Recently, the foundations of modern society have been impacted significantly by the rapid spread of the coronavirus outbreak, creating uncertainty regarding the implications for all aspects of our life.

Today, we are witnessing just how much the world can suddenly be confronted by immense new challenges. These disruptions demand quick innovation and effective collaboration to collectively address pressing issues and ensure sustainability. Never before has the role of change-makers and innovators been so imperative. It is in challenging times like these that we need to strengthen international, national and cross-continental scientific ties between scientists, decision makers, private practitioners, industries, health professionals and civil society at large for a multidimensional co-operation. At the forefront of such collaborations, we have seen the power of PEOPLE coming together to address a common goal and push through and past the looming uncertainties.

Whilst universities and industry working in close co-operation are considered engines of innovation, it is PEOPLE who are the most crucial players in transferring innovation across institutions, mobilising resources, triggering organisational change, and making a difference in their regions. The success of such endeavours, thus, often relies on Spanning Boundaries agents*, who successfully bridge the academic and industrial worlds to build networks, enable knowledge creation and transfer, and together create, manage, and implement innovative solutions.

The Spanning Boundaries agents –  defined as ‘individuals known for their success in breaking down silos, both among internal units and also across sectors, in their external engagement for collaborative innovation’ – are increasingly acknowledged today as crucial in driving innovation. They have a deep understanding of both the university ecosystem and the business world and help to overcome the sectoral and disciplinary boundaries. These individuals do this by building networks and exchanging knowledge and skills within and across such networks. But who exactly are the Spanning Boundaries agents? And what are the common characteristics embedded into a successful Spanning Boundaries agent’s DNA? As such, they are often characterised as superhumans who are capable of many different things. These individuals must indeed have certain qualities, knowledge and skills that allow them, on one hand, to initiate and engage in cooperation, and on the other hand, also support and sustain such activities with an ultimate aim to drive collaborative innovation.

Successful Spanning Boundaries agents build on a set of highly likable personality traits, influential characteristics, and strong social values. They possess a large skillset that includes collaboration, bridging, knowledge translation and negotiation skills. Spanning Boundaries agents are, furthermore, considered entrepreneurial professionals with strong complex problem-solving, as well as leadership and managerial competences. They know how to mobilise resources and construct a compelling and shared vision for co-operative innovation. As such, having and acting on such wide range of competences allows for a highly situational, flexible manoeuvring of the Boundary Spanning activities that are not without pitfalls and dead-ends, and yet at the same time can also be collectively driven, with an ultimate aim to create and enhance collaborative innovation initiatives. More than ever, there is a need to span boundaries between institutions and across nations and disciplines, which is why the Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance project, Spanning Boundaries Development Programme, was created. We aim to empower and enable university and business professionals to make a stronger contribution to regional economic and social development by providing knowledge, support and a closer engagement with each other and their environment.

*Within the scope of this project, “Spanning boundaries agents” replaces the term “boundary spanners”.

Author: Balzhan Orazbayeva