| 3 minute read

Why Boundary Spanning Agents are the new generation’s super-heroes

Jose Villagran

Recently, the foundations of the modern society have been impacted significantly by the rapid spread of the coronavirus outbreak, creating uncertainty regarding the implications for all aspects of our life. Today, we are witnessing just how much the world can suddenly be confronted by immense new challenges.

These disruptions demand quick innovation and effective collaboration to collectively address pressing issues and ensure sustainability. Now more than ever, the roles of change-maker and innovator are imperative. It is in challenging times like these that we need to strengthen international, national and cross-continental scientific ties between scientists, decision makers, private practitioners, industries, health professionals and civil society at large for a multi-dimensional cooperation.

At the forefront of such collaborations, we have seen the power of people coming together to address a common goal and push through and past the looming uncertainties. Whilst universities and industry working in close cooperation are considered engines of innovation, it is people who are the most crucial players in transferring innovation across institutions, mobilising resources, triggering organisational change, and making a difference in their regions. The success of such endeavours, thus, often relies on boundary spanning agents, who successfully bridge the academic and industrial worlds to build networks, enable knowledge creation and transfer, and together create, manage, and implement innovative solutions.

The boundary spanning agents, defined as ‘individuals known for their success in breaking down silos both among internal units and also across sectors in their external engagement for collaborative innovation’, are increasingly acknowledged today as crucial in driving innovation. They have a deep understanding of both the university ecosystem and the business world and help to overcome the sectoral and disciplinary boundaries. These individuals do this by building networks and exchanging knowledge and skills within and across such networks.

But who exactly are the boundary spanning agents? And what are the common characteristics embedded into a successful boundary spanning agent’s DNA?

As such, they are often characterised as super humans who are capable of many different things. These individuals must indeed have certain qualities, knowledge and skills that allow them, on one hand, to initiate and engage in cooperation, and on the other hand, also support and sustain such activities with an ultimate aim to drive collaborative innovation.

Successful boundary spanning agents build on a set of highly likable personality traits, influential characteristics, and strong social values. They possess a large skillset that includes collaboration, bridging, knowledge translation and negotiation skills. Boundary spanning agents are, furthermore, considered entrepreneurial professionals with strong complex problem-solving as well as leadership and managerial competences. They know how to mobilise resources and construct a compelling and shared vision for cooperative innovation.

As such, having and acting on such wide range of competencies allows for a highly situational, flexible manoeuvring of the boundary spanning activities that are not without pitfalls and dead-ends, and yet at the same time can also be collectively driven, with an ultimate aim to create and enhance collaborative innovation initiatives.

More than ever, there is a need to span boundaries between institutions, across nations and disciplines, which is why the Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance project Spanning Boundaries Development Programme was created. We aim to empower and enable university and business professionals to make a stronger contribution to regional economic and social development by providing knowledge, support and a closer engagement with each other and their environment.


Jose Villagran-Polo (author) is a Project Officer at UIIN and works on topics related to university-business collaboration, entrepreneurial education and the role of university-based incubators in their regions.

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