Collaboration Across Social Boundaries: A Practical Guide

A person and a group of people are separated by a yellow line.
(Photo by iStock/Andrii Yalanskyi)

A local public health official has been tasked with increasing vaccine use in an underserved community. She has extensive training in the science of infectious diseases, but to reach large numbers of unvaccinated people, she will need help from church leaders, the local school board, and the organizers of a large outdoor concert. She has no experience with these types of organizations, yet their trust and cooperation are prerequisites for success.

A microbiologist discovers a bacteria that produces a chemical with anticancer properties. Making the most of this discovery will require lab techniques and clinical trials that are well beyond his training and resources. Bringing the discovery to market through a startup company is an exhilarating but intimidating prospect, as the scientist has no private sector experience.

The leaders of a nonprofit community garden want to help residents move up the value chain by selling food products from their homes, but state law restricts food production to commercial kitchens or farms. Changing the law will require lobbying strategies, connections to policy makers, and legal expertise. These are far outside the skill set of their staff, but progress will be painfully slow without a supportive policy environment.

In each of these scenarios, promoting public well-being requires reaching out across social boundaries. Sometimes these social boundaries are academic disciplines. In other cases, they are organizations, industries, professions, or cultures. Crucially, this “boundary spanning” activity (to use the term coined by organizational theorist Michael Tushman in 1977) is not just for innovators who have the resources and inclination to approach things differently. To make progress on our most pressing public problems actually requires reaching out across social boundaries.

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“The crucial insight,” write governance scholars Christopher Ansel and Jacob Torfing, “is that no single actor has the knowledge, resources, and capacities to govern alone in our complex and fragmented societies.” Parents who want safe bike routes to schools discover they need to learn about the practices of urban planners and traffic engineers. An entrepreneur hoping to market affordable solar finds it necessary to collaborate with architects, materials scientists, and roofing contractors. Water managers conclude that their shared underground resource requires a regional association bringing together small and large cities and rural areas with vastly different organizational cultures. On any given day, advocates for the unhoused might interact with police, mental health professionals, job training centers, real estate experts, and immigration attorneys.

Simply put, social change requires social collaboration.

What, then, can be done to encourage boundary spanning? The task at hand goes beyond the academic concept of interdisciplinarity, which is often used as a semantic shortcut to signify broader collaborations across professional and social boundaries. This linguistic imprecision obscures some of the distinctive advantages, and unique challenges, that arise in collaborations outside of academia. It is one thing for a middle-class PhD in physics to walk 100 yards across the campus green to sit down with a middle-class PhD in economics so they can scribble equations together. It is quite another to enter the type of collaboration that our colleague Ziyad Duron undertook, as an academic engineer collaborating with firefighters on the development of an early warning sensor system to detect structural instability when battling fires.

Our personal interest in this area is inspired by our collective 50 years of practical experience with boundary spanning. One of us is an academic biochemist with interdisciplinary training and experience collaborating with community organizations on AIDS research and prison education. The other is an academic political scientist with a background in biology and experience working with environmental organizations, artists, finance executives, and video game developers.

Insights from those experiences, plus research in community engagement, network theory, interdisciplinary studies, and collaborative governance have helped clarify the phenomenon of boundary spanning and its vital place in social change work. They have also pointed us to some essential best practices for anyone setting out to collaborate across boundaries.

Crossing the Border

Social boundaries are the borderlands separating distinctive social systems. These systems are collections of individuals and groups who share common interests and goals. Examples of social systems include Iowa corn growers, recreational cyclists in Bogotá, Renaissance literature professors, NASCAR fans, Buddhist community organizers in Vietnam, and lobbyists in Washington DC.

Each of these systems develops unique and self-reinforcing characteristics, practices, and vocabularies. Universities, for example, all have an admissions office, grades, cafeterias, libraries, these things called professors, and a college president. Any university that tries to dispense with these things will face competitive pressure to conform with the industry standard.

Members of a social system tend to be more receptive to ideas spread by other members of that social system and who share personal characteristics such as a common culture, profession, ethnicity, age, gender, interests, or geographical area. In this respect, social systems are remarkably insular. Even social systems that we might think of as especially attuned to diverse points of view, such as international diplomats or experimental filmmakers, develop norms and routines that clearly distinguish insiders from outsiders. The sociologist Everett Rogers introduced the term “homophily” to characterize this phenomenon whereby new ideas spread more easily among similarly situated people within a social system.

If boundary spanning is essential for social change, yet boundaries demarcate stubbornly insular systems, can such collaboration be accomplished? In practice, a wide range of cross-boundary collaborations can be achieved by applying the following practices.

1. Diversify your network

The social connections you will need for problem-solving are as unpredictable as the problems themselves. The partnerships required are often novel and difficult to predict—witness the many ad hoc collaborations during the COVID pandemic that brought together public health officials, researchers, regulators, educators, and countless private sector actors. Social problems rise, fall, and evolve, sometimes quite rapidly. Therefore as a general practice, forging connections with individuals from a wide range of backgrounds outside of one’s tight-knit social and professional circles is a wise investment in a resource that can be mobilized in the future.

Every person has multiple attributes that can serve as a basis for homophily with different groups. A person who is a (1) Sikh (2) female (3) engineer who (4) graduated from Michigan State, (5) loves soccer, and (6) lives in Tampa has at least six (and certainly many more) attributes potentially in common with others. These interpersonal ties need not be strong in order to be effective. On the contrary, our strongest connections—measured by frequency and intensity of interaction—tend to be with people who operate in the same social circles that we do and therefore have redundant connections and knowledge. It is the weaker ties—the engineer’s college roommate who is now a television producer in Mexico City—that provide access to resources one does not already possess.

Consider the importance of those who span diverse communities for addressing the scenario described earlier, in which a change in state law is needed for marketing community-grown food products. How might a community-based organization forge a working relationship with a state lobbyist, given the difference between these social systems? The local organization could identify someone working at the intersection of food and legal advocacy. They are homophilous with respect to the food industry, which facilitates trust through a shared repertoire of concepts, experiences, values, and expressions—in short, a meeting of minds. Similarly, when one of us (PS) wished to create an animated film to teach a challenging concept in political science, he reached out to a professor of animation at an art school. The animation professor, operating in both the academic and animation industry networks, served as a bridge, enabling the non-artist academic to access non-academic artists in the industry.

There are many examples of this bridging dynamic at play. In the early 2000s, a number of leaders within the American conservative evangelical community embraced climate change as a priority issue. This shift was initiated when a British climate scientist, who is also a devout Christian, attended a retreat where he met a prominent leader from the American Christian evangelical movement. As documented in the 2006 PBS special “Is God Green?,” it was the trust stemming from common membership in that religious community that led the evangelical leader to understand that this issue warrants urgent attention.

For students or recent graduates eager to develop their social networks, reaching out to alumni is a great start, taking advantage of homophily from their shared educational experience. But consider attending a conference on a topic outside your area of expertise. Spend time in another city. Learn a foreign language. Do not limit your social circles to those at your workplace, much less homophilous subsets thereof (entry-level employees of Division B), as tempting as it is for the ease of camaraderie among people similarly situated in a social system. Every instance of boundary spanning to address a current problem is simultaneously an investment in social capital that may be valuable for initiating (as yet undetermined) future collaborations.

Notwithstanding their importance for social problem-solving, social networks also serve to reinforce inequalities. Homophily and structural inequalities combine to ensure that disadvantaged actors not only have fewer resources, but are more likely to interact with other resource-deprived actors in their social networks. Thus when spanning boundaries, it is important to not only reach out to partners from traditionally marginalized communities but to provide opportunities for your collaborators to forge direct ties with members of your social networks, thereby enhancing the heterogeneity of their contacts and resources.

2. Respect multiple forms of knowledge

Tackling complex social problems requires the insights of people from wide-ranging areas of expertise. Boundary spanning therefore requires respect for multiple forms of knowledge, including information and understanding that is not conventionally recognized as technical expertise.

One of us (KH) learned this lesson firsthand while meeting with support groups for those living with HIV-AIDS in order to discuss the latest available treatments. Seemingly straightforward expert advice, like the value of automatic mail-order prescription refills to ensure consistency in doses, fell flat with an audience struggling with homelessness and lacking a consistent mailing address. Listening to and valuing the knowledge from the user group gave rise to novel suggestions like a central mailbox system.

Embracing multiple forms of knowledge can be challenging for those accustomed to judging someone’s qualifications based on their professional credentials. As MIT professor Donald Schön explained in his classic book The Reflective Practitioner, nearly every profession carries hard-wired hierarchies determining what counts as legitimate knowledge. The producers of these officially sanctioned ways of knowing (scientists, designers, artists, strategists) occupy the top positions in the hierarchy and are celebrated as experts, while those who have accumulated “practical” knowledge find themselves on the lower rungs of prestige. Many of the insights of those on the front lines of practice (youth leaders, bankers, bus drivers, farmers) are undocumented and untapped by decision-makers at the top. As a result, entire categories of knowledge that are essential for diagnosing and addressing the problems you need to solve may be invisible, requiring investigation and active listening.

Credentialed professionals in many fields rely on (but seldom acknowledge) insights from uncredentialed experts with firsthand knowledge of their objects of study. In the field of ecology, it is not uncommon for scientists to seek out locals who may not have advanced degrees but are intimately familiar with nearby species and landscapes. The broader lesson is not about discounting the scientist’s training—which is indeed unique from, and adds value to locally situated knowledge—but to render more visible the depth, value, and ubiquity of these other forms of expertise.

When a child psychiatrist meets with a room full of parents, two types of expertise are present, even if only one person has a nameplate with the letters “MD.” The same is true of an agronomist talking with a farmer about deep tilling practices, a political scientist discussing elections with a legislative aide, or a botanist speaking with a shaman about medicinal plants. The non-technical experts in these relationships possess “tacit knowledge,” based on experience that is often shared throughout social systems and handed down across generations, but perhaps not written down.

As is clear from these examples, respecting diverse forms of knowledge entails a shift in mindset. The first commandment of effective collaboration across boundaries is “be humble.” This advice applies not only to the limits of our personal knowledge, but also to the strengths and limitations of our entire fields. It is not just that one particular traffic engineer doesn’t have all the answers for safe street design, but rather the field of engineering does not have all the answers. Nor do psychology, economics, management science, critical theory, urban planning, operations research, or any other field. In his article “On Humility,” published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, doctor and Stony Brook University professor Jack Coulehan observes that “empathy requires hard work” but is well worth it. A humble mindset facilitates an openness to learning, thereby enriching our understanding of the problem at hand. It also makes collaboration more likely to succeed.

3. Understand system culture

Every social system develops a shared understanding of “how things are done around here,” and a newcomer who is unfamiliar with these elements of organizational culture will soon stumble. In independent theater, attending one another’s shows is a sign of respect and a common currency for forging working relationships. For independent building contractors, showing up unannounced at another contractor’s worksite would cause considerable confusion. Even within the same industry, the rules of the game may vary considerably from one subsystem to the next. In the publishing world, if an author wants to publish an academic book, she contacts the editor at a university press. If she aspires to reach a wider audience through a commercial publisher, it would be a faux pas to directly contact their editors, who only communicate via literary agents.

System culture varies considerably from place to place across seemingly similar types of activities. In Costa Rica, passing a law requires consulting widely with many constituencies; in authoritarian political systems, participatory approaches could land a legal reformer in prison. Each system develops its own language and style of communication. “Derivative” is a mathematical tool for a scientist, a financial contract for an investment banker, and an insult to a sculptor.

How does one acquire knowledge of system culture? You need not become an expert in the norms and practices of another social system—you can rely on your collaborators for this. The partnership will be more successful, however, if you quickly familiarize yourself with four key characteristics of the social system in which your collaborators operate: values, workflow, resources, and incentives.

First, learn about the values and priorities of the organization, industry, or community you are working with. It is unlikely that an organization will enter into, much less sustain, a collaboration that requires straying from its core goals, be it profit, protestantism, or particle physics. To familiarize yourself with these priorities—to be a “quick study” of system culture—entails careful observation. How do your collaborators talk about and measure success? What are their sources of professional pride? Who are the “heroes” of the system whom people often invoke in conversation, and what do their attributes and accomplishments tell you about what is valued in that system? In what ways do the members of an organization or community consider themselves to be different from their peers or competitors? What are the hierarchical relationships, organizational divisions, and informal friendships within that social system?

Second, stay attuned to the workflow of the social system in which your collaborators are situated. If you are collaborating with mayors in southern California, you need to know that most city halls are closed on Fridays. In the visual arts, your partners may disappear when the Venice Biennial is just around the corner. Newly minted PhD economists are ready for interviews in January, not August. In the nonprofit sector, the closing of the fiscal year in July carries big implications for grant expenditures. Each social system has its “all hands on deck” moments, from a community preparing for their annual parade to a firm with a major deliverable due to their key client.

Third, investigate the resource flows in the social system. Who is in charge of the allocation of staff, equipment, space, and budgets? Who determines the priorities for fundraising or client outreach?

Fourth, inquire about the incentives that shape the decisions of your potential partners. For example, if a collaboration with a professor can be configured in such a way that the results are publishable, this meshes well with the existing incentive structure in higher education. In other cases, interest in spanning boundaries may stem from a desire to fulfill needs that an individual’s social system cannot provide. A graphic designer may be attracted to a collaboration that allows more creative autonomy than is usually possible with clients. Business leaders may relish the opportunity to share hard-won insights with students; likewise, a teacher may value an opportunity for real-world impact that cannot be achieved in a classroom setting.

In your effort to understand an unfamiliar social system, whether it’s a trade union or a Taoist monastery, you will typically forge a relationship with one or more persons who serve as cultural translators, orienting you to the ways of their system. Your dependence on such a person is strong, and a measure of caution is in order. Just as a tour guide in a new city where you don’t speak the language might lead you to his uncle’s restaurant, the potential for misinformation, bias, and strategic behavior in a new collaboration is substantial. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your liaison is trying to be manipulative. A guide who has a somewhat vulnerable position might withhold sensitive or potentially controversial information. Moreover, as students of public administration point out, where you stand on the issues often depends on where you sit in the organization.

Given the potential for bias, find ways to diversify your information sources. Sit in on brown bag lunches, community meetings, or social gatherings when the opportunity arises. If your liaison does not occupy a top position within the social system, they may not actually have control over the resources required for the collaboration. You might seek out opportunities to interact with others who are higher in the organization. Can your partner organization actually deliver what is promised?

4. Embrace the life cycle of collaboration

Perhaps your first contact with a future collaborator takes the form of an email exchange or telephone call with someone introduced to you by a member of your network. How does the relationship evolve from an initial exploration of common interests to a full-blown collaboration across social boundaries?

We recommend that you adopt a developmental mindset with respect to boundary spanning. Every collaboration has a unique life cycle—some have relatively rapid trajectories and others take longer to blossom. Nonetheless, there are significant advantages to beginning with small-scale, low-commitment activities before launching a major joint project. These initial forays into the borderlands between social systems are a time for potential partners to learn more about one another and to explore possibilities. A police department hoping to partner with a mental health advocacy organization might invite staff for a ride-along in a neighborhood in need of support services. Mental health professionals could, in turn, invite police officers to sit in on a group counseling session or observe best practices in handling mental health emergencies.

Do not be discouraged if an initial contact turns into little more than a couple of interesting conversations over coffee. It is better to recognize early in the process that collaboration is not fruitful, rather than making such a discovery after investing a tremendous amount of resources. You will have learned about another social system while expanding your personal network, which might serve you well in the long run in unexpected ways.

Over time, repeated, deepening interactions can develop into a joint initiative. The next stage might involve a pilot project, a limited run engagement, or a small grant. For example, a city planning department developing affordable housing might contract with a nonprofit organization specializing in community outreach strategies. Piloting the new approach at one community meeting would provide an opportunity to see how city residents respond to the partner organization’s participatory methodologies. Ideally, pilot projects should offer the potential for long-term growth while simultaneously providing short-term benefits for both parties. Projects designed this way make the venture worthwhile even if it doesn’t expand further, which lessens the risk of involvement. Perhaps the community outreach organization in this case provides city officials with a concise summary of common misperceptions regarding affordable housing. Pilot projects are especially important given the uncertainties associated with partnering with social systems quite different from our own. A developmental mindset on the part of participants helps to set expectations: missteps may occur and restructuring may be necessary. Planning for learning and iteration reduces pressure to get everything right at the outset.

A common mistake in collaboration is underestimating the administrative support structures needed to sustain a project over the long haul. As collaborations succeed and expand, it is important to be mindful of the associated costs. Often there is a great deal of excitement surrounding the initial products of collaboration, and less foresight about the costs of maintaining the initial creation. Returning to our earlier example, a health official tasked with public outreach regarding vaccines might collaborate with school officials in creating a new website. But who will update the content and software and keep pace with evolving design standards for the user interface? Boundary spanners need to think through the hidden costs and labor that in the early, small stages can be met by a few enthusiastic partners but will require additional resources as the project timeline is extended and the scope of work expands. How might the necessary support system be institutionalized in light of the elements of system culture (values, workflow, resources, and incentives) discussed earlier?

As a collaboration grows and evolves, routine communication among participants is essential. Boundary spanning entails greater fluidity and risk than is the case for within-system collaborations among homophilous individuals, such as launching a new project within the R&D division of a firm. When working across systems, personal ties can help to build the trust, goodwill, and flexibility needed to weather the inevitable storms.

Strong communication channels are also needed for accountability. A boundary-spanning collaboration lies outside of the traditional lines of responsibility and reporting within an organization, and therefore alternative mechanisms of accountability need to be established. Perhaps most importantly, participants in these cross-boundary collaborations lack the routine encounters and information exchanges that are commonplace within a given company or community, so it is not always apparent how the collaboration is going for each party. Stakeholders should periodically schedule discussions to assess the collaboration’s overall aims and the extent to which the current structure advances the participants’ goals. It is easy to become distracted by day-to-day operational details, so you will need to be intentional about regularly revisiting the larger picture.

Collaborations are dynamic structures with finite life spans. By carefully thinking through the mission and objectives of the collaboration, you are more likely to be aware of when it is time for the collaboration to end. Use this as an opportunity to celebrate your shared accomplishments. Open and honest communication with your partners will enable you to achieve a graceful and amicable end to the partnership, which also ensures that your former collaborators will be long-term members of your social network.

Let Higher Education Become Broader Education

Given the importance of boundary spanning, what sorts of training might best prepare people to engage in this work? As educators, we see a number of concrete steps that can be taken within universities, though analogous opportunities also exist across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

Institutions of higher education must recognize that an “interdisciplinary” education fails to capture the full range of inter-social interactions required for addressing social problems. General education requirements promoting disciplinary breadth are an important starting point for creating the habits of mind best suited to collaboration. It has also long been recognized within higher education that a diverse student population not only advances the goal of equal access to education but benefits the entire community with a wider range of perspectives and life experiences. We believe that more can be done to augment on-campus collaborations with a wide array of possibilities for bridging social boundaries.

Specifically, it is worth taking stock of opportunities for students to immerse themselves in new social systems. Pre-professional programs and public interest internships that place students in direct contact with people from different walks of life have the benefit of expanding networks and perspectives. Study abroad programs and community engagement opportunities likewise pull students out of their comfortable campus environments and challenge their understanding of others and their sense of self—key ingredients for cultivating the humility needed for novel collaborations. Universities can offer seminars that bring in not only academic specialists but practitioners from a wide range of social circles. Taking advantage of these and other opportunities, students can inform both their career choices and their social values.

At the graduate level, programs focused on social impact would do well to offer exposure to core skills needed for bringing about change in different social realms. How many government officials understand what it takes to launch a business? How often are private sector entrepreneurs taught the fundamentals of community engagement? What opportunities exist for nonprofit leaders to study policymaking processes?

No one can predict the range of social challenges we will face in the future, but we do know two things with certainty. First, many of these challenges will be multifaceted and unprecedented. Even age-old problems, from substance abuse to water scarcity, evolve in their causes and consequences and require innovative new approaches. Second, we know that collaboration across social boundaries is a necessary condition for addressing complex social problems. We believe the approaches enumerated here can help those who wish to bring these solutions to fruition.

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Read more stories by Karl Haushalter & Paul Steinberg.



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