leading to discontinuity in action or interaction.” It’s  that psychological fence that consists of perceived and real behavioral requirements, rules, and divisions of labor—perceptions of the “way things should be done,” and the “way things have always been done.”

Crossing boundaries requires a certain activation energy since the new  territory we’re trying to gain access to is unfamiliar and we may be moving  from a domain in which we’re an expert to one in which we are a novice. Yet crossing boundaries is essential if we want to achieve  both cohesiveness and the innovation that comes from blending approaches in organizations. Boundary-crossing is not just one person dipping a toe into the other person’s community of practice; it requires an ongoing, two-way interaction to be of any use. Although this seems daunting, we should view boundary crossing as a learning opportunity rather than an insurmountable barrier.

Technology: A people-powered bridge

There’s a dangerous tendency to assume that technology will provide magical boundary objects, bridges between one community of practice and another. However, technology platforms are only tools for communication which “can never fully displace communication and collaboration….They are never self-contained” (Akkerman and Bakker, p. 141). The diverse and often fractious voices of humanity dictate how these tools are used. That being said, technology can be useful for mediating learning at boundaries.

Learning at Boundaries

Akkerman and Bakker describe four mechanisms for learning at boundaries and in this post, I’ll consider how IDs/LDs can use technology to support these mechanisms.

Learning at boundaries does not require abolishing differences, but understanding and valuing them. Consider tools such as blogs to make different approaches more transparent (e.g., through interviews and story-sharing). By making approaches and challenges more transparent, we can begin to consider our own approaches and the ways in which we’ve successfully, and unsuccessfully, met opportunities and obstacles. We can consider recasting these approaches in light of what others have done.

If sharing information was enough, technology should be able to solve the problem of boundaries once and for all. It’s just a matter of shared access right? But we know that creating a content management system and assuming learners/workers will just be able to dive in and retrieve what they need doesn’t work.

Coordination also requires a process of translation to create efficiencies.  We have to create ways to surface how information can be used, whether by explicit modeling or by facilitating discussion forums where learners/workers share their own views of the applicability of different approaches. These communication practices need to be relatively seamless and without bureaucratic intervention. Communication occurs without the need to call a meeting, reserve a conference room, or create an action request.  (Though these processes have their place, informal communication can allow workers to explore what’s possible in advance of deciding what should or shouldn’t be done.)

Boundary crossing requires thinking about other approaches and your own approaches and making knowledge and assumptions explicit. While this seems to be a highly individualized task, as IDs/LDs, we can help learners/workers develop metacognitive skills, using tools such as mind-mapping, blogs, microblogs, and wikis. There does have to be an organizational culture that supports this kind of sharing. While we as  IDs/LDs can’t create this culture, we can demonstrate the value of sharing and show how it can improve and naturally fit into existing work flows.

If the preceding paragraphs have led you to perceive boundary crossing as something of a utopian phenomenon, rest assured that it isn’t. It requires confronting problems,  questioning, and seeing  that business as usual isn’t working or at least can work better. However, confrontation doesn’t have to be negative. It can lead to recognition that there’s a shared problem space and common goals. It can lead to the satisfaction that comes from blending approaches and deploying tools to create something innovative and useful.

Transformation is not a discrete and permanent state. It requires what Akkerman and Bakker refer to as”continuous joint work at the boundary” (p. 148). If coordination is the process of making boundary crossing appear seamless, this work requires acknowledging that boundaries exist and are challenges. Thoughtful and sustained effort is required to  maintain boundaries as positive learning opportunities. Absent this effort, boundaries  devolve into the dysfunctional barriers that separate one workplace silo from another—in other words, business as usual.

Clearly, work at the boundary requires numerous  interactions between diverse players and IDs/LDs are both participants and liaisons in this work. Our task is not to break down boundaries but to reveal them and to demonstrate the value of connecting. We can facilitate connection and use technology to mediate connections but transformation is ultimately a social process. This may not be a satisfying answer but it’s a real one and there’s some creativity to be found is exploring the boundaries of own efforts.


Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. Boundary crossing and boundary objects. (2011). Review of Educational Research, 81, 132-169.