I once did some data architecture and modelling for NHS Blood and Transplant. This is a UK-wide agency responsible for blood, organs and other body parts, managing transfers from donors to recipients.
One of the interesting challenges for this kind of organization is the need for collaboration between different specialist disciplines. Some teams are responsible for engaging with potential and regular donors, encouraging and arranging donation sessions for blood and plasma. Meanwhile there are other teams who need an extremely precise biomedical profile of each donor, to ensure safety as well as identifying people with rare blood types. While there is a conceptual boundary between these two sets of concerns, the teams need to collaborate effectively and reliably across this boundary.
So in terms of data and interoperability, we have an entity (in this case the donor) that is viewed in significantly different ways, but with a common identity. In the past, I’ve talked about two-faced entities or hinge entities, but the term that is generally used nowadays is Boundary Object.
We define boundary object as those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them.Bowker and Star p 16
Boundary objects are the canonical forms of all objects in our built and natural environments.Bowker and Star p 307
In general, such boundary objects tend to be weakly structured, while being linked to much stronger structures in each separate domain. While boundary objects are considerably more than just data objects, they raise important questions for the data architect, who needs a critical eye for possible multiplicity or misfit that might compromise interoperability.
Simple multiplicity occurs when there are different levels of granularity each side of the boundary – one side lumping things together, the other side splitting them apart. In a library, for example, the people responsible for the catalogue may understand BOOK to refer to the title, while the people responsible for managing loans may want each physical copy to be represented as a separate instance of BOOK. And while people outside a warehouse may be happy with a notion of STOCK LOCATION that simply points to the warehouse as a single location, people inside the warehouse will want a more fine-grained notion, telling them more precisely where the stock can be found – for example, which shelf in which aisle.
Misfits can occur when there are competing notions of inclusion or classification – for example, does PRODUCT include the products and services of our partners as well as our own, does it include legacy products we no longer sell, does it include products that haven’t been launched yet?
And with people, it may not be clear whether we are interested in the person or the role.
One way of detecting these issues is simply to ask how many there are. If you get widely different answers, this is a pretty good indicator that they aren’t talking about the same thing. But sometimes the discrepancies can be more subtle and harder to detect.
And resolving (brokering) these issues can often be a political challenge, as Kimble et al argue, not merely a technical one. Specialists may be reluctant to share even a highly simplified version of their view of an object, for fear that this information might be misunderstood and misapplied. And yet there may be some value in sharing some of this information. Furthermore, there may be considerable resistance to relaxing any of the strong constraints on either side of the boundary. So the data architect needs to negotiate exactly what the boundary object will be and how much it should contain.
In his earlier writings, Étienne Wenger described this as a broker role.
The job of brokering is complex. It involves processes of translation, coordination and alignment between perspectives. It requires enough legitimacy to influence the development of a practice … it also requires the ability to link practices by facilitating transactions between them and to cause learning by introducing into a practice, elements of another.Wenger 1998, p 109
He now talks more generally about system convening, which combines and reinterprets several different roles, including that of broker.
If a group needs some scaffolding and enabling, call a facilitator. A broker is ideal for helping to translate ideas from one practice to another. A weaver will join the dots, strategically connecting people into new networks. An inspiring visionary with charisma is not necessarily a systems convener. Nor is a person who convenes an event or manages systems change or multi-stakeholder processes. None of these roles in themselves are systems convening, although systems conveners often play some of them and it is quite possible that a person reinterpreting one of these roles ends up adopting a systems-convening approach.Wenger-Trayner 2021, p 28
The creation of boundary objects seems to require a combination of these roles. Lucy Suchman talks about artful integration,
attempting to shift the frame of design practice and its objects from the figure of the heroic designer and associated next new thing, to ongoing, collective practices of sociomaterial configuration, and reconfiguration in use.
Geoffrey Bowker and Sarah Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out (MIT Press, 1999) – online extract
Mary L Darking, Integrating on line learning technologies into higher education (LSE 2004)
Chris Kimble, Corinne Grenier and Karine Goglio-Primard, Innovation and Knowledge Sharing Across Professional Boundaries: Political Interplay between Boundary Objects and Brokers (International Journal of Information Management, October 2010)
Lucy Suchman, Located Accountabilities in Technology Production, (Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, 2000-2003)
Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, System Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century (Social Learning Lab, 2021)
Wikipedia: Boundary Object