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In social sciences research on commercial R&D laboratories, boundary spanning is a term to describe individuals within an innovation system who have, or adopt, the role of linking the organization's internal networks with external sources of information. While the term was coined by Tushman, the concept was being developed by social scientists from the late 1950s onwards. Most of the early work was conducted in large American corporations with well established R&D laboratories. The term has since been used in relation to less well defined innovation networks.
The post-WWII years saw the burgeoning of the American corporation and in particular major R&D labs, for example, Tushman examined the "communication activity of all the professionals (N=345) in the R&D facility of large mid-Western U.S Corporation. The laboratory is isolated from the rest of the corporation and is divided into seven departments (divisional laboratories). The departments are, in turn, organized into separate project areas. The projects were stable over the course of the research and each respondent was a member of only one project." With this increase in spending on R&D, there was increased interest in the effectiveness of that spending and how to improve the efficiency of commercial research. Of course, all the academic research presented anonymous data from the firms with which they had been working so it is hard to know who the participating laboratories were.
The concept of a boundary spanning role has been popular throughout academic research into innovation systems with over 48,000 peer-reviewed articles referencing the term since 1958. With the exception of closed systems, all systems have a transference across their boundaries and this process is facilitated by the boundary spanner. As models of innovation developed, the role of the boundary spanner remained key in seeking out and bringing new ideas into the system or sub-system. Research has also found that boundary spanners tend to be opinion leaders. It should be noted that the role of the boundary spanner, is defined largely by where the boundary is drawn.
Internal boundary spanners
One challenge within the field of knowledge management, is that the collection & codification of explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge is frequently held in silos within the organisation. Boundary spanners are needed to move that knowledge around the organisation in a process sometimes referred to as socialisation.
External boundary spanners
Where the boundary of the innovation system of interest coincides with the boundary of the organisation, then the role takes on an extra dimension. Boundary spanning is a key element in the Acquisition capacity of a firm in Cohen's theory of absorptive capacity.
Individual boundary spanners
At the individual level, this may be equated to the Resource Investigator role within Belbin's Team Inventory.
The term boundary spanning is now widely used to describe any situation where an individual crosses the boundaries of a social group.
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