Spanning Boundaries agents sometimes have to break the rules. Read about their important roles and how universities can support their activities through openness and networking.

Innovation has acquired a social nature in a growing, open and networked economy based on the open innovation model. Value creation is no longer the result of the work of an organisation but the result of the joint action of a network of agents. The network approach highlights the role of the actors and linkages among actors; and provides a description of the process that enables innovation through institutionalisation.

The research on innovation has distinguished two types of business networks: collaborative and co-ordinated. Collaborative networks are characterised by high complexity and a focus on innovation, and are organised hubs. Centralised networks are effective in co-ordinating simple problems, with decentralised networks being considered a better approach to solve more complicated problems.

A collaborative network’s performance depends on organisations (the “players”) and institutions (the “rules of the game”). Institutions are considered fundamental to innovation processes through value co-creation in collaborative networks. We conceive institutions as the prescriptions used by humans “to organise all forms of repetitive and structured interactions, including those within families, markets, firms and governments”. Likewise, institutional arrangements refer to inter-related sets of institutions that together constitute a relatively coherent assemblage that facilitates co-ordination of activity, in value co-creating service ecosystems. So, we can understand institutions as rules or norms that can be established strategically within contexts, with the aim of achieving a specific desired state. For instance, improving the strategic benefit for all the actors involved. Regarding institutions, we can consider the “institutional work” as the purposive action of individuals and organisations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions.

The role of boundary spanning is critical for the development of the institutional work. Spanning Boundaries agents lead changes on institutions in order to provide the context for actors to break, make and maintain institutionalised rules of resource integration on multiple levels of the institutional context. This work determines the nature of the network ties, considered as the access to diverse resources, as a key factor in innovation through collaborative networks.

From a network-ties approach, universities must face the institutional change toward an open university, developing new network ties that will attract new actors in the university sphere. New network ties will result in the attraction of new actors that will allow innovative structure in the university, based on the needs of users, providers and other involved actors. Connections are developed through new network ties founded on new institutions that facilitate innovation. In this sense, universities evolve, changing their traditional brokerage position, and seeking to achieve innovation in an open economy, based on open innovation and value co-creation.

The complexity relies on how openly the university develops new relationships with external agents. Traditionally, the university has had clear rules governing the structure of the relationships with the actors in its environment. So, how do the universities change the rules in the sense of lending more flexibility to the relationships with actors in the university context? From the open economy there is a need for rule-breaking to engender a more open structure with collaborative easy-access network ties.

The critical task for Spanning Boundaries agents consists of breaking the rules with the traditional bureaucracy that made the university difficult to access, making it less attractive to other actors. It means that “institutional work” is needed to reach new institutions related to the processes in which universities are involved, in order to adopt an open innovation ecosystem perspective. The new institutional arrangements framed by universities, and the new configuration of network ties, give rise to a model that could be considered a “radical organisational innovation”, given that the innovation takes place not in the technical dimension but in the organisational one. In this sense, there is a need to analyse which institutions and institutional arrangements are the ones that determine the relationships within the organisation (in the university context as in other contexts) and how they determine the kind of network ties developed in it.

Universities should adopt general strategies to reshape their role in a modern open society, starting from the adaptation to the new open economy that demands easier and unstructured relationships. From this perspective, the aim of eliminating bureaucracy and integrating actors from the entrepreneurial environment is considered rule-breaking and the base of a disruptive strategy. The results of the empirical known cases are very clear on the greater attractiveness of a new open model with easy access and less bureaucracy.

Authors: Rafael Ventura Fernández and María José Quero Gervilla