Boundary object is a term from sociology used to describe something that helps two disciplines exchange ideas and information, even when their languages and methods may be very different. Today I was in a call with a couple of colleagues, Lou Rosenfeld and Marko Hurst, who were describing a problem that’s very familiar to many of us — the problem of communicating and sharing work between disciplines that are very different. In the case that we were discussing today, one discipline was data analytics, which is very quantitative in nature, very data-driven, in contrast to the other, user experience design, which is primarily quantitative, design-driven. The problem is that the two disciplines think of their work very differently and use different language and tools to approach their work. In a paper titled Languages of Innovation, researchers Alan Blackwell and David Good identify the language problem involved in transferring knowledge from the academic world to industry:
“One might imagine the university as a reservoir of knowledge, perhaps contained within books and the heads of individual academics, from which portions of knowledge can be poured out into the heads of recipients outside the university walls. But which of the available languages might this knowledge be expressed in, and how might it be translated into the languages current in business, industry, government and public service each of which have their own lingua franca? Scholarship does not exist in any form independent of language, so the transfer of scholarly knowledge either takes place in the disciplinary language in which it was formulated, or must be translated.”
This is the challenge many organizations have in conveying information between disciplines, and Blackwell and Good have some very constructive insights in their paper, which I encourage you to read. The ideas in that paper, and the subsequent conversation with two colleagues about some very real problems they were having translating information between “data people” and “design people” resulted in the idea of the boundary matrix. Here’s how it works:
1. First, identify what information needs to be exchanged between the disciplines:
(a) determine what kinds of questions discipline X must ask to get relevant and meaningful information from discipline Y, and
(b) determine what kind of form the answer to the question from discipline X might take, if answered by someone from discipline Y. This could be a document or artifact that is ready and available, or it might involve terms that are specific to discipline Y. For example, a designer who wanted to understand user behavior might need to ask for search terms and click-through rates.
(c) repeat the above from the perspective of discipline Y.
2. From examining these exchanges you should be able to create two lists, one for discipline X and one for discipline Y. Each list element contains a brief description of the discipline-specific term and why it should be important to the other discipline. For example user behavior > search terms, click-through rates.
In the sketch above, these descriptions are labeled A, B, C, D for discipline X and 1, 2, 3, 4 for discipline Y.
3. Now look at your matrix and see if you can find how each cell relates to an area of strategic interest for your company or team. These interior cells represent the points where the disciplines intersect with larger areas of shared interest. If you can’t find the strategic connection that might indicate that the activity might have outlived its usefulness or could be of dubious value to the organization.
The completed chart is your boundary matrix — a “cheat sheet” for managers as well as people from disciplines X and Y, that will allow them to communicate more effectively and quickly navigate to areas of strategic priority or shared interest. This is a new idea and has yet to be tested but I think it holds real promise.
I suspect that the initial value to cross-disciplinary teams will be the conversations it forces about what each discipline does and why it is important to the other discipline, or the organization as a whole. The conversations themselves are an education and culture-building process that will lead to better collaboration, and the better those conversations, the better the boundary matrix that will result.