Boundary Information Structures

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Mr., DougMcDavid Enterprises
Educated as a generalist, Doug was among the "pioneer" class at UC Santa Cruz, and went on to a career in information, in systems, and in information systems. He led major automation projects for library functions, and the enterprise-wide application of network control, order processing, billing, and network engineering in an early data communications company. He’s done data and process modeling and enterprise architecture for telco, brokerage, banking, software, consulting, insurance, government (local, state, federal, and military), aerospace, high tech, consumer electronics, as well as secondary and higher education. He writes about people and technology in organizations.

1.0 Introduction

Let’s take a few minutes to explore a subject that’s at the heart of the challenge of running a business, and by extension, also at the heart of providing expert architectural services on behalf of business leadership. This discussion will focus on approach to analyzing and designing effective communications among disciplines and specialists.

This approach builds on the recognition that multiple communities need to work together effectively in the design and development and delivery of service offerings. This approach provides guidance for analyzing the concepts and information artifacts that cross over boundaries among communities of role-players. This article introduces a widely applicable method to capture key structural and behavioral aspects of any business or enterprise architecture. We learn about a generic but revealing communication pattern. I think that the world of organizational architectures (enterprise; business) can benefit from this useful perspective, originally devised within the field of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW).

The method has a focus on the boundaries that surround professional practices. By professional let’s include all forms of work expertise, whatever the nature of the work. Boundaries surround the singular focus on specific practices. Boundaries become tangible when work demands that different practices work together.

One ever-present boundary is between the experts and specialists in information technology, vs. the experts and specialists in some business or organization. The so-called business-IT gap essentially consists of a boundary condition between experts and specialists have to work together, even though their specialized knowledge bases are quite diverse.

At the same time, we recognize that there are actually many communities of practice on the business side of the gap, as well as many practices and communities on the IT side. Our information structures focus on the definition and transcendence of boundaries between and among the various communities of practice, on both the business and the IT sides of the gap.

This presents a major opportunity for business architects to apply boundary concepts to capture an understanding and to participate in the design of various communities within their client businesses.

1.1 The Babel of Business

Business leaders often find that running a business is often resembles a debate in the United Nations. Not because of many national languages being spoken, though that might well be the case as well. But because there are many working lingos and jargons spoken by various groups of workers. The leaders of any business, or any organization for that matter, must contend with these numerous specialized languages of various disciplines, specialties, crafts, practices, etc. In order to do business these tribes or guilds are obliged to work together, while they each have carefully developed their own specialized languages of work.

This polyglot nature of productive work is not exactly new news. Ludwig Wittgenstein focused attention on the concept of language games as specialized terminologies related to the work itself:

Let us imagine a language … [that] is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. … Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.*

Wittgenstein is telling us that specific work-languages can be observed as commonplace, throughout all working environments. Consequently, it should not be too surprising that business leaders often feel like they are in need of UN-style simultaneous translators.

1.2 Practices and Processes

For our purposes, the term ‘practice’ refers to a discipline or specialization that provides specific services within the workplace. Examples include accountants, marketers, application developers, scientists, engineers, etc. Interfaces among practices are highly significant from a business architecture viewpoint. It’s important for business architects to recognize that our architectures have as much to do with interoperations of various working practices as they do with business processes. Architecture asks the question “How are elements (of business) joined up, either actually or potentially?”

To a real extent, processes provide the orchestration for a set of ongoing interactions among practices.

In order to get the job done, it is not necessary, nor possible, to expect complete consensus or full understanding across various communities of knowledge and practice. Often a disconnect, or set of issues, arises because of differences in the manner of operation even when there’s absolute (apparent) agreement on objectives. The flow and expectation of work patterns becomes very engrained in people’s working lives. They tend to hold on to these patterns, and it makes a lot of sense to understand the patterns that are working, why they’re working, and foster or nurture those successful patterns of communication and collaboration.**

2.0 Viewpoints

It seems intuitively obvious that when different groups work together they will run into issues of communicating and coordinating together. As we seek to apply a boundary-focused thought process to architecture work, it’s useful to consider three distinct viewpoints relative to community of practice boundaries.

Taken in turn, these three viewpoints are–

  • Spanning of boundaries – How to help organizations facilitate collaboration
  • Working within boundaries – How to work with practice-specific lingos and jargons
  • Demarcating boundaries – How to leverage the natural tendency to define and occupy territory

2.1 Spanning Boundaries

Our overall motivation is to help nurture effective work patterns through architecture techniques. The effectiveness of work relies on clarity of communication about the inevitable issues that arise amidst efforts to cooperate. In order to achieve significant or innovative results, it’s almost always necessary for specialists to collaborate across the boundaries of their respective practices. The key to balancing multiple working practices and cultures, is to gain an understanding of the multiple workplace languages in use.

It is a predictable certainty in any business situation that the interacting disciplines will have developed certain ‘boundary-spanning’ objects. Often called simply ‘boundary objects,’ these boundary-spanning informational constructs consist of templates, forms, job aids, checklists, guidelines, and focused vocabularies that help get the job done. Understanding these boundary objects provides a wealth of learning about the operations of the organization.

Interestingly, the concept of boundary objects was introduced within the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). The concept was first explained with reference to a major project pursued in the by the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. *** The goal of this project was to document the entire ecology of California at the time (early 20th century). The museum established methods and practices that enabled diverse role-players to work together to collect and document of ecosystem examples. These role-players included professional scientists, amateur collectors, backwoods trappers, the museum’s wealthy benefactors, and university administrators. Each of these communities had their own working languages and perspectives, but all were able (more or less) to work together toward the common goal by using informational boundary objects.


Two communities, the museum scientists and trappers in the fur trade found themselves to be unlikely collaborators in this project. In their daily routine trappers had many opportunities to collect specimens of wildlife that could expand the museum’s knowledge base. The collection and transfer of these specimens was facilitated by a simple form, which captured the location, day of the year and time of day, weather conditions, terrain, vegetation and other species. This simple form had just enough information for the scientists to work with, and could be captured by the trapper in a straightforward way. Amateur naturalists (citizens who enjoyed hiking and camping) also worked with the museum scientists in a similar way using a slightly different version of the form (this boundary-spanning information object) to also deliver specimens they collected as a by-product of enjoying the outdoors.

The sharing of memory through boundary objects is actually a process that involves decontextualization and recontextualization, as well as recognition that some boundary objects undergo trajectories that make them useful to an originating community as well as one or more target communities. This is often expression of some form of provenance (origin and ownership history of information artifacts.

The basic mechanism for the boundary objects is that some key set of information is decontextualized (say, from the natural history museum’s statewide ecosystem project), to then to be recontextualized (say, as part of the camping routine of a family of amateur naturalists). This is based on an expected trajectory of this boundary object during the course of collaboration and cooperation. These considerations form the basis to analyze and design the information objects that provide for effective boundary spanning.

Drawing boundaries among communities is more like network engineering than it is like map-making. The network engineering of communities defines:

  • Nodes that are fully inside one community
  • Nodes that are disputed
  • Nodes that live on the boundaries themselves

The use of standardized methods in the development of IT-based software systems can be seen as a form of boundary setting and spanning information objects that support integration of multiple communities of experts in pursuit of common goals.

Many systems development methods are based on the notion of templates or standardized work products, such as user stories, journeys, class models, UI designs, etc. These methodological work products are boundary objects by their very nature.

2.2 Working within Community Boundaries

Within an effective community of practice we can see clear forms of distributed cognition, where there is a high degree of agreement and fluent communication among members of the community, using shared conceptual structures, and that language game, as Wittgenstein might call it.

The community of practice shares two key mechanisms: a shared glossary and shared memory. In a medical community the way to talk about a broken bone in my throwing hand might be “right index proximal phalanx” (or something like that!)

A set of terms always seems to coalesce around shared work experiences.

Distributed cognition is the kind of communication that is usually found inside a specific community, and leads to a kind of organizational memory. This local memory, using local terminology, provides an effective and efficient way for work to get done. “Distributed cognition concentrates on the ‘absolute meaning’ of artefact and representations, whereas boundary objects are concerned with ‘interpretative flexibility’ of representations across boundaries.”

There is a process of memory and communication within and among communities Within a community of workers there may be simple memories that are captured and shared for local purposes.****

2.3 Demarcating Boundaries

The common purpose for boundaries provides support to the specializations of the various practices. Practices themselves spawn organizations, such as guilds, unions, professional associations, etc. Business architects should be aware of the dynamics of demarcating practices and their domains of responsibility.

There is often intentional differentiation and creation of boundaries around communities.*****   This can be seen as a community claiming its territory, or scope of work and expertise. Such a boundary can be defined by an “intermediate dependent entity”, a concept that depends on multiple communities to be a meaningful differentiator. An example might be the idea of an escrow, which differentiates a community of escrow-holders. Would their bailiwick expand with an expanded definition of the concept of ‘escrow’? Or would that provide an opening for another practice to infringe on their niche?

Communities may experience two kinds of contention, depending on whether they are contending for inclusion of a desirable responsibility in their domain of practice, or exclusion of some undesirable role or expectation.

  • Desirable concept: Multiple communities are trying to own it. The tug of war operates on an intermediate dependent entity, such as escrow or expanded concept of escrow.
  • Undesirable concept: Each community is trying to push off on the other. A real-world example was the fight between scientists and politicians to distance themselves from responsibility for mad cow disease, which fell on a boundary of science and public opinion.

There are boundary organizations that exist to both define and span boundaries, and have “distinct lines of accountability to each of two different social worlds.”

3.0 Method

Let’s take a little closer look a method that uses boundary constructs as part of business architecture.

This approach includes methods for defining and adjusting the boundaries of working communities, analyzing communications within the boundaries of individual communities, and, most importantly, spanning community boundaries to get work done. We discuss how these methods support both analysis and design of organizations and their information systems.

This method is focused on practicing communities in the workplace and how they use specific language elements and structures to define interfaces that facilitate working together. It is complementary to two other business architecture methods:

  • the all services all the time approach******
  • the upstream-downstream simple diagnostic for the health of trans-organizational communication (e.g., among communities of practice that are obliged to cooperate.) *******

As we know, from an ‘all-services’ perspective, we can see that any community of practice is both a provider and a recipient of any number of services. The all-services pattern helps identify the interfaces and information structures at community boundaries. In the second case, a cursory boundary analysis will help define the communication pairs that hopefully emerge in the upstream and downstream dependencies within the network of working relationships among disciplines and practices.

A simple example of a boundary object in action is based on observations of an employee benefits hotline in a high-tech firm. (Ackerman, 1998) Employee questions that come into the hotline often, but not always, have straightforward answers. Even in this simple domain, there are many ‘memories’ that make up the organizational memory. Front-line clerks may use up to nine different memories (from handwritten notes to shared databases) in answering the simplest questions. More complex problems may need to be referred to external experts for resolution, where the local memories often provide the basis for a complex problem-solving process. Memory objects have mixed provenance – personal notes are the provenance of the individual worker, but also have group significance as for instance a call-history as well as possible organizational significance in, say, monitoring the activities of the call center.

3.1 Analysis of Organizations Using Boundary Constructs

Boundary objects are already commonplace, as are the specialized languages of working groups. We should actually expect to find boundary constructs wherever within whatever workplaces we happen to look. When we do take a close look, we see what people actually do, which naturally tends toward building, enforcing, and spanning boundaries around their practices.

Part of the method is business boundary construct analysis. In analysis mode it is important to listen for two important little pronouns: “us” and “them”. When people talk about ‘us’, and what ‘we’ do, this likely indicates they are talking about the community of practice (specialization) that they identify with. Iterate between:

  • community recognition (definition) and
  • discovery of boundary objects or artifacts

Certain standard questions are fundamental to this method. Whenever we encounter any information artifact in the workplace we can ask:

  • What community produces this artifact?
  • What communities use this artifact?

If we’re looking at a collection of communities we can ask:

  • What communities interact with each other?
  • What objects are required by each community?
  • How much do two specific communities need to know about each other?
  • What goals are they trying to achieve?

3.2 Diagnosis of Organizational Health via Boundary Constructs

We know how these structures work when they work well, which can help diagnose situations where boundary information exchange and collaboration is not working well.

Using this method we can determine where communities are not working well together:

  • Members of communities are constantly talking past each other
  • There are disagreements about the meaning of key terms
  • Roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined

3.3 Design of Organizations using Boundary Constructs

Going beyond analyzing and diagnosing boundary structures and work-place languages, this method also helps to design organizations by using the tool of boundary constructs.

Help communities to create effective boundary constructs:

  • Identify areas of overlapping responsibility
  • Determine a subset of terms that both groups need to understand in order to accomplish their cooperative work

Create and use templates for boundary objects that bridge between communities Define procedures for decontextualization to establish boundary object trajectories Define procedures to recontextualize boundary objects for meaningful reuse Build common repositories of boundary object content for storage and retrieval by both communities.

This method can help communities to build more effective working relationships:

  • Through conscious recognition, support, and enhancement of existing boundary constructs
  • Through conscious development and leveraging of boundary constructs that are not already present.

4.0 Conclusions

This modular method stems from the universal reality of diversity of practices and specialties in organizations. Unfortunately it’s never possible to achieve complete consensus or full understanding among specialists, even when business needs them to work cooperatively. This often makes the workplace feel like a multilingual cacophony of specialized terms and concepts.

To really understand business, and add architecture-based value, we must understand the structure and interplay among various specialized practices, in addition to tracking processes. We have described an offering, a method, that helps in the three efforts of:

  • Spanning of boundaries – Helping organizations facilitate collaboration
  • Working within boundaries – Working with practice-specific lingos and jargons
  • Demarcating boundaries – Leveraging the natural tendency to define and occupy territory

A boundary viewpoint engages a few simple concepts and constructs, in order to organize and evaluate very complex organization situations and issues. This enables both analysis and design of client organizations.



*“Wittgenstein.” 2014. Wikipedia.

**Moulton Reger, S. 2006. Can Two Rights Make a Wrong: Insights from IBM’s Tangible Culture Approach. New York: IBM Press.

***Star, L and Griesemer, J. “Institutional Ecology, “Translations” and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”, Social Studies of Science, v. 19, Number 3, August, 1989, 387-420.

****Ackerman, M. and Halverson, C “Organizational Memory: Processes, Boundary Objects, and Trajectories,” Proceedings of the Thirty-second Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, IEEE, 1998.

*****Nieman, A. “Boundary negotiations in popular culture: ‘intermediate dependent entities’ and the ideological context of science policy,” Pre-print, November 2002.

*******BAInstitute: Simple Possible Enterprise Diagnostic Method.

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