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Impact | Global boundary spanners

Volume 20, Number 8
August 2014

Andreas Schotter researches a special type of manager who helps global organizations succeed in today’s complex world.


 When the U.S. headquarters of 3M directed a global launch of a new wound care product, a manager at its Canadian subsidiary spotted a problem. Health care facilities in Canada use wound care products differently than those in the United States and abroad, requiring different elasticity and adhesive properties. Unaware of the problem, U.S. headquarters wanted to push ahead. The Canadian manager, while understanding the efficiency pressures that 3M faced globally, was worried about local customer response. He succeeded in facilitating a new pilot project – ultimately allowing for the introduction of a better product for both 3M Canada and the global organization.

Ivey Professor Andreas Schotter describes the 3M manager as a “boundary spanner.” Boundary spanners are a special type of manager found in global organizations. They help their firms to negotiate the voids that arise between foreign subsidiaries and corporate headquarters when crossing geographic, functional political, and cultural boundaries.

Schotter is a specialist in international business. He learned first-hand about boundary spanners prior to his academic career, while accumulating more than a decade of executive experience in Europe, Asia, and North America. Schotter understands the enormous complexities of global management. “It’s precisely because of these growing complexities that boundary spanners are so important for global businesses today,” he says.

Traditionally, strategists have assumed that a well-designed firm structure takes care of potential tensions between a firm’s headquarters and its foreign subsidiaries. But Schotter argues that this is often not the case. He finds through his research that headquarter-subsidiary tensions are ubiquitous, and lead unavoidably to inefficiencies. “The good news is that there are certain managers who understand potential conflicts between local interests and global interests,” he says. “These boundary spanners are motivated and capable of developing solutions for the benefit of the overall organization, and not just for either the subsidiary or headquarters.”

In his research, Schotter studies boundary spanners by first identifying conflicts at the interface between headquarters and their foreign subsidiaries. After talking with more than 400 executives in more than 100 multinational enterprises he’s collected 147 conflict cases. He then looks at the specific actions and characteristics of the boundary spanners and the effect that they have on the firm at multiple points in the subsidiary, headquarters, and the overall organization. “What is apparent and makes this research exciting is that the boundary spanning function is not a formal position,” he says. “The boundary spanning ability is intrinsically attached to the individual and his or her psychosocial and professional characteristics, but it needs some organizational ‘flex’ in order to function.”

Schotter’s research is ongoing, but he finds that besides conflict management, boundary spanners perform other critical tasks for the overall firm, including the bidirectional transfer of knowledge, the identification of fringe business opportunities, and the management of external relationships with different stakeholders. “Firms that allow for boundary spanning perform substantially better than those firms that don’t,” he says.

Schotter is co-editing a special issue on boundary spanning in global organizations in the Financial Times ranked Journal of Management Studies, scheduled for publication in 2015/16. He has put out a call for papers, and is seeking additional insights that will advance the research both theoretically and empirically.

Although boundary spanners make up a small group of managers, Schotter is getting a clearer picture of their individual characteristics, traits and skills patterns. He’s also developing a deeper understanding of the organizational processes that allow boundary spanners to operate effectively.

There are five core characteristics that boundary spanners have in common: high levels of bipolar context understanding, high levels of professional expertise, strong and wide-reaching social ties, awareness of the need for boundary spanning, and a global mindset. Schotter finds that boundary spanners are more effective when located in the subsidiary. They’ve usually been with their firms for an average of 12 years. They tend to be highly educated. They often have an MBA from a leading business school, complemented by other degrees. In addition they speak at least two languages fluently.

Schotter finds that boundary spanners draw their motivation from personal rewards, such as managing interpersonal relationships and role recognition, rather than from financial perks. The challenge for multinationals is to create environments that foster boundary spanning. One way is through alternative reward structures that are not just financially driven; another is the creation of horizontal career progression. “Hierarchy often creates an impediment to boundary spanning environments,” says Schotter.

Global organizations are subject to enormous competition and pressure, and conflict is inevitable. Schotter believes in the importance of the individual in handling these conflicts so they become constructive rather than dysfunctional. “Managing the relationship between headquarters and their foreign subsidiaries will always be both an organizational process and an individual managerial task,” he says. “Boundary spanners are one of the most effective instruments for bridging the intra-organizational voids created by globalization.”



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