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Inside-Outside - Boundaries

All systems have boundaries that distinguish the system from what's outside it. That sounds simple enough, and for many systems it is a relatively simple thing to define what's in the system and what's not. But for other systems the boundaries are continuous (not abrupt) and are not easily defined. For instance, in nature how do we define the exact borders of the system that constitutes an organism, or a river, or a cloud? What is the "boundary" between two different breeds of dogs or two different species of animals? In living systems, the boundaries may be different depending on how you look at the system and the level of scale or precision at which you look.

In systems evaluation, defining boundaries is a very challenging endeavor. For instance, where does one draw the boundaries on who is a stakeholder to a program? In an educational program, for instance, do you limit the stakeholders to the program participants and deliverers? Do you include family members? Administrators? Funders? The public? Or, how do you determine what the boundaries of your program are? In many situations, we think of the program as a set of activities that we can list. However, when we actually try listing program activities we can often find that even co-workers involved in delivering the same program may have different items. For instance, one person might say the planning of the program or training of program staff is an essential "part" of the program, while others would say the program just consists of what is done once the program is planned and the staff is trained. Is one right and the other wrong? Even if we take the narrower version, we can run into difficulties. Two trained staff members who try to do exactly the same set of activities will inevitably do things slightly differently. A teacher will adapt the way they are presenting material depending on the reactions of students. A doctor will adapt the way they are treating someone depending on their pain level or initial response to treatment. Is that adaptation part of what we call the "program"? What exactly is the boundary of the program? The same kind of boundary problem occurs in relation to outcomes. If we have a science outreach program that is trying to influence children's attitudes towards science, where do we draw the boundaries on what that means? Does that mean that children become more interested in science? And what does that mean? What do we include in "science?" What do we mean by "more interested?" All of these questions involve determining boundaries, often in circumstances where there simply are no fixed and easily determined borders between what is or is not in the system.

Developing an understanding of boundary issues is an important part of systems evaluation. There are no simple answers and often reasonable people involved in the same program will disagree. In some sense, boundary discussions require that stakeholders negotiate a consensus about what they mean by their "program." For instance, in a teacher-training program, is the program just the set of activities used in training teachers or does it also include the activities that the teachers subsequently do in training their students? Discussions about program boundaries often become important learning events for stakeholders because they lead to discussions about the meaning of what they are doing with their programs and the evaluations of them.