Communicating across organizational boundaries

By Adrian Wolfberg

Adrian Wolfberg (biography)

What do researchers, stakeholders and end-users need to know about organizational boundaries so that they can communicate effectively when collaborating to build and achieve common goals? What does it mean to communicate effectively? How is shared meaning acquired? Why is it so difficult?

Organizational boundaries are socially constructed distinctions created intentionally to foster specific patterns of behavior by one set of individuals that are different from other sets of individuals. They have a double-edged value: positive and negative. On the positive side, creating boundaries potentially allows us to focus, and thereby deepen and specialize knowledge and activity. The negative side is control, where management and/or culture inflexibility thwarts the agility needed for crossing boundaries.

Boundaries come in many forms. Here I focus on structural and conceptual boundaries, reviewing four types of each as summarized in the figure below. I focus particularly on the implications of these boundaries for language and communication.

Types of organizational boundaries (Source: Wolfberg 2017)

Structural boundaries

Four structural boundaries are particularly relevant for communication.

  1. Vertical boundaries within an organization serve to create distinctions between levels of control across and within functions (such as research, teaching and administration in a university). One consequence of vertical boundaries is the limit of the parochial viewpoint one acquires from operating within a specific level of hierarchy. Managing control occurs through generalizable language of “what to do.” Dearborn and Simon’s (1958) seminal study showing the inability of subordinate executives to see the overall picture that the company president sees is an example of this consequence.
  2. Horizontal boundaries within an organization provide a focus on specialized or unique expertise within a common function, where specific knowledge is developed, thus creating and using unique language associated with precise meaning. This uniqueness in language serves to reinforce distinctions that separate from others and is further compounded with the creation and use of unique metaphors to ease or quicken communication between members within a horizontal boundary. The challenge is to discover a common understanding between unique languages. In a research context, common horizontal boundaries are those between disciplines.
    The combined effect of vertical and horizontal boundaries makes communication through these boundaries a challenge, especially at the intersection of these boundaries which is where generalization and specialization of language and communication collide.
  3. External boundaries separate members within an organization from other entities that their organization interacts with. For example, for a research organization, external boundaries separate it from stakeholders in research projects and end-users such as business or government organizations. Each separate entity will have its own generalized and specialized languages, which will differ from those of other entities, further compounding the communication challenge of establishing a shared understanding. The initial conceptualization of a boundary spanner was an individual within an organization who was able to understand and translate knowledge originating from outside their organization into meaning understandable by members within their organization.
  4. Geographic boundaries affect cultures, identities, and ethnicities, with obvious flow-on effects for language and communication.

Conceptual Boundaries

There are also four conceptual boundaries that are particularly relevant for communication.

  1. Efficiency-based boundaries have cost minimization or cost control as their primary objective, and focus on cost as the currency of exchange.
  2. Power-based boundaries have their primary objective as identifying the span of control over which an organizational entity has influence over others, and focus on relationship management as the currency of exchange.
  3. Competence-based boundaries have their primary objective as identifying who has the resources needed to complete the mission, and focus on resources (people, money, and facilities) as the currency of exchange.
  4. Identity-based boundaries have their primary objective of establishing and maintaining a common way in which individuals make sense of incoming and workflow information, and focus on an organizational identity as the currency of exchange.

Communicating within and across conceptual boundaries (within and across organizations) also opens multiple possibilities for misunderstanding.

Boundaries and communication

Detecting the existence of, and recognizing the character of, layers of boundaries is therefore a key communication competency. The character of a boundary consists of three nested levels of communication:

  1. the structure of sentences and paragraphs (ie., the syntax);
  2. the meaning of these elements (ie., its semantics, or how words are used to mean certain things);
  3. the knowledge of how these meanings can be applied to understand each person’s worldview (ie., the pragmatic impact of their meaning in a person’s context, how we say things, the body language associated with language, etc.).

The boundary challenges within and between organizations become most acute at the semantic and pragmatic levels. When there is a large difference within or between either or both levels, there will be great difficulty in communicating across boundaries, because each person on one side of a boundary has difficulty understanding the person on the other side of a boundary. The reason for the difficulty is that individuals who work inside a boundary space have common assumptions, participate in the same work-related routines, and interpret thought and actions in much the same way. These commonalities do not usually exist across boundaries.

Crossing such communication chasms is not a simple task. It requires identifying and unpacking which structural and conceptual boundaries exist and need to crossed, so that a common basis for understanding can be built.

Does this resonate with your experience of effective communication needed to cross boundaries? Do you have additional insights to share?

To find out more:
Wolfberg, A. (2017). At the street-level intersection of organizational boundaries: Competencies for sustainable change. In, A. Wolfberg, K. J. Smith, D. Blumenthal and K. Wooley, Boundary spanning in practice: Broadening the conversation. Senior Fellows and Friends, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: 19-49. (Online – Open access):

Dearborn, D. and Simon, H. (1958). Selective perception: A note on the departmental identification of executives. Sociometry, 21, 2: 140-144.

Biography: Adrian Wolfberg PhD is currently a senior research fellow at the National Intelligence University, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. His research interests include knowledge transfer, decision-making, effects of information overload and ambiguity on knowledge production, organizational learning, creativity, organizational and temporal boundaries, and boundary crossing.

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