Managing to 'get by': Emergent workarounds for cross-boundary coordination in complex multiparty collaboration



Multiparty collaborations are inherently complex due to the embedding of parties in different contexts and the frequency and intensity of interactions between them. It is through cross-boundary coordination that these interactions are managed and collective outcomes can be realized. Given such complexity, an important question is how geographically dispersed parties can achieve coordination in multiparty projects. This paper draws on a unique case study of collaborative work toward realizing a production factory in China. It involves both inter- and intra-organizational collaboration among four groups of engineers that were located in Japan, China, Belgium, and the Netherlands. We introduce the concept of emergent workarounds and develop a process model that explains the micro-dynamics of cross-boundary coordination. We found that these workarounds were often aimed at making work visible and observable but surprisingly, were also aimed at making work invisible and unobservable. Hence, efforts of parties to reduce complexity actually lead to increased complexity. We argue that the temporal unfolding of parties’ coordination foci (project-driven ororganization-driven) and their strategic interests (aligned or conflicting) explainwhy complexity is sometimes manifested – and addressed – in unexpected ways. Where past research attests to managing anticipated complexity, this study refines our understanding of emergent workarounds to cope with complexity as it becomes manifest in practice.