The importance of boundary spanners - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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The importance of boundary spanners

Published by in Reflections ·
I have not been able to write any blogs recently because all of my time has been taken up with finalising the manuscript for my new book. Provisionally entitled "Performance and evaluation: a systems thinking approach", I eventually managed to get everything packaged up sent off to Routledge, my publishers, by the end of last week and so this should hopefully now be published towards the end of 2016.

It has taken about two years to put the book together, pulling together experiences from work that I have done and my ongoing studies with the Open University. Taking that amount of time has some advantages but also means that what you learn over time makes the content of sections written early on seem somewhat inadequate. There is also the problem of changing writing styles as time goes by: what seemed a good way to do it in 2014 was not by 2016. These inconsistencies were exposed by the review process. I asked a number of trusted associates to look at the draft manuscript and their comments were invaluable, pointing out how the logic of the structure could be improved and identifying weaknesses in words, sentences and paragraphs.

It made me realise that a fundamental problem with the book was bringing together two academic disciplines, the training world and the systems thinking world. A core theme within the book is about learning as a networked activity, of connections of people in groups. One of the topics I discussed within the book is that of Social Network Analysis, a way of quantifying how people work together. Some early research within this field was by Mark Granovetter, whose article "The strength of weak ties" looked at how working-class people relied on social networks to find information about job opportunities. He saw that people have both strong ties, those with friends and family, and weak ties with friends of friends and infrequent contacts. His research showed that the people who were most useful for identifying work opportunities were actually the weak ties, because these people were connected with other networks. They functioned as 'boundary spanners', a term coined by Michael Tushman to describe people who form connections between networks, and play an important part in helping information and ideas to move one network to another.

Receiving feedback from both training professionals and systems people made me realise that my book will be operating as a boundary spanner, that it tries to communicate training ideas to system professionals and vice versa. Really, the target for the book is training professionals so the priority will be for them to develop an understanding of how systems thinking ideas can be useful.

It remains to be seen how useful as a boundary spanner my book will become!



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