In 2020, we have seen just how quickly our world can be confronted with immense challenges. In such times we witness how scientific and innovative minds come together and provide a shining beacon of hope. Indeed, university-business cooperation (UBC) drives radical innovation that benefit individuals and society at large. This success has been built by, and with, so-called Spanning Boundaries agents, that is, people who work in between the academic and industrial world.

These Spanning Boundaries agents, defined in this report as individuals known for their success in breaking down silos both among internal units and across sectors in their external engagement for collaborative innovation, are crucial in driving innovation. According to the European Commission, Spanning Boundaries agents draw upon a deep understanding of both the higher education institution (HEI) ecosystem and the industry reality. However, literature in the UBC context remains focused on the organizational actors or the ecosystem and misses an understanding of what makes the individual Spanning Boundaries agent effective in their bridging endeavours between HEI, industry, and society.

The following report makes a first attempt to identify, define, and characterise the Spanning Boundaries agents’ (1) qualities, (2) skills, (3) knowledge, (4) roles, (5) activities and responsibilities and to identify spanning boundaries (6) barriers and drivers in the UBC context. This report is based on a

  • Review of the boundary spanning literature in the UBC context,
  • A large qualitative study from 2020, on spanning boundaries champions from different European countries
  • A large quantitative survey on HEI, industry, and internal and external intermediary representatives in 2020 working at the intersection of organisations.

The aim is to educate new cohorts of Spanning Boundaries agents and to support existing ones to extend and further strengthen their collaborative initiatives.

First, our findings highlight a variety of different qualities that can be summarised using the personality traits of the Big-5 and entrepreneurial traits. Specifically, our findings highlight that:

  • Spanning Boundaries agents may differ from entrepreneurs in their focus on agreeableness, specifically their empathy and humility necessary to build networks and innovation with others.
  • Spanning Boundaries agents combine their different qualities situationally, which allows for a flexibility necessary to circumvent and push forward in the face of ambiguities and uncertainties, and to collaboratively solve complex problems.

Second, regarding a Spanning Boundaries agent’s skillset, our results show that all skills can generally be regarded as important for the spanning boundaries activities. Specifically, our results show that:

  • The highest mean rating was given for creativity while the lowest for leadership skills. This indicates that being creative is regarded as more important in boundary spanning activities.
  • The largest perceived skills gaps are found in mobilising resources and entrepreneurship skills.

Third, our results show that the aspects of knowledge and expertise were all rated relatively highly (except for expertise). This is to be expected, as the Spanning Boundaries agent would effectively need draw on a variety of knowledge and expertise. Specifically, our results show that:

  • While knowing the aims and needs of collaboration partners were regarded as most important, field specific expertise was rated as the least important.
  • The largest perceived knowledge gaps exist in knowing the aims and needs of the collaboration partners.

Fourth, previous literature as well as our qualitative study indicated different roles of Spanning Boundaries agents related to their activities. Significant differences were identifiable regarding a Spanning Boundaries agent’s role and their needs and gaps concerning skills and knowledge. Based on our findings and results, we propose three different types of Spanning Boundaries agents:

  • Boundary spanning facilitators who show a tendency to build and maintain networks. They help initiate boundaries, support collaboration throughout the process, and maintain it in the long-term.
  • Boundary spanning collaborators who aim at creating content and sharing it with others. The collaborator is highly involved in knowledge creation activities and less often involved in facilitation activities.
  • Boundary spanning enactors who engage in initiating, collaborating, and supporting the collaboration. Enactors span the entire process and overlap strongly with the spanning boundaries facilitator as well as with the collaborator.

Fifth, regarding the Spanning Boundaries agent’s activities, the majority of our respondents often or always engage in building and maintaining networks (67%), which is consistent with our definition of a Spanning Boundaries agent. Further, many respondents often or always take part in facilitating continuous interaction and communication (62%), creating, transferring, and translating knowledge (60%) as well as aligning and managing interests (51%). Interestingly, fewer respondents were often or always involved in managing academic and student mobility (23%). The boundary spanning process was described as iterative and dynamically shaped by and shaping the different actors and context conditions (individual / organisational / environmental) involved.

Sixth, within the process of initiating, collaborating, supporting, and sustaining collaborations, the Spanning Boundaries agent is faced with influencing forces (i.e., drivers and barriers) that shape the boundary spanning process and that are – in turn – shaped by the process (Garud, 1994; Groen, 2005). Our findings show that these barriers and drivers can be clustered into four dimensions of entrepreneurial networking (Groen, 2005), that is: scope, scale, skill and value, and social network.

Seventh, we see that the barriers and drivers largely exist in boundary work, but the qualities, knowledge, and skills of the Spanning Boundaries agents allow them to circumvent these barriers. Based on the previous insights, this report proposes a process model that brings together the multiple levels, their interaction, the different activities, as well as the role of the individual’s competencies and influencing factors driving and shaping the spanning boundaries process over time.

Concluding, this report articulates a comprehensive picture of the Spanning Boundaries agent as engaging in spanning boundaries between HEI, industry, and society. This individual draws on a set of qualities, knowledge, and skills that allow to initiate the collaboration, engage in collaboration for joint development and innovation, support collaborative activities, and/or engage in sustaining the network for further collaboration in a successful manner. Indeed, by specifying the differences within the activities, our research further identified three different roles (the facilitator/the collaborator/the enactor) that are all equally relevant for spanning boundaries, yet, give different importance to the different competencies.

This is an executive summary of the Spanning Boundaries Synthesis Report, which can be accessed under our Resources page.