Brokers and boundary objects

As Wenger says (1998, p. 75): “members of a community of practice are not homogeneous. Indeed it is their diversity that allows the community to operate more effectively.” Each individual will possess a different configuration of resources, whether these be skills, perspectives on problems, friendship networks, background knowledge, etc. Each will be members of multiple communities whether inside or beyond work. Thus, everyone is potentially a broker between different communities, bridging gaps which exist between them, and allowing for new, shared perspectives to emerge.

Shared Raspberry Pi activity

Shared tasks and activities help bring people together and help develop shared perspectives.

At times, artefacts or spaces of various kinds can also play this bridging role. In Tagliaventi and Mattarelli’s (2006) study of a hospital, they noted how pieces of equipment could serve as common ground for different professional groups such as doctors, technicians and nurses. Each would use the equipment for different reasons, but that is why the artefacts then served as a focus around which learning (about the views of the other groups) could take place. Spaces like consulting rooms served a similar purpose. Susan Leigh Star called such artefacts and spaces boundary objects.

In our case studies we have worked with teams that are made up of representatives from different professional groups. For instance, academic libraries bring together managers, subject librarians, those with a responsibility for user service and collections, web specialists, teaching librarians, research support officers and more. They may also work in different locations, yet still have to jointly run projects, or co-manage everyday tasks. In such circumstances, taking time to learn about the views and perspectives of other groups is important to the effective co-ordination of action, but spaces and opportunities to do so may be lacking. Regular team meetings fulfill the role to some extent but are usually constrained by fixed agendas that dissuade more exploratory discussions.

Ketso mapping session

Different professional groups come together around a Ketso map at Høgskolen i Bergen.

Feedback from our case study participants has shown that the mapping sessions provide the necessary space in their own right. At around 90 minutes, they are relatively easy to fit into busy work schedules. The mapping exercise then focuses attention on the jointly-completed task at hand, but does not constrain what can be said in the session or placed on the map in the way of a formal agenda. Thus, the map acts as a boundary object, as well as a record of the conversation which took place: minutes of meetings can perform this role but are not usually taken in ways that allow for their review and subsequent adaptation in the next meeting.

In short, the map, the shared boundary object, works as a learning exercise for the members of the community of practice that comes into being around it.