Knowledge Management Spotlight: A Conversation About Boundaries

Lauren Trees's picture

In part one of our interview with Alice MacGillivray, she talks about boundaries, leadership, and use of edge-effect.

Alice MacGillivray, Ph.D., is a management consultant who works at the intersection of knowledge management, complexity, and leadership. Alice co-designed and directed the first MA in knowledge management and has published and presented at international conferences on KM and leadership topics.

Alice MacGillivray

You can read her blog 4KM.net and follow her on Twitter @4KM.

APQC’s 2014 Knowledge Management Conference, focused on the theme of “Improving Business Results Through Engagement & Collaboration,” will be held April 10-11 in Houston, Texas.

APQC: Alice, one of things I really love about your blog is your discussion of boundaries. Once boundaries are drawn, organizations tend to look inward towards governance, process, and structures. You wrote a wonderful abstract about how respected leaders work with boundaries and have success. What made the leaders successful in that situation?

Alice MacGillivray: Thank you; it is always a pleasure to connect with people who are interested in boundaries. I know the abstract you’re referencing. In it, I write: “We measure things, yet the real value may lie in the relationships amongst these things, especially as leaders face multidimensional challenges including climate change, terrorism, and enabling organizational learning.”

The successful leaders you are referring to used several strategies for boundary work, but I would like to focus on one here, for which I have coined the term edge-effect™. That term comes from the fields of biology and ecology, which is where my university education started way-back-when. Have you ever spent time around a river estuary? An estuary is a great place to see the edge-effect in action. Land meets water; air meets land; fresh water meets salt water; intertidal zones link land and sea. Each of these habitats is home to different species. But when the edge-effect comes into play, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Healthy estuaries are among the most productive places on the planet. They generate nutrients, including food for new species that move in, because all these different types of habitats bump up against each other and interact.

So what do habitats have to do with knowledge work? Great leaders seem to intuitively understand and use the edge effect. A manager—I am differentiating leadership and management here the way John Kotter does—a manager may work efficiently by looking inward and focusing on the success of his team and his team only. I suggest a great leader looks outward and constantly watches for the synergies that could develop when different people and groups bump up against each other and interact. They may not mix easily; they may not speak the same language (literally or figuratively); they may have different values and norms and cultures. But if they can learn to work across boundaries, the whole may be much greater than the sum of the parts.

And the “parts” vary. They might be different parts of an organization. Or they might be different companies. The fresh water might be the company and the salt water might be a worldwide community of practice learning about something central to the company’s business. Other parts might be suppliers, customers, shareholders, competitors, researchers, or consultants.

Sometimes these leaders know they need specific expertise. They say something like: “Get on the phone with local universities and that cultural institute in town and find a cross-cultural communication specialist you’d like to work with on this project.” Sometimes they try experimental probes: “For our next meeting, bring in someone from a section we’ve never worked with, and we’ll see what comes of it.” Sometimes they create a sort of intellectual estuary space—a business incubator or think tank perhaps—and they protect participants from some day-to-day responsibilities so they can dig deeply into a topic and perhaps launch some innovations.

APQC: Tell us about some examples you’ve seen in practice.

Alice MacGillivray: Sure. Let me share two of many stories about use of edge-effect. The first is from a police department. We all know that police departments tend to have command and control cultures. The people who come up through these systems to become chiefs of police have been immersed in these cultures and typically thrive in them. That was true of Todd Wuestewald when he became chief. However, because of the style of the previous chief, the morale of the department, and Wuestewald’s observation that knowledge was being hoarded in a climate of fear, he knew he had to do something very different. So he created a leadership team. The team was extremely diverse (AKA estuary-like). There were junior and senior members, sworn and civilian members, and union and non-union members. Membership rotated over time. This team was responsible for all the big policy decisions, including ones that had plagued police departments for decades. Much to some onlookers’ surprise, they worked through these difficult decisions with respectful dialogue, intense research, and breakthroughs supported by the whole department. Furthermore, this leadership approach became a springboard for other changes. Innovative programs started to spring up within the department and in collaboration with other departments such as fire and rescue. They even won international competitions against much larger and more experienced departments. The whole definitely became greater than the sum of the parts.

The second example is from a counterterrorism network. An exercise had been set up to test and practice skills in a realistic scenario. Based on previous experience, one leader we will call Jane knew that the people going into the exercise were likely to focus on certain things with which they were comfortable and familiar. Those things did not include dealing with the complexities of human and crowd dynamics and the risks to human health, which were interests of hers. So Jane arranged to “throw 50 rowdies” who could not be ignored into the exercise. This added to the diversity of the “estuary” suddenly and dramatically. The edge-effect was intense. People learned a lot, and the steepness of their learning curves was a wake-up call for the importance of diverse input. The scope of the group’s expertise and agility broadened appreciably as a result of Jane’s boundary work.

APQC: You have talked about the fact that, when boundaries start to blur, tensions, risks, and benefits may emerge. If boundaries are starting to blur, what is a sign the risks are starting to outweigh the benefits?

Alice MacGillivray: Arguably, there are always power issues around boundaries. A group on one side of the boundary has more power than a group on the other. Before Chief Wuestewald created the leadership team, he had far more power than the rest of the department. Before throwing rowdies into the exercise, Jane had less power than the rest of the group. Perhaps headquarters has more power than field offices or the American office has more power than the European office or men have more power than women or finance has more power than the environmental sustainability department.

One way of answering your question is to watch for backlash, which indicates change is happening too quickly for some people. If those in power are investing effort in making the boundary stronger and more rigid, without dialogue about why that is a reasoned response to what they are seeing, risks are increasing. When people actively work to shore up boundaries, human emotions and defensiveness are often at play, and these cloud judgment. When boundaries are reinforced and rigid, knowledge becomes more siloed; it can even be risky to share knowledge across such a boundary.

APQC: So how could that siloed knowledge play out?

Alice MacGillivray: Risks have probability and impact elements. Let’s say the environmental sustainability department is becoming concerned about a supplier. There is growing evidence that the supplier’s practices are unethical, perhaps illegal, or upsetting customers. There are rumors of boycotts. The sustainability section informs the CFO, but switching suppliers would be costly. The ESD director develops a reputation as negative and obstructionist and is firmly marginalized. As the boundary between finance and the environmental sustainability department becomes more rigid, it becomes almost impossible to assess risks to reputational capital and sales. Without good dialogue, there is no good outcome for future knowledge sharing and potential win-wins.

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