The boundaryless career concept widens our perspective toward a range of possible career forms both within and across organizations, but it is not primarily determined and driven by the career system of a single organization. The formulation of the boundaryless-career concept responds to the observation that stable employment and careers within organizations account for the career experiences of some people, but not necessarily all. Boundaryless careers can unfold in a variety of ways. The use of the boundaryless-career concept commonly describes careers that involve moves across the physical boundaries of separate employers, such as stereotypical Silicon Valley careers. Boundary-less careers also occur when individuals are either involuntarily forced or voluntarily choose to leave their employers and thereby put an end to career advancement within the organization.
The boundaryless-career concept is not only relevant to any physical change of employers. It also applies to careers that draw validation and marketability from outside the present employer, as in the case of certain highly skilled professionals or academics; careers that are sustained by external networks; or careers that rely on information from outside, as in the case of a real estate agent or financial broker. Likewise, careers can be described as boundaryless when individuals base career choices on internal standards, such as personal or family reasons, rather than external career opportunities. Moreover, the boundaryless-career perspective acknowledges people’s subjective construction of their career situations despite or regardless of structural constraints.
Understanding the Boundaryless-Career Context: A Focus on Employability
The boundaryless-career perspective challenges the overriding influence of large, bureaucratic organizations on people’s careers. Observing the consequences of large-scale corporate restructuring, scholars have argued that the promise of long-term employment has been replaced by employment relationships that are increasingly transactional and insecure. Even if full-time employment with a single organization may continue to be a prevailing experience for many individuals, the psychological contract has changed significantly. Under this new contract, employment is less a result of loyalty to one’s employer than of “employability” in terms of the marketability of one’s skills and knowledge in the external labor market.
The boundaryless-career perspective is particularly relevant to industries with unpredictable and opportunistic markets. Here, employees are exposed to a high degree of employment uncertainty because firms seek to pass on the uncertainty from external markets by using temporal, project-based forms of organizing. For example, in cultural industries such as publishing, film, and the arts, where funding is typically limited, organizations seek to maintain flexibility by providing freelancers only short-term employment on discrete projects. In the information technology (IT) sector, firms need to manage the risk that results from rapid technological changes. By employing contingent IT staff, firms avoid being stuck with obsolete technical competencies and shift responsibility for skill development to IT professionals themselves. In other industries, the use of temporary contractual workers or interim managers may not be the dominant organizing principle but simply provides firms with flexibility at the fringes of leaner hierarchically organized core businesses.
Not So Flexible After All
Despite the apparent reorientation of labor markets toward flexibility and marketability of skills, the reality of boundaryless careers is neither unconstrained by social structure nor exclusively regulated by market principles. Studies from a diverse range of industries suggest that boundaryless careers are embedded within social networks, institutional environments, and communities. The ways in which social networks facilitate and constrain mobility differ across industries. In cultural industries, access to social networks is important because they provide continuity and access to skills in environments in which production is characterized by short-term funding of project-based organizations. Since the quality of specific social relations, as opposed to individuals’ competencies alone, shapes how people produce creative products and services, individuals need to rely strongly on informal networks of friends, family, agencies, and unions to develop a reputation and mitigate the insecurity of freelance employment. Individuals who lack this type of social capital may find it difficult to acquire, because collaborative relationships tend to be deeply rooted in their particular locality, for example, London’s advertising community in Soho or the Los Angeles film industry.
In other occupations, collaborative relationships may be less specific. For example, careers for IT professionals or MBA graduates are more strongly influenced by the codification of a clearly defined set of skills and knowledge. In these settings, people benefit from access to diverse networks that help to update their skills and knowledge. As studies of IT professionals and entrepreneurs suggest, informal social networks can become platforms for the exchange of socially embedded knowledge and competencies.
Previous research suggests a range of other contextual factors that constrain career mobility. Among these are a country’s institutional frameworks and macroeconomic environment. Moreover, individuals’ enactments of careers are often guided by the socially shared meaning, values, and preferences of ethnic groups, nations, and career communities. Cultural values can have a pervasive influence on careers because obligations to family and local community determine aspirations and values and thereby constrain how people think about their careers.
Career Development in a Boundaryless-Career Context
From a boundaryless-career perspective, career development needs to strengthen individuals’ self-direction and adaptability within a more transactional employment context. Rational approaches of career development see self-direction and adaptability as primarily determined by a person’s ability to engage in beneficial exchanges. Drawing on institutional economics, rational approaches seek to improve career mobility and employability through the development of relevant competencies and social networks.
A Competency-based View of Career Development
A competency-based view of careers suggests that career actors’ accumulation and understanding of their own unique bundle of competencies in “knowing why,” “knowing how,” and “knowing whom” can provide individual-centered guideposts in a turbulent and ambiguous career landscape. “Knowing why” competencies provide individuals with answers about their career motives, personal meaning, and identification, based on which they can commit to firms, projects, or personal enterprises in a less certain world of work. “Knowing how” competencies represent individuals’ understanding of job-related skills and career-related knowledge and provide the confidence to master current and prospective jobs. “Knowing whom” competencies reflect individuals’ understanding of career-relevant networks, based on which they can generate knowledge, learn, and develop a reputation. Based on their understanding of career competencies, people can evaluate which of their skills, knowledge, networks, or identities may facilitate mobility in the future and which competencies may become obsolete over time.
This competency-based view has become a widely accepted framework for positioning scholarly work in the area of career development. For example, studies of entrepreneurs and investors suggest that the combination of different competencies acquired during earlier corporate career stages contributes later on to career success in entrepreneurial settings. Career competencies such as a proactive personality, openness to experience, career insight, an ability to access mentors and internal and external networks, relevant skills, and a sense of career identity have been associated with indicators of career success, including perceived career satisfaction, perceived internal marketability, and perceived external marketability.
A Socially Embedded View of Career Development
Based on the argument that boundaryless careers are both facilitated and constrained by social networks, career scholars have argued that a critical determinant of career success in a boundaryless-career environment is access to social support. As individuals’ commitments to their employers are increasingly turning transactional, relationships to a wider career community of mentors, current and previous work associates, and alumni are often becoming sources of longer-term commitments. The general conclusion in this area is that relationships with people from different social systems allow individuals to gain access to a wider range of sources of support. Yet diversity alone is not sufficient, since psychologically close relationships with one or a few mentors may provide greater learning and job satisfaction than diverse networks alone.
Shaping Personally Meaningful Career Journeys
Confidence in one’s ability to cope with changes in the external employment market results not only from one’s ability to maintain physical career mobility. The shift of responsibility for career development from the organization to the individual has stimulated increasing attention among career scholars to the duality between individuals’ objective and subjective experiences of careers. Traditional criteria of career success such as salary, benefits, or advancement seem no longer appropriate, as individuals view their careers as “personal projects” and seek to define themselves through work. Career scholars who have drawn on the humanistic notion of work as a terrain where individuals can develop and express their potential have examined how individuals can proactively transform their careers to develop personally meaningful identities.
From a boundaryless-career perspective, developing a clear sense of identity is important for several reasons. First, in an increasingly individualized and transient society, an adaptive identity gains in importance because individuals need to cope with the social and emotional costs that may arise from career changes and the loss of attachment to families, local communities, and traditional organizations. Second, since traditional criteria of career success may be difficult to attain and may not necessarily be desirable to career actors, viewing oneself as able to adapt to changes is crucial to developing and maintaining a sense of psychological success. Third, exploring one’s deeper motives with regard to work is also instrumental in steering one’s career trajectory through a context in which organizational career systems can no longer serve as a point of reference.
Attention to the subjective experience of boundaryless careers provides a more comprehensive understanding of boundaryless-career experiences that do not deliver advancement in terms of traditional criteria of career success. For example, research on career mobility, international careers, and women’s careers suggests that these experiences may be more adequately understood when accounting for individuals’ personal reasons.
Women’s Career Experiences
For women, who are more likely than men to pursue boundaryless careers, career moves often represent adaptive, and in some instances identity-transforming, responses to other events in their lives, rather than advancement of their careers. Boundaryless careers may be the last available resort when alternative forms of long-term employment or advancement within a firm seem blocked. Women are also more likely to switch to another employer if they wish to “follow” the career move of a partner who is also the primary financial provider, perceive limited opportunities for intraorganizational advancement as a result of having children, or experience marital breakdown. Although such change, triggered by external events, does not always bring about improvements in terms of traditional criteria of career success, it may nevertheless improve perceptions of intrinsic job characteristics such as challenge, variety, freedom, quality of work life, and learning potential.
International Career Experiences
Intrinsic rather than extrinsic motives also seem to characterize individuals’ decisions to initiate international assignments. Studies of expatriate careers suggest that individuals engage in foreign assignments not so much because of career progress or economic benefits. Instead, the motives for international moves are often the perceived opportunities for personal development, enriching one’s life, and learning new skills. Thus, having used organizational opportunities to achieve personal career objectives, the expatriate experience may become an entry point to a boundaryless career upon repatriation, since opportunities for career advancement within the same firm can often seem limited.
Identity-based Approaches to Career Development
There are many ways in which individuals can gain clarity about their career identities. Often, this process may commence introspectively, supported by self-assessment tests, self-help books, participation in professional networks, and coaching. However, to be actionable and successful, such self-reflective exploration needs to be embedded in a person’s real experiences. In other instances, changing one’s career may follow a “first-act-and-then-think” sequence.
Among the many assessment tests, the exploration of career anchors and the Intelligent Career Card Sort (ICCS) represent career development activities that help ground introspective self-exploration in a person’s career reality. Focusing on a boundaryless-career context, the ICCS draws on the “knowing why,” “knowing how,” and “knowing whom” framework described earlier. In this activity, individuals are called to select seven items from each of three larger card sets that represent the three ways of knowing. Individuals are then asked to explain the personal meaning that each selected item has in their own careers. In contrast to traditional career development approaches that focus on identifying relevant competences and career strategies, the ICCS seeks to elicit subjective knowledge based on which individuals can create personal career narratives that are relevant to their particular career contexts.
Implications for Organizations
The changing employment context characterized by the boundaryless-career perspective also has implications for how organizations think about the development of their employees. As a consequence of individuals assuming more personal responsibility for the development of their careers in response to increasingly transactional employment relationships, organizations must manage employees who have become less loyal.
For the human resource function, the boundaryless-career perspective implies a shift of priorities away from managing “human capital” and toward managing relationships in ways that enable organizations to respond flexibly to market changes. This changing agenda must coexist with the provision of sufficient stability in the processes of recruiting, developing, and retaining people’s talent and knowledge. For example, in a more transactional career context, organizations need to resource knowledge and talent increasingly from a pool of people with diverse, possibly idiosyncratic, career paths. As a result, it becomes difficult for organizations to base their resource allocation decisions on organization-specific career structures and competence systems. Organizations may respond to this changing context in two ways. Either they can develop processes that allow them to evaluate and assimilate the diverse experiences and competencies that people gained prior to joining the organization, or they can reduce the risk of incompatibility by using contingent work contracts.
The implications of the changing terms of the psychological contract characterized by the boundaryless-career perspective go beyond recruitment and resourcing. For organizations, new challenges arise from the need to manage for flexibility while continuing to motivate employees, despite weaker bureaucratic and cultural mechanisms of control and coordination. Practicing community values is one approach through which organizations may be able to balance the harshness resulting from a stricter market orientation. By encouraging employee participation in project and occupational communities beyond the boundaries of the firm, organizations enable learning and knowledge sharing; foster individuals’ capacity to respond with resilience to job, career, and life changes; and maintain the safety nets and supports that make people less vulnerable to dynamic market changes.
From a boundaryless-career perspective, it becomes increasingly difficult for leaders to instill motivation through commitment to an elusive organizational vision. Moreover, in settings in which teams are composed of members from different organizations, individuals’ motivation may be difficult to manage, because people with similar experiences and competencies may work under different contractual arrangements. An organizational context that is characterized by ambiguous boundaries and a membership that finds itself in constant “flux” requires the ability of leaders to mobilize members through the creation of metaphors, symbols, and cultural interpretations that build coherence, meaning, and anchors for group identification.
The Road Ahead
There are several priorities for advancing our understanding of career development in an increasingly boundaryless-career context. First, to develop the theoretical and practical relevance of this perspective, further research needs to examine the determinants and outcomes of particular boundaryless-career trajectories, thereby strengthening the generalizability of findings. This may be achieved with research that identifies determinants of career outcomes, such as mobility, career success, and satisfaction, through systematic comparison of boundaryless-career trajectories within and across different settings.
Second, further research needs to explore how people’s understanding of their competencies, networks, and the meaning of their careers influence each other and shape their career behaviors. For example, studies may explore how particular learning needs determine particular network structures. Likewise, systematic preferences for particular types of competencies and network configurations may influence individuals’ evaluation of experiences and formation of career identities.
Third, the further development of the boundaryless-career perspective requires attention to the dynamics between individuals’ search for self-determination and structural constraints to career mobility. Attention to both the objective and subjective experience of careers promises to enrich our understanding of how career actors’ behaviors and attitudes may help them respond to structural constraints and a perceived lack of mobility.
Finally, the application of the boundaryless-career perspective to more traditional areas of research in organizational behavior and human resource management would be particularly beneficial. The boundaryless-career perspective reminds us that individuals will respond to their contexts not only from the viewpoint of their current jobs but also from the longer-term perspective of their careers. Once we accept that both individuals and organizations are participants in the same, increasingly boundaryless career context, there are new possibilities. From this perspective, individuals would be concerned about accumulating career capital in terms of knowledge, skills, social networks, and identity investments. Accordingly, organizations would be concerned about building intellectual capital in terms of their capacities for adaptation, innovation, and knowledge retention. Traditional ideas about permanent jobs or lifetime employment fail to recognize these changing concerns of both parties.
In conclusion, a decade of research exploring boundaryless-career phenomena provides individuals, organizational practitioners, and career scholars with a more balanced view of the internal and external dynamics that influence individuals’ abilities to enact boundaryless careers. Internally, boundaryless careers promise adaptability, the development of career identities that are aligned with personal values, and the attainment of subjective criteria of career success. Externally, boundaryless careers require attention to the marketability of competencies, social networks, and institutional environments that constrain and facilitate mobility and to the economic, social, and emotional costs of boundaryless-career moves. The relevance of the boundaryless-career perspective for career development and human resource practices will depend on our ability to give consideration to these dynamics.
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