Boundary spanning – savvy networking for the 21st Century

Today, through technology, it has never been easier to connect with people we don’t know, and we do it almost without thinking, daily, even hourly, in a manner that couldn’t have been conceived only a few years ago. But behind this seemingly unconscious act lies some fundamental principles that, if we were to consider them in a more deliberate way, could be the key to our personal and professional fulfilment and success.

Boundary Spanning

What I’m referring to has been referred by some as ‘boundary spanning’. This term was popularised by organisational theorist Richard L Daft in the late ‘80s, and as a fundamental principle it actually has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with recognising that you, as one individual, or as a group of people in a department, a whole organisation, or even a country, will always be limited by the boundary that surrounds your component parts, no matter how capable and innovative you are. So to achieve ultimate fulfilment and success you need to reach out beyond these boundaries to add extra knowledge, know-how and resources, without being restricted by a fear of being over-exposed.

The benefits of boundary spanning can be substantial. It is often said that success is built on relationships – “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. Interestingly, though, boundary spanning is most successful when the relationships extend to the furthest possible point away from its starting point, because these people and organisations are more likely to be able to connect you with those who are otherwise beyond your reach. Although it may feel more comfortable to build strong relationships with people by re-connecting with them on a repeated basis, in fact the proximity of their networks are likely to be so close you could probably reach out to them yourself. Reaching out further, beyond the ‘low hanging fruit’, is likely to prove to be a much richer source of opportunities.

Mark Granovetter, a highly acclaimed sociologist and Professor at Stanford University, was an early advocate of boundary spanning based on this theory, and his acclaimed article “The Strength of Weak Ties” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1973 recognises that most network models deal implicitly with strong ties, however the development of weak ties is far more effective in helping information and ideas to move from one network to another.

This, of course, is easier said than done. There are many barriers to being an effective boundary spanner. Fear of the unknown. The obvious vulnerability associated with moving out of our comfort zone. The risks associated with confessing that we don’t have all of the answers. Plus, of course, the potential for conflict as we stray into new territories where aren’t familiar with the landscape or culture. To make a success of boundary spanning the odds really are stacked against us.

But who ever said that being successful was easy!

Boundary Spanning in Practice

Enough of the theory. Practically speaking, how do we practice boundary spanning to the benefit of ourselves and our organisations? Here are a few examples of where boundary spanning can work, or  could work with a slight shift in thinking.

Boundary spanners can manage complex problems by developing unique collaborations through employing the skills of influence and negotiation, and critically by being prepared to understand the different motives, roles and responsibilities of people and organisations that do not naturally fit with their own;

Entrepreneurial people and small businesses often tend to suffer from scarcity of resources relative to their larger counterparts – financial, physical, but also the time and attention span of the entrepreneur. Boundary spanning can enable entrepreneurial organisations to compete because they are able to continue to innovate through integrating information from external sources into the innovation process whilst avoiding additional investment;

There’s often a major reticence by organisations to recruit people who are not ‘home-grown’ in their own industry or sector, on the assumption that if you understand the detail you’re more likely to be able to provide effective leadership. As a result opportunities are lost for organisations looking for better results, but that are short-sighted in their recruitment processes, not recognising the transferrable skills and competencies that a boundary spanner can bring.

Boundary spanning organisations recognise that investing resources in developing relationships beyond the obvious networks provides green, open space for business development whilst the competition are falling over themselves selling to the ‘usual suspects’.  I recently delivered an enterprising leadership workshop with a forward thinking Architectural company in Beijing that had empowered a professional architect in  their team to act as their boundary spanner, resulting in far greater brand awareness and engagement that was streets ahead of their closest competitors.

The development of social capital is well known to be key for the development of people and organisations, but if we are prepared to stretch our networks to their absolute limits, there is no doubt that the effect can be transformational. I’m not sure who said it – maybe Einstein or Henry T Ford – but when it comes to boundary spanning I would definitely agree that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.