Journal of Management Information Systems

Volume 22 Number 4 2006 pp. 13-37

Turning a Community into a Market: A Practice Perspective on Information Technology Use in Boundary Spanning

Levina, Natalia and Vaast, Emmanuelle

ABSTRACT: This paper examines how information technology (IT) transforms relations across fields of practice within organizations. Drawing on Bourdieu's practice theory, we argue that the production of any practice involves varying degrees of embodiment (i.e., relying on personal relationships) and objectification (i.e., relying on the exchange of objects). We subsequently characterize boundary-spanning practices according to their relative degrees of embodiment and objectification. We distinguish between ‘market-like’ boundary-spanning practices, which rely primarily on an objectified mode of practice production, from ‘community-like’ practices, which involve mostly the embodied mode of practice production. IT is then conceptualized as a medium for sharing objects in the production of practices. As such, IT use allows for the sharing of objects without relying on embodied relationships. We use data from an in-depth ethnographic case study to investigate how IT was used to transform community-like boundary-spanning practices within an organization into market-like ones. Moreover, we demonstrate how, as IT was used to support the exchange and combination of depersonalized objects, other aspects of the practice (such as the roles of intermediaries and the nature of meetings) also changed. The related changes in these diverse aspects of a boundary-spanning practice supported the trend toward greater objectification. IT use also increased visibility of the terms associated with object exchange. This increased visibility exposed the inequity of the exchange and encouraged the disadvantaged party to renegotiate the relationship.

Key words and phrases: boundary objects, boundary spanners, boundary spanning, communities of practice, coordination mechanisms, information technology use, practice theory, qualitative methods