This is the second part of a two-part paper, designed to bring ideas from organizations to complexity theorists for discussion. In doing this research, I have made the following assumptions:
Invitations from complexity experts, such 1. as those quoted in Part 1 of this paper, are indicators of a more general desire to learn from, and help, practitioners.
The topic of boundaries is important to 2. theorists and practitioners working in complex environments.
E:CO is a journal in which scholar-practi3. tioner dialogue can occur in threads, which might span several issues.
This two-part paper, which compiles and 4. synthesizes practical boundary-related experience, can act as a boundary object to catalyze dialogue.
In other words, this paper responds to invitations from theorists to contribute to conversations about applications of complexity thinking, and invites theorists to further our understanding of boundary work.
Phenomenography is an interdisciplinary research method (Osteraker, 2002) that reveals qualitatively different ways of understanding concepts such as boundaries, peripheries and edges (Bowden & Walsh, 2000: 154). I chose it because the differences revealed could lead to insights about complexity science vs. systems thinking perspectives, accurate and flawed assumptions about complexity, or ways of understanding boundaries that are appropriate for different types of environments.
Part 1 of this paper explored ways in which published authors thought of, and applied, the related concepts of boundaries, edges and peripheries. It concluded that boundaries have been an important topic in disciplines such as ecology for decades, and the emergence of new sciences and economies has catalyzed awareness of the importance of boundary work. The authors noted the distinctive characteristics of boundary areas including diversity and risk. The boundary contexts they described ranged from micro to macro, and approaches to work with boundaries ranged from awareness to advocacy.
The data for Part 2 of this paper were unpublished writings of professionals studying in Royal Roads University’s knowledge management (KM) program, and more specifically, learners’ journals from the course about communities of practice.
Background: The program and course
Context about the university, program and course situates the research participants’ experiences and perceptions of boundaries.
Learners in Royal Roads University’s knowledge management programs were typically mid-late career professionals who brought significant expertise and education to the learning community. The program framework was depicted graphically as intersecting, open, human structural and social systems, all nested within a larger environmental context (MacGillivray, 2001). The foundation courses provided background in systems thinking and complexity. Cohorts of learners moved through programs together.
The final online course focused on communities of practice (CoP): “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their understanding and knowledge of this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, et al., 2002: 4). These groups typically span administrative and geographic boundaries.
This course began with an intense exploration of socially-based learning compared and contrasted with a range of learning theories and philosophies. We also looked at familiar groups against descriptors for various group types.
However, it would be hypocritical to have a conventional, sequential, linear course design to study emergent, self-governing groups engaged in dynamic knowing and learning. So, the overall course design was unconventional. In “Not only the lonely: Implications of ‘social’ online activities for higher education”, Fraser and Greenhalgh noted that there were few post-secondary examples of on-line collaborative learning (MacGillivray & Smith, 2004: 1368). In this case, our deliberate under-designing of the course facilitated emergent learning within the boundary of a graduate for-credit offering. Learners in the program told me that, in contrast to a transmission-model, I created spaces in which learning was catalyzed through various kinds of interaction.
The twelve weeks of study within the larger program could be described as a zone of adaptive creativity. Elements of stability included the social capital of the learner cohort and a familiar e-learning platform. Potentially chaotic elements were introduced; for example, learners experienced new platforms, spent time in a larger virtual community (the workshop), and designed their major assignments: all boundary crossing or spanning activities. The course description on the public website (MacGillivray, 2001) described the nature of the design work as “the collaboration and knowledge sharing of two learning initiatives with leading experts: North America’s first graduate program in knowledge management at Royal Roads University, and North America’s first communities of practice workshop...” Workshops with participants from many countries and professions were hosted by CPsquare. John D. Smith from CPsquare joined the Royal Roads discussions to pave the way for transition to the workshop, and stepping out of my role as course instructor, I mentored participants in the workshops, making the boundary between the two spaces more permeable.
In summary, the course design reflected complexity principles, and had many implicit boundary, edge and periphery elements. Although this made it an interesting forum for research of perceptions of boundaries, the boundary concept was not part of the course in any explicit way.
In contrast with the published authors in Part 1 of this paper, these authors were working together in a common learning environment. Like the published authors, learners knew their work would be read, but the context was different. Although I had worked with them for months and perceived the course climate to be open and trusting, they knew I would be reading their journals in reference to course competencies.
This is a qualitative, inductive study to provide data for further research and refinement of theory.
As with Part 1, phenomenographic inquiry was chosen for its potential to highlight diversity and to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue amongst academics and practitioners.
Every learning journal from three offerings of the course was analyzed in its entirety, qualitatively and with descriptive statistics (see Table 2). A few quotes were drawn from assignments. Journals were selected because they were relatively private, informal and candid, in contrast to the polished work in Part 1. Learning journals were places for reflection, unlearning and planning in relation to course competencies. In reading these streams of consciousness, one witnessed the experiences of pools, eddies, standing waves, portages and rescues, which might not be visible otherwise. Individuals wrestled with priorities, identities and related boundaries in times of personal, workplace and family crises, details of which are not revealed in this paper.
The research plan was approved by ethical review groups in two universities, and participants granted permission for use of quotes.
Conceptualization of boundaries: Designers
In an AACE conference paper (MacGillivray and Smith, 2004), the course/workshop designers used four natural science metaphors to describe their collaborative design process: hybrid vigor, mutualism, the selfish gene and morphic resonance. The two that are explicitly boundary-related are summarized below:
Hybrid vigor: Beware of the drive for efficiency
Hybrid vigor is a phenomenon of intersections, describing the improved strength, health or yield that can occur with crossbred plants and animals. “If you have two members of a gene family but expressing themselves in two different tissues,” explained Rutgers geneticist Hugo Dooner, “then a crossbred plant could contain both of the genes and may therefore be better off” (Blumberg, 2002). This may be particularly true under stressful environmental conditions. The benefits of crossbreeding come from genetic diversity and redundancy (a negative concept in business). John Seeley Brown (Ark Group conversation, 2004) commented that, “Most of the really interesting stuff within an organisation is happening on the edge…” MacGillivray and Smith encouraged healthy degrees of redundancy and diversity in the overlapping learning environments.
Mutualism: Diagnosing intelligent wholes
In parasitic relationships, both parties ideally survive, but one benefits at the other’s expense. With mutualism, neither party is hurt and one or both benefit. For example, the bobtailed squid, Euprymna scolopes, hunts after sunset, and if it were not for its relationship with a tiny organism—Vibrio fischeri—predators would spot the squid’s silhouette from below. The bioluminescent Vibrio colonize the squid and the squid controls the amount of light emitted. Their combined efforts help both to thrive (Graf, 2002). As designers, we understood the course as a product of the intimate relationship between learning experiences in the university and workshop environments. The Royal Roads course hosted and enveloped the workshop, yet the workshop also lived independently with no Royal Roads involvement.
Conceptualization of boundaries: Learners
This section of the paper uses a small sample of the data in quotes to illustrate different ways of understanding boundaries. Often the boundary concept is embedded and described using other terms.
When learners created their major assignments and chose competencies for assessment, they needed to consider—and often negotiate—boundaries with each other for collaboration, with organizations or clients for applied research, and with their families for time and effort. The following journal entry is one of many that describe the transition to this complex learning environment:
“I started the week getting angry with myself because I couldn’t make sense of the assignments and the spaces. Then I slowed down and worked through the assignments and matched them with what I was doing at work. Thank you, [Name] for the phone conversation. I finally realized that I could work on a number of assignments at once and mix and match across them as I wanted to. I realized that you have set this course up to be open and very free-flowing and we can bring all the different aspects of ourselves to the assignments and the discussions as we want. It’s sort of like Duh! This is what you have been saying all along but I let the new spaces and all the possibilities overwhelm me. Now I get it and I have started to try and knit it all together in a way that works for me (although I have a feeling it will all come unbound again when we join the bigger CoP space).”
By analyzing all of the journal entries using Atlas.ti software, I found that patterns gradually emerged. Research participants conceptualized boundaries (explicitly and implicitly) in four ways: some focused on one approach; others emphasized several. These ways are labelled the Shape Shifter, Architect, Harvester and Ethnographer.
A. Work with one’s own identity and boundaries: The Shape shifter
Shape shifters saw boundaries as something personal and something to be managed. They planned consciously, and sometimes used auto-ethnography to note changes they had experienced, for example, “I have fundamentally shifted my views of KM since I began the course, from managing artifacts to managing flows.” Shape shifting actions included coping (e.g., managing boundaries around multiple identities competing for time) and testing changes (reminiscent of work by athletes). Often the inside/outside “belonging” dynamic was at play.
This was the most common primary orientation, adopted by fourteen individuals.
The multidirectional and emergent nature of learning was a regular theme, as seen in entries such as: “Our discussion time with [Guest Name] helped me bring different themes together from my life and made me realize the value of communities.”
Metaphor helped to describe boundary-related transitions, for example, “Looking back to the first morning at RRU, when we introduced ourselves and outlined the reasons that led us to the RRU KM course. I seem to remember talking about a door that was a little ajar, I sensed there was something beyond it, but I didn’t know what it was and I was wanting to find out. Well, this course opened that door and let me step beyond it into the world of KM. Of course, what was beyond was in fact a large hallway with lots more doors…”
Many entries described shifts in how people positioned themselves in the model used for analysis. In this case, experiential learning led to a shift in orientation from peripheries towards cores: “I also believe that taking this course has encouraged me to be more than a lurker in some online communities and take the next step to demonstrate my commitment to these communities…”
Sometimes a shape-shifter comment would spawn responses from others. This is a response to a learner from an expert in the field, talking about confidence in spanning the scholar-practitioner divide: “Trust in one’s experience, [Name]. What you are saying is quite interesting because I personally thought that you had a lot to contribute to the session (for those reading, I too was at the session that [Name] attended) because of your extensive practical experience with building communities and with mergers. You knew more about that than many of the attendees, me in particular. That is why I was at times trying to pull you into the conversation and I hope you did not mind that. I guess the whole Harvard thing and the way people talk there can be intimidating.”
Several comments showed how individuals worked to make boundaries more permeable in order to achieve some goal: “From what I have seen thus far, the majority of the players are from Academia - and PhDs at that. Oh well, I can throw acronyms with the best of them.”
Many shape shifter entries showed surprise or insight (often with a complexity spin): “So we started coming up with rules of order, and agenda, the usual formalities for a MEETING. I was quite pleased as the meeting progressed with [Name]. Her approach was so relaxed and very informal. All of our planning went out the window.”
The following was one of many insights that influenced practice. In this case, the insight spanned disciplinary boundaries: “I enrolled in the KM programme with a very specific goal in mind, to acquire tools that would be helpful in research administration. While I have certainly achieved this goal, it has been very interesting to see how the programme in general, but particularly the issue of CoPs, has changed my perspective on what we refer to as teaching.”
Because shape shifter was such a common primary framework, there were many more examples, some of which are captured conceptually In Figure 2/Table 1.
B. Reframing contexts and concepts: The Architect
Architects saw boundaries as tools for framing ideas and to aid with conceptualization. The architect paradigm might be seen as a response to John Godfrey Saxe’s (no date) plea for seeing a bigger picture in his poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Architects take ideas and turn them on their sides, or take maps of the territory and add another layer. This view is exemplified by the quote, “One potential way that a CoP can generate value for an organization is by spanning boundaries: the CoP becomes the vehicle for cross-pollination.”
This was the primary orientation of seven to eight individuals.
Some architectural writings were exploratory: “I am wondering if we looked at the world through an executive’s eyes and could understand how to be effective in the paradox of organizational structure and the flexibility and fluidity of communities of practice, what forms of support would leverage both…?”
Many included metaphors with implicit boundary content, such as these:
“The dual nature of our existence suggests we have learned to weave harmonically the personal sense and collective sense, the flexible and the structural, the becoming and belonging.”
“The vibrancy of a community can be seen as heartbeat, and that the heartbeat must continue to beat strongly if the community is to survive. I mentioned that F2F [face-to-face] meetings could act as a ‘defribulator’, jolting the community into action and reviving its raison d’être.”
“I appreciate the focus on large-scale social learning systems and individual identity. Opposite of ‘assimilation’ by the Borg, the social aspects of learning that Etienne speaks of here do not negate the individual, but rather accentuate it. It provides the landscape as a ‘relief’ through which the ‘trajectory’ of learning can be plotted.”
“It seems to me now that communities of practice are like a forest. From a distance they appear to be a homogeneous mass but on closer inspection it becomes clear that there is more than one type or species. And each type thrives under certain specific conditions.”
Some spoke to tensions across boundaries: “In my own theory of organic thinking, I believe the process of knowing occurs in our unconscious mind while the process of being aware may occur in either or both our conscious and unconscious mind. The difference between the outcomes of these two processes (knowing and being aware) is in fact what I consider the substance for creating meaning,” and, “I think it was meant to happen (after reading [Name]’s paper). In the section on ‘Becoming the Change We Envision’, the effort that I put in related to my wanting to be the person that others envisioned me to be. This is an interesting AHA moment for me and the utility of formalizing communities is as a learning environment - rather than creating CoPs for the sake of information sharing.”
Others linked concepts to social or economic issues. The following example might be seen as a fitness landscape of sorts, though looking at societal well-being rather than profit:
“In the UK, Australia and even Argentina, sports clubs include facilities for several different sports on the same grounds, along with a clubhouse and restaurant. What I always pictured as convenience, and a sense of camaraderie and belonging. I realize now that what I was describing was a sense of community. In creating my post on this subject, these themes all seemed to converge, and I realize that I really wasn’t all that crazy when I suggested this concept to friends so many years ago. I also realize that our society seems to long for communities in many different places because our closed and individualistic lives need them and cannot find them in so many of our daily activities.”
C. Planting seeds and reaping rewards: The Harvester
Harvesters saw boundaries as something external to manage—as part of their toolbox and skill set. Harvesters learned something about boundaries through experience or exposure, and stored that learning for potential application. Sometimes there is evidence of application. This sometimes overlapped with the change agent perspective, but typically at a more concrete and immediate level than in the work of the published authors in Part 1.
Four individuals had harvester as a primary orientation in their journals, although almost all designed strongly harvester-oriented projects for major assignments. For example, one learner developed and presented a proposal about the benefits of a national community of practice through which to link specialists who do similar public safety and security work in separate jurisdictions.
Often harvesters quoted or paraphrased something they had heard or read (note that citations varied in quality because this was writing for reflection rather than publishing) and put that idea, framework or theory into a work context. In this case, the learner contemplated the process of moving from periphery to core:
“I have just finished a somewhat superficial read of ‘Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation’ by Lave and Wenger. I am interested in the discussion of how learning occurs in the apprenticeship situation. There are many analogies that can be drawn to both CoPs in my environment and to teaching in the [discipline] curriculum. The training of residents has many of the elements of an apprenticeship. I was particularly taken by the role of narrative in the apprenticeship. That is exactly what I often do in daily rounds, recounting tales of how something either worked or did not work, or mistakes that I have made in the past. It is, in fact, a very easy way of helping others to learn.”
Many wrote about the challenges of spanning boundaries: “As part of my goals for this course, I had hoped to be very participative in all aspects of the online communication. As such, I’ve asked for permission from my leader at work to post in the Practice Lab a situation or two related to some struggles we are having with some of our communities, in an attempt to get some ideas on how we may be able to improve these particular situations, however I have not yet received a response. I have a feeling I may not get permission as in his eyes letting people know that things are not working 100% is a sign of weakness.”
D. Scanning the landscape: Ethnographer
Ethnographers observed boundaries and their effects in various contexts, and made notes about those observations. These observations were often of relatively distant places, spaces or events, such as a look back at a workplace situation. Sometimes they were associated with the transition from the smaller course community to the larger workshop group, or vice versa. Some were auto-ethnographic, as persons typically accustomed to positional authority worked to build their horizontal community-building skills, e.g., “As both the CP2 Workshop and the current course drew to a close, I noted that the personal dimension to my posts grew and that this resulted in a corresponding increase in the candor of other people.”
Only two learners had the ethnographer as their primary orientation. Some observations were through fresh eyes, observing something new and unfamiliar: in this case, the Company Command community from the U.S. Military Academy:
“What strikes me about their site, this presentation and their views on roles of the community leader and members is the sense of ENERGY, CARING, COACHING, COMPASSION, INCLUSION, ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, ENCOURAGEMENT, REGARD, and INTIMACY that seems to permeate their worldview in relation to their community. They seem to be able to cross the technical barriers of an online environment through exhibiting these qualities (e.g. words like ‘my brother’ and ‘rock on Ray’ and ‘awesome’ are used by a group leader replying to a member post).”
Sometimes communities of practice seem analogous to quantum mechanics where the very act of observing the result can change the result. How do you support something like that?
Observations had been coalescing for years were shared with the new community:
“Simplicity implies conscious action: Having swum in a sea of IT acronyms for years, I have come to realize that it is, usually, an unconscious development - a kind of tribal shorthand - to get to the point more quickly. Having just joined a new branch with an intense history that I don’t share, I see the same thing happen - acronyms, inferences, in-jokes - some of which can’t help but develop over time and the intensity of experience together. I think that Dave Snowden refers to this as ‘levels of abstraction’ - which get higher as the group learns. Perhaps some ‘initiation rites’ put in place to help welcome newcomers to these tribes? The secret handshake divulged? From my readings this is something that CoPs have consciously recognized. It’s not only the language but the experiential context that is so rich and yet can be a daunting boundary. And yet without reflecting on where we have come, it makes it difficult to share where we are. That’s something I have appreciated about being welcomed into this space. There seems to be a lot of conscious thought about helping newbies span this boundary between those who have experienced a lot together and those who are just dipping their toes in for the first time.”
Several observed systemic workplace boundary-related challenges:
“He also wants to keep control with which members are included and keep out anyone that is not of the [level of government] family. On one hand, I can see his point because he wants everyone to be able to speak freely on [level of government] matters, which you can’t do if you have non-xxx people in the room. However the original intent of this group was to help [social justice objective].”
Others related to some unanticipated impacts: “I did not foresee that my involvement would be construed as a threat to existing empires built around knowledge silos…”
Use of boundary-related graphics
Another enjoyable element of the journals was the way in which several learners chose to create graphics to depict boundary-related concepts.
An architect entry described different ways of envisioning boundaries (see Figure 3): ”I particularly like the distinction made that learning isn’t just something that happens to an individual in a social setting (left), but that learning happens across individuals (right). These graphics may not be how Etienne would describe it, but it helps me.”
Another architect post included Figure 4 to compare theorists’ ideas:
“Habermas’s domains of interest also resemble the Wenger’s work. Habermas lists three types of knowledge (working, practical and emancipatory), which resembles Wenger’s statement that identity, knowing and membership entail one another:
‘Knowing’ resembles working knowledge—• knowing what to do;
‘Membership’ resembles practical knowl• edge—interacting with others;
‘Identity’ resembles emancipatory knowl• edge—a knowledge of self.
The following figure is a generic representation of the convergence of both Habermas’s and Wenger’s theories. The peripheral group represents newcomers in a community (Wenger) or organic groups formed in civil society (Habermas). The core group represents old-timers (Wenger) or the political/administrative system that controls power (Habermas). The arrows represent the creative tension that exists in the interaction between newcomers and old-timers in a community (Wenger) or the tensions that occur as civil groups attempt to have their issues placed on the public agenda, followed by resistance from the center of power (Habermas). Finally, the dotted lines that connect each peripheral group represent the communication that is considered essential by both theorists: communication between members for Wenger and the development of “weak links” of communication between different communities or civil groups for Habermas.”
Another learner had coded journal entries using clip art in the margin. In reviewing the material, it was interesting to note that the following post, coded as “harvester” had been coded in the journal with his symbol for “a practical application”, which showed a handsaw cutting a log.
“I don’t know if I got that point across, but I really do appreciate the ‘coherence’ aspect. It will be a big part of any practical implementation plan for communities of practice at either [Company Name] or [related not for profit acronym].”
Table 2 shows the relative emphasis that each learner put on a given mode of conceptualization:
Reasons for the uneven distribution have not been studied. Course learning outcomes and journal structure encouraged people to explore different perspectives, which may account for some of the diversity within each individual. Learning style, gender and/or training/profession may have influenced patterns of conceptualization as well.
If there has been anything predictable about this course, it has been that almost everyone experienced phases of often intense boundary-related discomfort, and they moved through these phases iteratively with new insights and levels of confidence. Reviews were positive, with numerous comments along the lines of “It is the best learning experience that I have had in my academic life (three previous degrees and a graduate certificate).”
Published authors and learning journal authors
The differences between published and learning journal authors relates, in part, to the informal and reflective nature of journals. As stated earlier, the published work was more polished. It was generally more assertive and less reflective. These differences manifested themselves in ways in which boundaries were understood. Some published authors in the Filmmaker categories had reached firm conclusions about the nature and importance of boundaries or their importance for future focus. Others in the change-oriented categories identified specific applications in order to be more innovative, competitive, effective or ethical. Learners in the ethnographer and architect categories had some common ground with the filmmaker category, and the harvesters had the same sort of practical, applied focus as healers and entrepreneurs. However, learners in the course were typically more exploratory and tentative. The experiential nature of the learning, through the bridging of epistemologies was summed up by this quote a course journal: “I am now definitely aware of the difference between learning about a CoP and learning in a CoP… I always think of academics as learning about something, and in some ways that is a lot easier than learning in something - for me it requires more self confidence to do the latter.”
Scholars and practitioners in a wide range of disciplines are beginning to appreciate the importance of boundaries, edges and peripheries, and there is still much to be
All of these boundaries emerged as being worthy of discussion and reflection. As with the published authors, individuals thought about scales from micro to macro, and positioned themselves along the spectrum from reflective to active. Despite the fact that phenomenography—a method in which one tries to be completely open to others’ ways of understanding—was used, journal entries often reflected complexity principles.
Graduate learners and published authors differed somewhat in how they presented their understanding of boundaries. All the ways of conceptualizing boundaries that were explored in this two-part paper are pictured in Figure 5.
I don’t think the published vs. learning journal differences indicate a hierarchy in terms of knowledge, skills or maturity as much as they indicate differences between publishers’ expectations and the intense and active learning context of the course. The shape shifter category was the most dominant in the learner population, and shape-shifting involved identifying, reflecting on, and managing boundaries in an individualized way. It could seem inappropriate to reach and promote strong conclusions during a transformative period of reflection, and Figure 5 shows the shape-shifter category as one that influences everything below it. It is possible that differences on the vertical axis of this outcome space (Figure 5) would blur over time.
This graphic does not map out fixed, hierarchical relationships. This may be a function of the preliminary nature of this research or feminist biases (Hazel, et al., 1997). The author believes that if such relationships exist, and can improve the application and value of complexity thinking in organizations, they should be explored through further iterations or collaborations involving complexity theorists.