In Praise of Babel Fish and Boundary Spanners

We’re all busy. In the public sector our huge workloads are compounded by the unending need to cut back on spending in response to ‘austerity’ (I don’t believe ‘austerity’ really exists, it’s just a convenient untruth, but that’s a post for another day).

Given the challenges facing us our instinct is to get our heads down and crack on – it’s difficult to find the time to do otherwise.

There’s a danger, though, in retrenching. If we retreat in to our organisational silos then we are likely to lose sight of the big picture. Organisations need boundary spanners – those rare individuals who can sit across divisional boundaries and understand the Babel Fishwider world. If you think for a moment I’ll bet that you can identify your own boundary spanners – people who seem to be involved in everything, people who can talk in the language of other departments. Maybe you’re a boundary spanner?

One of the things that boundary spanners do is act as an organisational babel fish. My favourite of all Douglas Adams’ amazing creations, the babel fish (when inserted in one’s ear) allows one to immediately understand anything that is being said – even if it’s said in a language we’ve never heard before.

Boundary spanners can speak the language of the whole organisation, not just the discrete area which we might consider to be the ‘day job’. Anybody at any level of an oganisation can be a boundary spanner but it’s an essential skill for leaders. A departmental leader should hold the service for which they are responsible at arm’s length. A good CIO, for example, must be as close to the business uniBoundary Spannerts as they are to the ICT department. This places the CIO in a position to effect 2-way translation – ie to explain to the ICT team what it is the customer really wants and to clarify/simplify the information which flows back from the ICT team to the customer.

Professionals in any discipline have a tendency to communicate with laypeople using impenetrable language strewn with 3 letter acronyms. A good leader and boundary spanner will ensure that this doesn’t happen – they’ll be a babel fish.

Another key role of the boundary spanner is to act as a ‘critical friend’. Using IT as an example again (because that’s my area) the CIO/boundary spanner will challenge the business units to clarify their thinking when it is apparent that the customer is not really sure what they want (or, more importantly, what they need). It works the other way too – the CIO boundary spanner should push back hard on the ICT team when they are saying, for example, that something can’t be done. Why can’t it be done? Are you sure? What if we do it another way? All this happens behind the scenes and can go a long way to keeping VIPs happy elsewhere in the organisations.

Sometimes boundary spanners emerge naturally – perhaps because a good leader intuits the need. Sometimes it’s just that the individuals concerned are a bit nosey and like to know what’s going on. Don’t worry though, if you don’t have boundary spanners you can make them – it’s not hard. I recommend ’embedding’ people in other departments – go talk to the various business units, attend their management meetings and, importantly, try to take a step away from your own service area and view its performance in the context of the organisation’s strategic direction.

I’ve talked about IT here but all parts of the organisation need boundary spanners – particularly the corporate support services such as HR, Finance and Legal. The cartoon below (and oldie but goody) illustrates the dangers of not having enough boundary spanners involved in any activity…

project_management

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