Digitalization is one of the most important phenomena that characterize the last decade – not only in business-to-consumer markets but also in business-to-business as well. The advent of digital technologies has multiplied the number and type of touchpoints between actors, thus generating new spaces of interaction where cross-boundary movements are frequent and traverse physical and digital contexts. All these elements, in turn, produce a higher need for coordination in business relationships. By using the concept of boundary objects, the purpose of this paper is to understand the main functions of boundary objects to coordinate business relationships across digital and physical contexts.
The empirical research is based on two case studies where the role of boundary objects is particularly emphasized: Salesforce.com and 3DiTALY. 27 qualitative interviews with key referents have been carried out. To analyze data, the authors applied a constructionist perspective based on Carlile’s (2004) framework of transferring, translating and transforming knowledge across boundaries.
The study will identify six functions that boundary objects play in coordinating business relationships across physical and digital contexts. It will also show the relevance of a mental network space of shared understanding to enable changes in the relational network space.
This study makes concrete the abstract idea of boundary objects. Therefore, it sheds light on the opportunity of managing strategically boundary objects in order to improve their effectiveness in digital environments.
The study will contribute to IMP research on b-to-b relationships by showing that, in digital contexts, boundary objects are key to coordinate interaction in space and cross-boundary movements. The study will show that once considering a digital context, the traditional functions of boundary objects in terms of transfer, translation, and transformation can be further declined into sub-functions. The study will also provide important managerial implications on how boundary objects can be strategically used by companies to increase the effectiveness of their business relationships.
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