Engineering Objects for Collaboration: Strategies of Ambiguity and Clarity at Knowledge Boundaries

William C. Barley, Paul M. Leonardi, Diane E. Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prior research suggests that boundary objects gain meaning through group interaction. Drawing from the literature on strategic ambiguity, we explore the possibility that individuals strategically create potential boundary objects in an attempt to shape the meanings that groups develop. From ethnographic observations of automotive engineers, we identify 2 creation strategies: ambiguity (to create objects that support multiple meanings) and clarity (to create objects that permit a particular meaning). We detail design activities that engineers undertook to create objects under each strategy. We find that, when creating objects, engineers favored a strategy of ambiguity, which they believed would foster healthy long-term group interactions, over a strategy of clarity, which they tended to employ only when they expected resistance to their ideas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)280-308
Number of pages29
JournalHuman Communication Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Linguistics and Language


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