Boundary Spanners in Education

Boundary spanners search for information in one group (sending group), transform the information, and transmit it to another group (receiving group), which incorporates it into their daily routines. In the picture below the red square in the center is a boundary spanner, as he is part of the red circle nut has also connections (lines) to people in the grey circles. Boundary spanners are important for spreading information and innovations through organizations, as they bridge the whole between different groups. In some cases, boundary spanning is part of the job description, other times people end up in these positions thanks to their interaction patterns.

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Meredith Honig (University of Washington), describes in detail how central office administrator, holding formal boundary spanning positions, fulfilled their official role of connecting the central office with schools and other community programs. While these staff members spoke the ‘local language’ of schools and community programs, they were not well enough integrated within the central office. This lack of connection with the ‘receiving group’ meant that information was not incorporated into daily routines. Central office administrator were thus not able to transfer information, and act as successful boundary spanners.

Also in the study by Alan Daly (University of San Diego) and Kara S. Finnigan (University of Rochester) on the leadership network in a school district, those individuals who had the opportunity to act as a bridge between the central office and schools, failed to do so. Information flow between central office and principal was mainly technical, principals responding to requests from central office staff. Compared to Meredith’s study, information search in the sender group (the schools) was unsuccessful, with staff not seeking detailed information from principals. Communication was focused internally, with central office staff communicated often with each other.

The failures of boundary spanners in those two studies can be traced back to their official job description which made information search or information transformation difficult to accomplish. A study by James P. Spillaine (Northwestern University) and assistant professor Megan Hopkins (Penn State) provides proof for this. They show that the interaction pattern between teachers and other staff is different for each subject. This difference is not because of the disciplinary background, but because of the organizational routines in place to support student learning in the respective subject. It is the organizational routines which made boundary spanners successful or unsuccessful.

Studies on boundary spanners in business literature have also highlighted two other important factors for boundary spanners to be successful. Marco Tortoriello (IESE Business School), Ray Reagans (MIT), and Bill McEvily (University of Toronto) conducted a study in a large multinational technological firm among 249 scientists, grouped into 49 teams spread over 16 laboratories. They wanted to see what makes boundary spanners successful (i.e. when is the transferred information also used). Knowledge was most often transferred across units if the two people involved in the transfer had a strong tie, the higher the network cohesion of the sending and the receiving group, and the higher the boundary spanners network range. Focusing on a couple of boundary spanning ties (maybe at the expense of lower tie strength) provides the best potential for innovation. Boundary spanners are then connected with people from a lot of different groups. This provides more chances to have access to new, insightful innovations.

Gina Dokko (UC Davis), Aimée A. Kane (Duquesne University), and Marco Tortoriello confirms the importance of cohesion in their study on researchers. Boundary spanners who identified with a common superordinate identity, an identity which includes the sending and receiving group, were more creative. By identifying with both groups, boundary spanners were strongly committed to the goal of both groups and did not feel that one group was inferior. This identity creates the feeling that both groups are central for the boundary spanners, helping his/her performance.

Implications for Schools

From research on boundary spanners in schools we have learned that school routines hinder boundary spanners to be effective and that staff prefer to communicate with others who hold the same position. To increase cross-group communication, based on the results from the business literature, teachers and other staff members should identify strongest with the school instead of with their subject, grade level, or profession. Professionals should also be members of several groups and in each group develop a strong tie to one person. By having a strong tie to one person, energy is concentrated on building a relationship with this person. By having a strong tie, explicit and implicit, hard to explain information, can be shared.

Sources:

Daly, A. J., Finnigan, K. S., Moolenaar, N. M., & Che, J. (2014). The critical role of brokers in the access and use of evidence at the school and district level. In K. S. Finnigan & A. Daly (Eds.), Using Research Evidence in Education: From the Schoolhouse Door to Capitol Hill (pp. 13–31). Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-04690-7_3

Dokko, G., Kane, A. A., & Tortoriello, M. (2014). One of Us or One of My Friends: How Social Identity and Tie Strength Shape the Creative Generativity of Boundary-Spanning Ties. Organization Studies, 35(5), 703–726. doi:10.1177/0170840613508397

Honig, M. I. (2006). Street-Level Bureaucracy Revisited: Frontline District Central-Office Administrators as Boundary Spanners in Education Policy Implementation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 28(4), 357–383. doi:10.3102/01623737028004357

Spillane, J. P., & Hopkins, M. (2013). Organizing for instruction in education systems and school organizations: how the subject matters. JOURNAL OF CURRICULUM STUDIES, 45(6), 721–747. doi:10.1080/00220272.2013.810783

Tortoriello, M., Reagans, R., & McEvily, B. (2012). Bridging the Knowledge Gap: The Influence of Strong Ties, Network Cohesion, and Network Range on the Transfer of Knowledge Between Organizational Units. Organization Science, 23(4), 1024–1039. doi:10.1287/orsc.1110.0688

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