Boundary object (BO), originally introduced by Starr (1989), is a concept to refer to objects that serve an interface between different communities of practice. Boundary objects are an entity shared by several different communities but viewed or used differently by each of them. As Star points out, boundary objects in an organization work because they necessarily contain sufficient detail to be understandable by both parties, however, neither party is required to understand the full context of use by the other - boundary objects serve as point of mediation and negotiation around intent.
Boundary objects are flexible enough to adapt to local needs and have different distinct identities in
different communities, but at the same time robust enough to maintain a common identity across the
boundaries to be a place for shared work. Boundary objects are not necessarily physical artifacts such as
a map between two people: they can be a set of information, conversations, interests, rules, plans,
contracts, or even persons.
It is around BOs that Communities of Practice (CoPs) often gather. BOs are 'used' by members of different communities in very different ways, although the representation is shared. BOs are an important class of knowledge artifacts. They are center stage in the dynamics of knowledge exchange. BOs are also known as CISs (common information spaces).
Reports are a classic example of traces as boundary objects that the professionals and other members share. Faxed documents and email massages are also the boundary object among distributed members.
Information spaces, where particpants gather to exchange information, co-ordinate activites and create knowledge are another example of BOs
A library catalog, an order entry process, travel assistance request form, an organizational knowledge map, i.e. one of the products from your knowledge mapping project!
Boundary objects are a very useful way to structure and frame a knowledge mapping project. When you are identifying & tracking BOs be aware of issues around translation, closure, context, shared meaning. It is around BOs that Communities of Practice (CoPs) often gather. BOs are associated with process, meaning, participation, alignment and reification. They are thus center stage in the dynamics of knowledge exchange. Here are some pragmatics:
* Gather the name (this may change from community to community)
* Describe and record the roles, activities, authorities and responsibilities around the BO
* Map the workflow, the path and sequence from node to node
* Look for signoffs, trigger events, deviation heuristics and hand-offs.
* Check for learning points.
Record your findings in the BO register and on the knowledge map.
Having identified the boundary objects, mapped their flow, recorded their particulars in your register, you are now ready to tackle the next knowledge mapping step, mapping people. I recommend starting a knowledge mapping exercise with BOs for the following reasons:
1) It is not a personally sensitive area, gives you time to meet the staff on neutral ground.
2) BOs quickly highlight, bottlenecks, repositories and communities of practice.
3) Prepares the way for the more detailed personal interviews, you already have an understanding of the main objects, i.e., 'what' the staff are working with.
Some of the dynamics that boundary objects help structure