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The role of design information as a “boundary object” in generating knowledge

15 June 2009

Derek Thomson

Jennifer Whyte and Boris Ewenstein have a *fantastic* (although it’s a bit long…) paper out on the role that design information plays helping groups of people understand a shared (construction design) problem and develop new knowledge in doing so.  They characterise design information as the”boundary object” that links two groups with distinct prior knowledge.

Although it’s interesting that they’re using the term solely with reference to epistomolgy – they haven’t picked up on the communities of practice angle.  Better not say too much!  They also don’t ground it in reflective design theory, which is a bit odd (they hint at it in passing, but that’s it)…

Anyway, this is the paper – it’s worth a read:

Knowledge Practices in Design: The Role of
Visual Representations as ‘Epistemic Objects’
Boris Ewenstein and Jennifer Whyte
Organization Studies 30(01): 07–30
DOI: 10.1177/0170840608083014

We use a detailed study of the knowledge work around visual representations to draw attention to the multidimensional nature of ‘objects’. Objects are variously described in the literatures as relatively stable or in flux; as abstract or concrete; and as used within or across practices. We clarify these dimensions, drawing on and extending the literature on boundary objects, and connecting it with work on epistemic and technical objects. In particular, we highlight the epistemic role of objects, using our observations of knowledge work on an architectural design project to show how, in this setting, visual representations are characterized by a ‘lack’ or incompleteness that precipitates unfolding. The conceptual design of a building involves a wide range of technical, social and aesthetic forms of knowledge that need to be developed and aligned. We explore how visual representations are used, and how these are meaningful to different stakeholders, eliciting their distinct contributions. As the project evolves and the drawings change, new issues and needs for knowledge work arise. These objects have an ‘unfolding ontology’ and are constantly in flux, rather than fully formed. We discuss the implications for wider understandings of objects in organizations and for how knowledge work is achieved in practice.

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