The boundaries between humans and collective association of humans are one of the most dynamic resources for work and development. Nature generated physical affordances that hinder human movement, but humans barely ever accept them. Humans open pathways through jungles, build bridges across rivers, and fly over the ocean.
Nevertheless, humans draw their own boundaries too with fences, walls, maps, and languages. Those boundaries may be even more difficult to cross than the natural ones due to prohibition, penalties, or bureaucracy. As history unfolds, an invisible boundary may become harder and harder to cross, up to the point that physical artifacts are built to reinforce it. These can, of course, be destroyed later to signify reunion even that doens’t mean the boundary is gone. It may remain active in the collective memory still.
Boundaries stems from differences between cultures and organizations. However, these differences are not immutable. In fact, they change quite fast. A homogeneous group of people can be quickly fragmented by the spread of a separatist ideology. Conversely, an heterogeneous group can be reunited by integrative technologies. In any case, the differences will not go away, but change into something else.
In a capitalist society, the differences produced by organizations are shaped by competition and collaboration. These processes have a difference of their own regarding value. Competition aims at exchange value, whereas collaboration aims at use value. Since objects are produced both to be exchange and used, these processes are in contradiction. Boundaries emerge when the contradiction between exchange value and use value is manifested.
As mentioned before, the competition for exchange value reduces differences to quantitative scales: cost, productivity indicators, product features, stock price, and so on. These differences do not lead to boundaries because they are produced to unite organizations on a common ground. They accept this situations because it facilitates trading commodities with the minimal tension.
Similarly, when people are collaborating to build an unique object together, they accept suggestions and new contributors because they want to make it good. A new person might bring a perspective that hasn’t been thought by the collaborators before. The differences here are qualitative and cannot be easily compared. People engaged with the collaboration for use vale refrain from being compared against each other. This is because the motivation stems from building something that represents the collective as a whole.
The contradiction rises when the unique object must be exchanged for something else and when, in the opposite direction, the commodity must have great use value. Boundaries emerge to protect use values from abuse and to negotiate exchange values without disclosing cost information. They make it more difficult to exchange as well as to use the object’s values.
I have studied the emergence of boundaries in construction projects as part of my PhD research. In The Netherlands, this type of project uses to involve many organizations, related to each other not by clear hierarchies. These organizations need to collaborate to deliver the construction object and at the same time to compete in the market for new projects.
To understand how boundaries emerge and are crossed in construction projects, our research team interviewed stakeholders from the many organizations involved. From what we’ve got, I tried to map the boundaries in a particular point in time of the project. Each boundary corresponds to a company and the triangles are their main activities. The resulting image is quite messy and probably not very accurate. The boundaries between organizations are for the most part invisible and fluid, but nevertheless active.
As mentioned in the last post, the organizations were trying to homogenize their differences through the adoption of integrated collaborative technologies. This didn’t work as expected and the boundaries remained active. At the center there is a lot of overlap in the concurrent engineering activity, when all the stakeholders meet to review and adjust the design together.
Well, not all the stakeholders. The user was not present and did not understand very well why so many alterations have been made to the design. Then, the user thought that changing the requirements late in the project would not be a problem. He bought a device that consumes extra electricity without consulting the engineers and caused a major rework in the design.
In retrospect, the professionals admitted that there was too much emphasis in setting the boundaries within the technological framework and little work in engaging the user through lesser technical means.
Based on the experience of this and other construction projects studied, I designed a board game about boundaries in construction projects: The Expansive Hospital. Each player takes a professional role and they choose either to compete or to collaborate with the others. If they play only within the boundaries of their role and do nothing extra, there is little chance they will succeed in the game as a group. They need to cross boundaries and produce further differences to win the game.
I tested the game with bachelor-level facility design students and the results show that the team that crossed boundaries to collaborate raised more capital. The figure below is a map of the players’ boundaries in one particular group of players.
Each player is a triangle and the boundaries around overlap if he shares an object with another player. There were little shared objects during the game, however, at some point the construction professionals collaborated to raise their own incomes at the expense of the hospital financial health. As a result of this strategy, the hospital built by this group was soon bankrupt and could not rise more than the initial capital.
In contrast, the other group of players managed to develop shared objects that mutually reinforce each other: patients — on the healthcare side of the table — and design — on the construction side of the table. With integrated facilities, the hospital could treat more patients and with more patients, the hospital could invest in more integrated facilities. The hospital built by this group raised four times the initial capital.
Players in both groups crossed boundaries, nevertheless, with different motivations. In the first group, players wanted to influence the others for their own benefit, whereas in the second group, they tried to build something that was good for the hospital first.
The conclusion of this study is that boundaries are not bad for competition or for collaboration. Boundaries are places where differences are confronted, for codestruction or for cocreation between the sides. The impact of boundaries at work organizations depends on the way each professional deals with them.