Taxonomy is a boundary object

In short: designers talking about taxonomies, or business people talking about objects is a good thing, even though they may seem rather uninformed about it to us (you) experts.

(You social science folk, please correct me if I strayed too far from common wisdom here)

Boundary Object: “Artifacts, Documents and perhaps even vocabulary that can help people from different communities build a shared understanding. Boundary objects will be interpreted differently by the different communinities, and it is an acknowledgement and discussion of these differences that enables a shared understanding to be formed.” (from the enTWIne project)

In 1988, Susan Leigh Star [1] introduced the term boundary object to describe information that is used in different ways by different communities of practice [2].

Boundary objects have interesting properties (from Brian Marick):

– If x is a boundary object, people from different communities of practice can use it as a common point of reference for conversations. They can all agree they’re talking about x.

– But the different people are not actually talking about the same thing. They attach different meanings to x.

– Despite different interpretations, boundary objects serve as a means of translation.

– Boundary objects are plastic enough to adapt to changing needs. And change theydo, as communities of practice cooperate. Boundary objects are working arrangements, adjusted as needed. They are not imposed by one community, norby appeal to outside standards.

A goal is often used as a boundary object. “Finish this project successfully” is a boundary project in software development. It means different things to different communities of practice, but it is plastic enough to get everyone working together.

The term “taxonomy” is another boundary object. It is used differently by different communities of practice (designers, project managers, librarians, IA’s).

What Star teaches us is that the fact that we all understand this term differently is not a problem. The boundary object serves to bring different communities of practice together.

So next time someone from a separate community of practice uses a term or talks about something in a rather naive or uninformed way (from your perspective), don’t roll your eyes. Realize that this may be a boundary object, and boundary objects make it possible for you two to communicate at all. They also make it possible for different communities of practice to effectively work together.

Notes:

[1] Susan Leigh Star introduced the term “boundary object” in “The structure of ill-structured solutions: heterogeneous problemsolving, boundary objects and distributed artificial intelligence.” She also wrote Sorting Things Out – Classification and Its Consequences, a thrilling classic in classification literature (sample chapters). I never realized she was the same person – she’s now my official hero.

[2] A community of practice is a group of people who do a certain type of work, talk to each other about their work, and derive some measure of their identity from that work. Programmers are a community of practice. IA’s are another. (Brian Marick wrote a great paper, boundary objects (PDF)).

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