O’Mahony & Bechky (2008). Boundary organizations: Enabling collaboration among unexpected allies


Siobhan O’Mahony – Questrom School of Business, Boston University

Beth Bechky – Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University


Jochem Hummel – VU University Amsterdam

Stavros Polykarpou – Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

Article link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2189/asqu.53.3.422

Question 1. Boundary of the boundary organizations
You suggest the counter intuitive finding that boundary organizations can enable collaboration among unexpected allies by preserving each world’s integrity while building a bridge between them. Had you chosen different open source projects, would your surprising finding still hold true? Were there any contradictory instances in your data for this?

Our research design was a theoretical sample where the open source communities we selected varied in the degree to which they maintained a friendly orientation toward commercial interests. Therefore, we had significant variation built in from the start, and widening that probably would not change anything. It is possible that our results would have been different if we had chosen different types of software projects (like social media or gaming) as all of the software that was being developed by the projects we studied had relevance to both commercial and community purposes and that was a commonality that could change the audiences interested and, with different interests we might have seen different dynamics.

To revisit the timing of this study, what was surprising to the open source community members we studied was the fact that corporate America was interested in working and collaborating with them. It might be difficult to imagine, given the degree to which Internet communities now pervade public life, but in 1998/1999 the community development of free and open source software was called “un-American” by major software corporations whose business model was threatened by the unexpected robustness of community developed software. It was therefore very surprising to have major software firms reaching out to these communities and wanting to engage with them – there was no apparatus or understanding in place to facilitate that type of relationship and a great deal of suspicion if not skepticism in place.

Question 2 – Framing
At the end of the paper, you report that the research was initiated to investigate how open source projects responded to commercial attempts to collaborate. It seems that your framing in the social movements literature emerged over time. By reflecting on the iterative process of data analysis and theory, how did you connect your emerging findings with the social movement literature? What advice would you give doctoral students engaging in inductive research on connecting their emerging findings with the literature, as you impressively did in (re-)conceptualizing social movement processes and outcomes?

This is a great question. At the time, there was enormous energy at the juncture of social movement theory and organizational theory. Recall this article appeared in a special issue of ASQ on social movement theory and organizations and ASQ only takes on a special issue about once every decade. Siobhan had support from the Social Science Research Council and was invited to attend a conference at the Ross School at Michigan on this topic and was motivated to join the conversation.  There were a few specific openings in the literature where we thought we could make a contribution. We were inspired by a quote from Doug McAdam who said that one of the shortcomings of social movement studies was “turning off our cameras once people leave the streets.” What happens once the protest is over and the people you are trying to change actually invite you to the table? This can be uncomfortable and awkward for both parties. But this was exactly what was happening in the world of open source. Siobhan was really struck by that question which seemed to capture what we were observing and so our aim was to map this process between unexpected allies. If you are against proprietary software and a proprietary software firm approaches you interested in learning more and working with open source software, you don’t want to spit in their face. But you don’t want to give up your founding values either. This is a very interesting and real tension for those interested in other types of social change.  

An earlier version of this manuscript drew from negotiated order theory but this was not working at all, in part because there were not enough clear handles or constructs to build on and frankly also not a great deal of energy there. Although we both liked this framing and felt you could see it in the data, there was not as much enthusiasm or audience for it. Our advice to doctoral students is to stick as close to your data as possible but also to engage deeply with the research communities that speak to your data and interests and to gauge the field to understand where the energy and momentum is. You want your research to speak to audiences that care about what you are doing, that is to have impact. Once you find that and create that focus, the rest of the work becomes much easier. In addition, engagement with others in the research community strengthens your writing, both before and after submission.  We had great feedback from Cal Morrill, our editor, as well as our reviewers, who pointed us in the direction of literature that could help our arguments.

Question 3 – Longitudinal dynamics and boundary organizations
You describe durability as one of the key facets that make boundary organizations different from boundary objects. Durability implicates a certain longitudinal process dynamic. How did you capture this processual dynamic in the three characteristics of collaboration using boundary organizations—adaptation around key organizing domains, delineation of interests, and durability of structure—and how does this relate to divergent and convergent forces? Is it actually boundary organizations or boundary processes?

It is both! We focused on the processes around building the organizations: what we are explaining in this paper is how the boundary organizations were created within the context of unexpected allies learning to work together. We were studying the process by which this tentative relationship between firms and communities was developing – the boundary organizations were developed as part of that larger negotiation over how firms and communities were going to collaborate without compromising the values of openness and participation that brought open source developers together in the first place. The boundary organizations were not the solution in and of themselves, but they crystallized the understanding of how community and commercial processes, norms, and practices could coexist.

Durability was a word that came out in response to reviewers concerns over how boundary organizations differed from boundary objects. Upon reflection, we think the notion of durability really references the deliberation involved in creating an organization. If you think about Beth’s (and others’) work on boundary objects, when people from different communities or disciplines grab on to a boundary object to help delineate or explain across knowledge disciplines or boundaries, they don’t typically reflect, deliberate or discuss the features of that object and what makes it work, that would just seem artificial or forced. But when people are creating an organization that they have to live with or be accountable to (thus the durability), then there is another level of deliberation and thoughtfulness about what each party can do, wants to do and is willing to do and what the boundary organization can do. The boundary organization is being designed to both create this bridge and enable collaboration among parties with disparate interests and preserve those disparate interests without compromising them, so these delineations are done very carefully.

Question 4 – Writing process
Your paper makes for a very interesting read. Your findings are well organized to facilitate the processes by which organizing practices had to be adapted for boundary organization collaboration. In turn, your article is also embracing the ‘messiness’ of the convergent and divergent interests of the open source community and the firms, rather than suppressing it. How did you manage this ‘messiness’ in the data to write up your inspiring story? Were there any divergent and convergent dynamics present in writing the article? If so, how did you manage those?

Thank you, we both gravitate toward the “messy” because when you embrace the messy you inevitably will write something that is more interesting. That is the premise of a new handbook edited by Kim Elsbach and Rod Kramer (2016). We recently collaborated on a chapter in this book, in which we celebrate attention to variance and encourage more field researchers to do the same. We argue that by including well-designed contextual differences, comparative methods can help “tame the messiness” and specify the boundary conditions of the theories we generate. Quantitative researchers do not expect to explain 100% of the variance in their study, nor should qualitative or field researchers. Larger sample size will never be a strength of field research. Rather field scholars should seek out the messiness to maximize the potential for innovation and novelty. It is often those data that do not fit the paradigm that lead to new ways of thinking. We have noticed that being overly concerned about convincing empirics can lead to papers that seem “wrapped too tight” – in other words, an effort to create a clean story can backfire and result in findings that are less than compelling.  The real world is messy, so if something is left unresolved, we encourage people to explore and report it.  

Question 5 – Evolution of studying open source communities
Your writing on open source software development projects evolved over time. In O’Mahony (2003) we read how the communities guard their commons by setting boundaries, in O’Mahony  & Ferraro (2007) we read how communities govern inside their boundaries, and finally in O’Mahony & Bechky (2008) how they interact on the boundary. What is next? How do you see the field of study moving forward conceptually and empirically?

Seventeen years ago, open source communities were a fringe element of society, not mainstream. Now we live in the participation economy where these types of collaborative, content generating, skill building communities are not only normal, they are providing value that is central to the economy. While many refer to a sharing economy, the participation economy may be more relevant, because the distinction between what is shared and what is sold needs to be more carefully examined and understood. The tension between community and commercial remains very interesting and there are new ways in which these boundaries are being both conflated and drawn. In the early 2000’s there was a great deal of interest in online communities as more or less bounded entities, but much research shows that online communities usually have offline counterparts so it is not clear how useful this distinction is anymore. The next wave of research will be less concerned with the mode or medium by which communities collaborate and more attentive to the content or value communities are generating. The burning questions will be examining how micro-contributions from many converge to create value and the governing rules that affect how this value is distributed.

Elsbach, K.D. & Kramer, R. 2016.The Handbook of Qualitative Organizational Research: Innovative Pathways and Methods. Routledge.  

O’Mahony, S. 2003. Guarding the commons: how community managed software projects protect their work. Research Policy, 32(7): 1179–1198.

O’Mahony, S., & Bechky, B. A. 2008. Boundary organizations: Enabling collaboration among unexpected allies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 53(3): 422–459.

O’Mahony, S., & Ferraro, F. 2007. The Emergence of Governance in an Open Source Community. Academy of Management Journal, 50(5): 1079–1106.

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