Selective permeability of boundaries in a knowledge brokering team

Published date01 December 2018
AuthorRoman Kislov
Date01 December 2018
Selective permeability of boundaries in a
knowledge brokering team
Roman Kislov
Alliance Manchester Business School, The
University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
Roman Kislov, Alliance Manchester Business
School, The University of Manchester, Booth
Street East, Manchester M13 9SS, UK.
Funding information
This work was supported by the National
Institute for Health Research Collaboration for
Leadership in Applied Health Research and
Care (NIHR CLAHRC) Greater Manchester.
Knowledge brokering teams are increasingly deployed in the public
sectorto promote coordinationand integrationacross previouslysep-
arated practices. Permeability of external boundaries surrounding
such teams is, however, often taken for granted and has so far
receivedrelatively little attention. To address this gap,this article pre-
sents thefindings of an in-depthqualitative longitudinal casestudy of
a knowledge brokering team operating in the fragmented healthcare
context. It argues that boundary spanning, which increases the per-
meabilityof the team boundary,can coexist withthe strategies of dis-
engagement, such as boundary buffering and boundary
reinforcement, which reduce permeability. The tension between
these seemingly opposing strategies can be resolved through selec-
tive permeability, wherebythe strength of the external team bound-
ary variesdepending on the out-group with whichthe team interacts,
the out-groups mode of participation, the individual boundary
spanner(s)deployed and thestage of the boundary spanning project.
The public sector is being transformed by postmodern patterns of organizing, including hybrid, network-based and
temporary arrangements where collaboration, governance and partnership unfold across multiple boundaries
(Williams 2012; Calvard 2014; Quick and Feldman 2014; Bucher et al. 2016). This has led to the growing interest in
the phenomenon of boundary spanning, which occurs when individual or collective agents connect entities separated
by a boundary by negotiating the meaning and terms of the relationship between them (Levina and Vaast 2005;
Kislov et al. 2017a). Policy initiatives increasingly rely on formally designated boundary spanning agencies, teams and
roles to increase the permeability of stickyboundaries and thus promote integration, coordination and joint working
between different organizational and professional groups (Williams 2012).
Previous studies suggest that the locus of boundary spanning activities has migrated from the organization
(Fennell and Alexander 1987) to the work unit level (Yan and Louis 1999; Cross et al. 2000; Edmondson 2002) and
that boundary spanning is an inherently collective phenomenon unfolding in broker chains(Waring et al. 2013) or
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12541
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits use,
distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial purposes.
© 2018 The Author. Public Administration published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Public Administration. 2018;96:817836. 817
systems of boundary bridges(Kislov et al. 2016). Despite the calls for the deliberate cultivation of knowledge bro-
kering teams, that is, teams that not only operate at the interface of multiple professional and/or organizational
boundaries but also have boundary spanning activities as part of their formal remit, most of the existing research
tends to focus on individual knowledge brokers acting within or between organizations (Kislov et al. 2017b). At the
same time, studies conducted in teams operating across boundaries are mostly preoccupied with the dynamics of
intra-team boundary crossing, rather than exploring issues pertaining to the external team boundary and its perme-
ability (Edmondson 2003; Oborn and Dawson 2010; Drach-Zahavy 2011; Edmondson and Harvey 2017).
Exploring these issues is, however, of significant importance due to the tension which stems from the dual
nature of boundaries as both junctures and barriers (Lamont and Molnár 2002; Kislov 2014; Quick and Feldman
2014) and is particularly prominent in teams with a formally designated boundary spanning function. On the one
hand, positive effects of boundary spanning on team performance are contingent on the degree to which the external
team boundary is permeable to knowledge flows (Workman 2005; Drach-Zahavy 2011). On the other hand, in addi-
tion to boundary spanning, teams partake in strategies of disengagement, such as boundary buffering and boundary
reinforcement. These types of boundary work(Gieryn 1983) are crucial for protecting the team and fostering shared
identity but significantly reduce the permeability of its boundary (Faraj and Yan 2009). While it has been proposed
that strategies of engagement and strategies of disengagement compete against each other (Choi 2002), their inter-
action at the same team boundary has so far received little empirical attention (Dey and Ganesh 2017).
This article addresses the following research questions. What is the interplay between different types of bound-
ary work in knowledge brokering teams? How does this interplay influence the permeability of the team boundary?
How do these phenomena change over time? It draws on an in-depth qualitative longitudinal case study of a knowl-
edge brokering team located within a large-scale collaborative partnership between a university and healthcareorga-
nizations whose task was to improve the provision of healthcare services to patients with heart failure. It shows that
the tension between different types of boundary work can be resolved through selective permeability, whereby the
strength of the team boundary may vary significantly depending on the out-group with which the team interacts, the
out-groups mode of participation, the individual boundary spanner(s) deployed and the stage of the boundary span-
ning project.
2.1 |Boundaries and knowledge brokering teams
Boundaries are frontiers or demarcations delimiting the perimeter and scope of a given domain (Kreiner et al. 2009),
reflecting the sociocultural differences between groups and potentially leading to discontinuities in action or interac-
tion (Akkerman and Bakker 2011). They are central to organizational life, and their nature is dual (providing both pos-
itive and negative effects on learning, knowledge sharing and implementation of change), composite (creating
complex boundary systems through intersection), and dynamic (subject to construction and reconstruction) (Hernes
2004; Kislov 2014). Boundaries can also be viewed as conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize
objects, people, practices, and even time and space(Lamont and Molnár 2002, p. 168). Existing both between and
within organizations (Schotter et al. 2017) and professions (Powell and Davies 2012), they demarcate flows of
authority, decisions and knowledge, defining work roles and relationships and signalling what is and is not allowed
(Dougherty and Takacs 2004).
These characteristics often put boundaries at the centre of political struggles between social groups, making
them an object of contestation (Lamont and Molnár 2002). While such contestation is often triggered by internal
struggles for authority, domination and power, it often unfolds in response to external stimuli, such as technological
innovation, organizational restructuring or policy change (Allen 2000; Burri 2008). The global policy trend towards
interprofessional and inter-organizational collaboration and network forms of governance creates the need for

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