The use of boundary objects for purposeful change in higher education

Kevin E Kirby, University of Pennsylvania


Purposeful change on a large scale in academic institutions is difficult. This study proposed the expansion of an existing concept from the sociology of science (boundary objects) and used it for a new purpose as a tool for both understanding and implementing planned change through collaborative processes. Boundary objects are things that coordinate the perspectives and information needs of intersecting social worlds towards some purpose. That is, boundary objects are shared tools for solving problems across different contexts. These objects may have different meanings in different communities, but they are recognizable to both and serve the purpose of translation. The concept of boundary objects has been used mostly in the domains of information technology, knowledge management, communities of practice, and project management, all emphasizing the sharing and transfer of knowledge. Many things have the potential to become boundary objects, but they all must be designed and used to manage the tensions between parties with different interests and their collective need for collaboration. An example of a boundary object is a physical prototype of a new automobile, which allows designers, engineers, sales and marketing professionals, and production staff to structure the communication and information needs between individuals and groups. For this study, the concept of boundary objects was integrated with three other theories (boundary-spanning and boundary organizations, the sociology of knowledge, frame analysis) to create a new framework for how boundary objects can be used for purposeful change. The new theory was then tested on a planned change effort at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to create a new campus at Mission Bay. The formation of the new campus served as a boundary object for the diverse set of stakeholders involved (college administrators, faculty, community groups, elected officials, and city administrators) and was purposefully used to facilitate the strategic change agenda (beyond the provision of new space) of the UCSF chancellor. This study concludes that boundary-spanning tools (objects, organizations, and brokers) can be effectively employed for purposeful change in higher education, as demonstrated in the UCSF case study, and then generalizes those lessons to other purposeful change efforts.

Subject Area

Higher education|School administration

Recommended Citation

Kirby, Kevin E, "The use of boundary objects for purposeful change in higher education" (2006). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3209974.