In our investigation, we aimed to discern the Spanning Boundaries agents’ qualities, knowledge, skills, activities, roles and responsibilities as well as mechanisms in order to educate new cohorts of Spanning Boundaries agents and to support existing ones to extend and further strengthen the collaborative initiatives that help us tackle the pressing challenges of today and tomorrow.

Drawing from the literature, we have created a perception survey which gathered over 400 responses across Europe. We complimented the quantitative research with the qualitative research via interviews of successful Spanning Boundaries agents and the experts in the field.  In this article, we present a fraction of our findings, while a full picture can be found in our synthesis report, available online.

Skills and Knowledge

Our analysis indicates that being a creative and original thinker and conceiving of alternative solutions for a new challenge are regarded as more important in boundary spanning activities, while leadership bears the lowest mean importance, according to our survey respondents. On the other hand, directing co-operation partners to discover their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging other co-operation partners not to give up when the co-operation is not working well, and taking over leadership responsibilities are overall considered as less important, compared to other skills (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Mean importance of skills. Quantitative survey analysis, n=368. Own illustration.

Figure 1. Mean importance of skills. Quantitative survey analysis, n=368. Own illustration.

As for knowledge, while knowing the aims and needs of your collaboration partners are regarded as most important, field specific expertise was rated as the least important expertise. This is also in line with previous literature as well as our qualitative interviews, that Spanning Boundaries agents need diverse knowledge to effectively function as a bridge. In addition, knowing the aims and needs of your collaboration partners was consistently highlighted as one of the most important pieces of knowledge a Spanning Boundaries agent needs to draw out and build upon when initiating and engaging in partnerships for collaborative innovation (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Mean importance of knowledge. Quantitative survey analysis, n=368. Own illustration.

Figure 2. Mean importance of knowledge. Quantitative survey analysis, n=368. Own illustration.

Roles of Spanning Boundaries Agents

When conducting the quantitative survey, we found that the different Spanning Boundaries agents take up various roles. The activities shape the role which the Spanning Boundaries agent takes in the specific situation. These roles may vary in the long run. Nevertheless, significant differences can be identified in Spanning Boundaries agents, mainly in one specific role and their skills and expertise.

Boundary spanning facilitators show a tendency to build and maintain networks. As such, they help to initiate boundaries, support the collaboration throughout the process, and also maintain it for the long-term.

In contrast, the boundary spanning collaborator is less involved in setting up and maintaining the network, but aims at creating content and sharing it with others. Thus, the collaborator is highly involved in knowledge creation activities and less often involved in facilitation activities.

Lastly, boundary spanning enactors are people who do not focus on just one of these activities but perform both with a similar level of engagement. Either, enactors often or always engage in facilitation and knowledge creation – these are called highly engaged boundary spanning enactors – or they are rarely or just sometimes engaged in these activities – these are then called moderately to rarely engaged boundary spanning enactors.

Figure 3. Relative distribution of Spanning Boundaries agent roles.

Spanning Boundaries Process Model

Synthesizing the insights of the qualitative and quantitative survey of Spanning Boundaries agents across Europe, 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.

With this model, we build on the assertion that any networking process is based on a complex interaction between a micro-, meso-, and macro-environment that provides the foundation of where and how the collaboration is taking place (Groen, 2005). As such, the macro-environment influences the spanning boundaries process by increasing or decreasing the role of barriers in the process.

Figure 4. Process model of spanning boundaries. Own illustration.

Figure 4. Process model of spanning boundaries. Own illustration.


Concluding the insights gleaned from our literature review, as well as a large qualitative study on Spanning Boundaries agents and experts on university-business collaboration and Spanning Boundaries agents; and an extensive quantitative studies on Spanning Boundaries agents in Europe; we articulate a comprehensive picture of the Spanning Boundaries agent as the individual that engages 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 initiator/the collaborator/the enactor) that are all equally relevant for spanning boundaries, yet, give different importance to the different competencies. As such, we conclude that the Spanning Boundaries agent’s set of competencies allows for a highly situational, flexible manoeuvring of the Spanning Boundaries journey, which involves pitfalls, dead-ends, and drivers that can be circumvented to ensure successful collaborative innovation initiatives.

Authors: Thomas Baaken, Habtamu Garomssa, Judith Helmer, Neele Petzold, Maria Paula Troutt from Science-to-Marketing Research Centre, Münster University of Applied Sciences.