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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Bridges, brokers and boundary spanners in collaborative networks: a systematic review

Janet C Long*, Frances C Cunningham and Jeffrey Braithwaite

Author affiliations

Centre for Clinical Governance Research, Australian Institute of Health Innovation, University of New South Wales, Kensington, Australia

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Citation and License

BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:158  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-158

Published: 30 April 2013

Abstract

Background

Bridges, brokers and boundary spanners facilitate transactions and the flow of information between people or groups who either have no physical or cognitive access to one another, or alternatively, who have no basis on which to trust each other. The health care sector is a context that is rich in isolated clusters, such as silos and professional “tribes,” in need of connectivity. It is a key challenge in health service management to understand, analyse and exploit the role of key agents who have the capacity to connect disparate groupings in larger systems.

Methods

The empirical, peer reviewed, network theory literature on brokerage roles was reviewed for the years 1994 to 2011 following PRISMA guidelines.

Results

The 24 articles that made up the final literature set were from a wide range of settings and contexts not just healthcare. Methods of data collection, analysis, and the ways in which brokers were identified varied greatly. We found four main themes addressed in the literature: identifying brokers and brokerage opportunities, generation and integration of innovation, knowledge brokerage, and trust. The benefits as well as the costs of brokerage roles were examined.

Conclusions

Collaborative networks by definition, seek to bring disparate groups together so that they can work effectively and synergistically together. Brokers can support the controlled transfer of specialised knowledge between groups, increase cooperation by liaising with people from both sides of the gap, and improve efficiency by introducing “good ideas” from one isolated setting into another.

There are significant costs to brokerage. Densely linked networks are more efficient at diffusing information to all their members when compared to sparsely linked groups. This means that while a bridge across a structural hole allows information to reach actors that were previously isolated, it is not the most efficient way to transfer information. Brokers who become the holders of, or the gatekeepers to, specialised knowledge or resources can become overwhelmed by the role and so need support in order to function optimally.

Keywords:
Brokerage; Collaborative networks; Structural holes; Social network theory; Knowledge transfer