The evolution of the boundaryless career concept: Examining physical and psychological mobility

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<ul><li><p>Journal of Vocational Behavior 69 (2006) 1929</p><p></p><p>The evolution of the boundaryless career concept: Examining physical and psychological mobility </p><p>Sherry E. Sullivan a,, Michael B. Arthur b,1</p><p>a Department of Management, College of Business, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403, USA</p><p>b Sawyer School of Management, SuVolk University, 8 Ashurton Place, Boston, MA 02108, USA</p><p>Received 8 September 2005Available online 16 November 2005</p><p>Abstract</p><p>Although there has been increased interest in the boundaryless career since the publication ofArthur and Rousseaus book (1996), there is still some misunderstanding about what the conceptmeans. This article examines the boundaryless career and presents a model that attempts to visuallycapture Arthur and Rousseaus suggestion that the concept involves six underlying meanings. Ratherthan considering whether or not an individual has a boundaryless career, the model focuses on thedegree of mobility reXected in a career along two continua: one psychological, one physical. Based onthe model, we suggest Wve propositions and a series of directions for future research. 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.</p><p>Keywords: Career; Boundaryless; Protean; Women; Transitions; Mobility; Gender</p><p>1. Introduction</p><p>There have been calls for greater clarity of terms and further conceptualization of theboundaryless career (e.g., Inkson, 2002; Pringle &amp; Mallon, 2003; Sullivan, 1999) and its dis-tinction from the concept of the protean career (Briscoe, Hall, &amp; DeMuth, 2006; Hall,1996; Hall, Briscoe, &amp; Kram, 1997). Some authors have considered the boundaryless career0001-8791/$ - see front matter 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2005.09.001</p><p> Thanks to Jon Briscoe, Madeline Crocitto, Tim Hall, Kerr Inkson, Sally Power, and two anonymous review-ers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.</p><p>* Corresponding author. Fax: +1 419 372 6057.E-mail addresses: (S.E. Sullivan), (M.B. Arthur).</p><p>1 Fax: +1 617 994 4260.</p></li><li><p>20 S.E. Sullivan, M.B. Arthur / Journal of Vocational Behavior 69 (2006) 1929</p><p>as involving only physical changes in work arrangements. In contrast, other authors haveconsidered the protean career concept as involving only psychological changes. However,this separation between physical (or objective) career changes and psychological (or sub-jective) career changes neglects the interdependence between the physical and psychologi-cal career worlds. The result is a body of work that lacks applicability for the individual,who needs to take both physical and psychological issues into account. Similarly, it lacksapplicability for the practicing manager or career counselor who seeks to support theindividual.</p><p>While recent research has begun to recognize the links between physical and psycholog-ical career changes (e.g., Marler, Barringer, &amp; Milkovich, 2002; Peiperl, Arthur, GoVee, &amp;Morris, 2000; Valcour &amp; Tolbert, 2003), there still remain rich opportunities for furtherresearch. In this article, we seek to stimulate new research by focusing on two questions.First, how can we further clarify and elaborate on the meaning of the boundaryless career?Second, how can we better explore the possible interaction of mobility across (a) physicaland (b) psychological boundaries?</p><p>We begin by examining Arthur and Rousseaus (1996) deWnition of the boundarylesscareer as well as its subsequent interpretation and application. Next, we present a model tobetter illustrate the physical and psychological aspects of boundaryless careers. Using thismodel as a basis, we explore how career competencies, gender, culture, and individualdiVerences inXuence individuals opportunities for physical and psychological mobility.Finally, we discuss the implications of these ideas for both practice and future research.</p><p>2. Mobility across physical and psychological boundaries</p><p>Arthur and Rousseaus 1996 book, The Boundaryless Career, encouraged researchers torethink their ideas of what a career entails, and raised a number of new questions and linesof inquiry. In the book they detailed six diVerent meanings of boundaryless careers, involv-ing careers:</p><p>(1) like the stereotypical Silicon Valley career, that move across the boundaries of sepa-rate employers;</p><p>(2) like those of academics or carpenters, that draw validationand marketabilityfrom outside the present employer;</p><p>(3) like those of real-estate agents, that are sustained by external networks or information;(4) that break traditional organizational assumptions about hierarchy and career</p><p>advancement;(5) that involve an individual rejecting existing career opportunities for personal or fam-</p><p>ily reasons; and(6) that are based on the interpretation of the career actor, who may perceive a boun-</p><p>daryless future regardless of structural constraints.</p><p>Arthur and Rousseau (1996, p. 6) also stated that a common factor in all these deWni-tions was one of independence from, rather than dependence on, traditional organiza-tional career arrangements. However, it has subsequently been noted that there can bemobility across other kinds of boundariesfor example, occupational or cultural bound-arieswhich may also contribute to what we interpret to be boundaryless careers (Gunz,</p><p>Evans, &amp; Jalland, 2000; Inkson, this issue; Sullivan &amp; Mainiero, 2000).</p></li><li><p>S.E. Sullivan, M.B. Arthur / Journal of Vocational Behavior 69 (2006) 1929 21</p><p>Since the publication of Arthur and Rousseaus book, a number of researchers havefocused on physical mobility across boundaries invoked by meanings 1 and 4. However,relatively few researchers have examined mobility across, or changes to, psychologicalboundaries described in meanings 2, 3, 5, and 6. For example, Sullivans (1999) review ofthe empirical careers literature found that sixteen studies examined the crossing of physicalboundaries (e.g., between occupations, Wrms, levels) whereas only three studies focusedrelationships across those boundaries. More recently, Arthur, Khapova, and Wilderom(2005) 11-year review of career success research reported that few of the 80 articles exam-ined, conceptualized or operationalized success in ways that could add to our understand-ing of boundaryless careers. Only one-third of the articles recognized any two-wayinterdependence between objective and subjective career success, while a much lower frac-tion acknowledged the inXuence of either inter-organizational mobility or extra-organiza-tional support on career success. Thus, scholars have emphasized physical mobility acrossboundaries at the cost of neglecting psychological mobility and its relationship to physicalmobility.</p><p>The possible reasons for this emphasis on physical mobility may be twofold. First,although there are two types of mobilitythe physical, which is the transition acrossboundaries and the psychological, which is the perception of the capacity to make tran-sitionsresearchers appear to have viewed boundaryless careers as the Wrst type. Theyhave focused on physical mobility between jobs, employers or industries. Researchershave been less interested in the second type of mobility, and in particular the perceivedcapacity for change that underlies Arthur and Rousseaus (1996, p. 6) meaning 6, the interpretation of the career actor, who may perceive a boundaryless futureregardless of structural constraints. Second, researchers may Wnd it easier to measurephysical mobility (e.g., counting the number of times someone changed jobs, employersor occupations) than to measure perceptions about psychological mobility. It is per-haps not surprising that most studies have operationalized boundaryless careers interms of physical mobility.</p><p>Because of the emphasis on physical mobility, the versatility of the boundaryless careerconcept is not always acknowledged. Recognizing this versatility suggests that future con-ceptual and empirical research needs to question the potential diVerence between boun-daryless careers characterized primarily by physical mobility (that is, actual movementbetween jobs, Wrms, occupations, and countries) versus boundaryless careers characterizedprimarily by psychological mobility (that is, the capacity to move as seen through the mindof the career actor). Moreover, as previously noted, it is relatively easy to measure physicalmobility, but it is more diYcult to measure psychological mobility (see Briscoe et al., 2006).For example, how could the complexities of the psychological mobility in the following sit-uations be measured?</p><p>John2 once saw himself as a manager seeking advancement within his present com-pany (a traditional organizational career). Now at midlife, he has refused further pro-motions to spend more time with his children (Arthur and Rousseaus meaning 5),accepting instead lateral transfers that permit reXective, on-the-job learning (Arthurand Rousseaus meaning 4).</p><p>2 Each of the examples given is based upon an individual the authors have encountered through other research</p><p>or consulting projects. All names have been disguised.</p></li><li><p>22 S.E. Sullivan, M.B. Arthur / Journal of Vocational Behavior 69 (2006) 1929</p><p>Suzanne is a middle manager seen by others as plateaued in her present organization.However, she anticipates a boundaryless future because she sees her skills as market-able (Arthur and Rousseaus meaning 6). She has not yet crossed physical boundariesbetween organizations or occupations, but intends to do so.</p><p>In addition to measuring complex physical and psychological mobility, how can careerchanges that represent varying combinations of physical and psychological mobility, andthe interdependency between them be measured? Consider the following example:</p><p>Cindy happily viewed herself as company accountant until she grew bored withher job. She turned to her professional association for validation of her abilities(Arthur and Rousseaus meaning 2). This led to new opportunities to provideaccounting services that she is now pursuing through a small home-based busi-ness. Freed from the constraints her employer once placed on her, she now has asubstantial support system outside that employer (Arthur and Rousseausmeaning 3).</p><p>3. A model of boundaryless careers</p><p>The growing complexity of the contemporary career landscape, as well as the manyinter-connected factors that can inXuence career decisions, make it increasingly chal-lenging for researchers to capture diVerent types of boundaryless career mobility. Torespond to this challenge, we suggest a deWnition of a boundaryless career as one thatinvolves physical and/or psychological career mobility. Such a career can be thenviewed as characterized by varying levels of physical and psychological mobility. Thus,boundaryless careers can be represented by the model depicted in Fig. 1, with physical</p><p>Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4</p><p>High</p><p>Psychological Mobility</p><p> Low</p><p>Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2</p><p>Low High </p><p>Physical MobilityFig. 1. Two dimensions of boundaryless careers.</p></li><li><p>S.E. Sullivan, M.B. Arthur / Journal of Vocational Behavior 69 (2006) 1929 23</p><p>mobility along the horizontal continuum and psychological mobility along the verticalcontinuum.</p><p>According to the model, having a boundaryless career is not an either or propositionas suggested by some studies. Rather, a boundaryless career can be viewed and operation-alized by the degree of mobility exhibited by the career actor along both the physical andpsychological continua. Both physical and psychological mobilityand the interdepen-dence between themcan thereby be recognized and subsequently measured. To facilitatediscussion of the model, we focus on four pure types of careers, with these four typesreXecting the four diVerent quadrants, as follows.</p><p>3.1. Quadrant 1</p><p>Careers in this quadrant exhibit low levels of both physical and psychological mobility.In some circumstances this kind of career can appeal to both parties to an employmentcontract. Consider Alex, a long-tenured NASA engineer. Despite having an advanced edu-cation, his highly specialized knowledge may have low transferability because NASA is theonly employer requiring this knowledge. Moreover, enjoying the job security and uniquechallenges of the job, he may have little desire to change employers. Both physical andpsychological boundaries are likely to remain.</p><p>However, unlike the career of the NASA engineer, other careers in this quadrant maynot be so enduring. Consider Vicki who works in a bank and has a social life that reliesheavily on her fellow workers. Mergers and acquisitions in the industry may not onlythreaten the stability of her social life, but also the opportunities for her Wnding similaremployment elsewhere. Likewise, those lacking basic skills and training, as well as thechronically unemployed, may also have careers in this quadrant.</p><p>3.2. Quadrant 2</p><p>Careers in this quadrant have high levels of physical mobility but low levels of psycho-logical mobility. For instance, Colin, a young person bent on seeing the world, may oVerhis skills as a waiter or bartender in a series of temporary jobs that provide the opportunityto travel. Helen, a schoolteacher, may change jobs at short notice to follow the geographi-cally mobile career of her partner, but may not seek any psychological beneWt from such ajob change. The common factor in such careers is that they cross physical boundaries butpsychological boundaries remain as they were.</p><p>Some careers in this quadrant may become dysfunctional as they unfold. ConsiderPeter, a computer programmer seeking to maximize income by applying his existing pro-gramming skills. Those skills may remain in demand for some time, but only because pro-grammers willing to work on older systems are in limited supply. As the number of thesesystems dwindles, Peter may Wnd fewer and fewer opportunities for further employment.</p><p>3.3. Quadrant 3</p><p>Careers in this quadrant have low levels of physical mobility but high levels ofpsychological mobility. Individuals with these types of careers recognize and act on thepotential for psychological career mobility. They sustain high expectations of their own</p><p>employabilityfor example, as respected academics, experienced management consultants</p></li><li><p>24 S.E. Sullivan, M.B. Arthur / Journal of Vocational Behavior 69 (2006) 1929</p><p>or skilled nurseswithout changing employers. Other kinds of psychological mobility canoccur when individuals seek personal growth outside the workplace (e.g., by taking adulteducation classes or doing volunteer work), or by introducing new ideas into the work-place.</p><p>However, psychological mobility can also cause problems. Sarah, a research chemist,felt psychologically boundaryless because of her conWdence in her own ability. ThenSarahs employer assigned her work unrelated to her research specialization, making herunattractive to potential employers. Sarahs extreme conWdence in her own abilities causedher to lose touch with developments in her Weld, making it diYcult for her to Wnd a morepsychologically meaningful work situation. Similarly, Bob has ad...</p></li></ul>


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