Boundaryless career practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Life Career Development in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2008). Boundaryless career notion will not assist individuals without help from other concepts. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Critically evaluate the notion of the boundaryless career as it relates to the theory and practice of career management."
Boundaryless Career Notion
Will not Assist Individuals
Without Help from other Concepts
After defining key terms, we will examine the contributions of the notion of the boundaryless career for the theory and practice of career management – and will then turn to the concept’s vulnerabilities, which we will argue outweigh its contributions. Concepts, theory and evidence will be woven in rather than addressed in separate sections. We will conclude by stating the hope that elements of the notion of the boundaryless career, in conjunction with those of the protean career, can help individuals manage their own careers by establishing psychological contracts with themselves.
We will use Arnold’s (1997) definition of “career” as the “sequence of employment-related experiences encountered by a person.” We will understand Arthur and Rousseau’s (1996) boundaryless career as the opposite of the traditional hierarchical organizational career. Furthermore, we emphasize their central tenet that the boundaryless career is most distinctly characterized by independence from the organization rather than dependence upon it.
Contributions to the boundaryless career notion
First, we acknowledge that Arthur & Rousseau (1996) were trying to recognize that something important and different was happening to careers as they have historically been viewed. We also acknowledge Sullivan’s (1999) ideal types, which represent boundaryless versus organizational careers as oppositional according to six dimensions. These “ideal types” are the equivalent of archetypes, not meant to be “real” in a positivist sense but rather a representation of how these types of organizations could be described if these ideal states existed.
Sullivan (1999) captures the reality that today’s careers do not come with the expectation of job security for loyalty. This concept is also familiar to us within psychological contract theory. Originating with Argyris (1960), the psychological contract was first meant to convey the idea of mutual expectations beyond those stated by employee and organization. Since then, others have also defined the idea, including Rousseau (1990), who has written about the psychological contract at length. It has been widely acknowledged that the exchange perceived as part of the psychological contract is no longer what it was once considered to be (Herriot & Pemberton, 1996).
This is the case not just for the organizational employee, in general, but also for highly valued, fast-track management stars, who find that their own psychological contracts are becoming more ambiguous (Baruch & Peiper, (1997). Also captured from Sullivan (1999) is the idea that individuals must now manage their own careers and not depend on organizations to help them do it. Arnold (1997) agrees with this view wholeheartedly. To paraphrase, he suggests that the individual might do better to focus on remaining employable versus remaining employed. Finally, we must acknowledge that the notion of the boundaryless career has done much to spur debate and inform theory (Briscoe et al. 2007).
We argue the flaws of the notion of the boundaryless career on three fronts: 1) Agency as reflective of the reason that careers are becoming less organizational, 2) Organizational careers as the established, historic norm for careers, and 3) Mobility across employers as central to the concept.
Agency. By characterizing the boundaryless career as independent from the organization, Arthur and Rousseau (1994) imply removal of constraints and a sense of agency as a feature of the individual. Gunz et al., (2007) affirm this understanding by writing that “boundaryless” means that the individual can accomplish whatever he wants as long as he believes that he can and others do as well. This agency is not the reason that individuals are moving away from traditional organizational careers. In fact, it is antithetical to what is actually driving the need for individuals to manage their own careers. Arnold (1997), Herriot and Pemberton (1996) and Kets de vries (1997) all write that corporate restructuring, driven by the need to remain globally competitive, is leading to leading to downsizing and delayering. Orlando (1999) writes that downsizing (being made redundant) is “the major business trend of our era.” We argue that this defines the employment context in which organizations are becoming less career-affiliated and that it represents domination “of” the individual rather than agency “from” or "enacted by" the individual.
The organization as the norm. Arthur and Rousseau (1994) contrast boundaryless careers against the norm of organizational careers. While organizational (bureaucratic) careers have been well-described (e.g. Kanter, 1989), they have never really been the norm for everyone. Three groups, in particular, can be cited as exceptions.
1) Employees of bureaucratic organizations. Depending on their value to the organization, employees have different “deals” with it (Hirsh & Jackson, 1995), and those on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder may not even be aware that this “continuum of deals” exists. Similarly, Kidd (2003) writes that formal mentoring, which is associated with positive career outcomes, is traditionally only been offered to the high-fliers who are expected to succeed into management. Noting these circumstances, we argue that organizations have never really managed the careers of employees equally and without regard to status.
2) Professional careerists. Brown (1996) acknowledges that, as a method of social class advancement, the middle class has traditionally sought and earned professional credentials, which allow for a career in which affiliation is more skill-based and professional than organizationally embedded. In addition to organizational (bureaucratic) and professional careers, Kanter (1989) has described entrepreneurial careers, and Arnold (1997) writes that all careers are entrepreneurial.
3) The disadvantaged. Acknowledging Coleman’s (1996) social capital theory and those who are lacking in social capital, Brynner (1996) points to a growing disadvantaged underclass that has never had access to organizational careers. Instead, careers for these individuals consist of only intermittent periods of unskilled work interspersed with periods of unemployment. From Arnold (1997) comes bleak acknowledgement that in the U.K., less than half of the population is so disadvantaged that it lacks the opportunity to contribute to the economic well-being of its society.
Mobility as central to the boundaryless career. Returning to Sullivan (1999), mobility across employers is seen as central to the boundaryless career in that those who experience this model may be employed by multiple organizations rather than just one or two during the course of their careers. Yet in demonstrating validity and reliability for a two-dimensional boundaryless career measurement scale, Brisco et al., (2007), found that the dimension of mobility did not always correlate positively with the dimension of the boundaryless mindset. In fact, the correlation was sometimes a negative one. Briscoe and colleagues set out to develop this scale and also a scale for a distinct but related construct, the protean career, (Hall, 1976) because neither career form has been sufficiently operationalized for study. Thus, lack of empirical research can be considered an additional limitation.
Conclusion: If not boundaryless, then what?
If the idea of agency can be taught along with career self-efficacy (Mitchell & Krumboltz, 1990), then the boundaryless career can still contribute to our understanding of how individuals can attempt to manage their careers.
To assist, we suggest borrowing from Hall’s (1976) protean model, which is also agentic but in a proactive way. The protean model, which is dimensionalized by being values-driven and self-directed, suggests that individuals can develop skills and attitudes that allow them to be adaptable according to the opportunities that unfold for them. If this sort of adaptable agency can be pursued and achieved, then perhaps Baruch (1994) has gleaned the best idea from the protean model: Individuals should establish psychological contracts with themselves rather than the organization.
Exam performance: This essay was not used under exam conditions, so how it would have been marked is unknown.