Charting Time

Included in my stack of reading for today was Yakura’s (2002) article on Charting Time.  The paper’s primary contribution is the idea that timelines function as temporal boundary objects. As a boundary object, timelines are both plastic enough to adapt to the local needs of multiple interacting parties, and yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across interaction sites (Star & Griesemer 1989).

Below I summarize the key arguments of the paper:

  • Measuring time (i.e., clocks) is distinguished from charting time (i.e., timelines)
  • Timelines are ubiquitous and taken for granted in organizations
  • Timelines rest on the assumption that time can be represented in standardized, invariable, context-free units (i.e., monotemporalism)
  • However, time in organizations is characterized by the side-by-side existence of many different types of time, socially constructed out of diverse human experience (i.e., pluritemporalism)
  • Monotemporalism and timelines are one approach to achieving coordination in spite of this diversity and pluritemporalism
  • Timelines are visual artifacts used to render time (the ultimate abstraction) as concrete and visible
  • Because of their artifactual quality, timelines function as temporal boundary objects, a nexus for interpretation and negotiation (i.e., timelines are both interpretively flexible and robust)
  • Unlike other boundary objects, timelines embody the key elements of narrative: a beginning, middle, and ending, and a focal topic
  • For good or ill, timelines cause people “fill in” or envision what will happen even when the future is uncertain and unpredictable

A few other take-aways:

  • Organizations built around monotemporal (i.e., Newtonian) conceptions of time are likely to face tensions because time is rarely interpreted the same way throughout an organization
  • Within an organization different temporal orders both unify and differentiate various occupational groups, allowing them to work in concert despite different interpretations of time
  • Time and culture may be inseparable. A change to one may implicate changes to the other. For example, in attempting a culture change, organizations may inadvertently rupture their existing temporal order, and in the process destroy the ability for people from different orders to come together
  • Similarly, time is integral to critical measures of performance and success. Changes to performance measurement systems may produce similar inadvertent effects (e.g., the implementation of Six Sigma or other management practices)

Citation: Yakura, E. K. 2002. “Charting time: Timelines as temporal boundary objects.” Academy of Management Journal, 45: 956-970.