A boundary work tool for collaborative sustainable business model innovation

  • Myrthe Velter (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation / Performance / SpeechesTalk or presentation - at conferenceAcademic


An increasing number of studies point to the importance of multi-stakeholder alignment to enable sustainable business model innovation. While recent research contributes to theorizing collaborative sustainable business model innovation as a means to reach alignment, fewer studies offer guidance to companies for engaging in such a process. To contribute to closing this gap, this study presents an initial tool tested with large companies, SMEs and start-ups, which aims at multi-stakeholder alignment using a design science process. The tool draws on the theories of sustainable business model innovation and organizational boundary work. Sustainable business model innovation involves organizational boundary changes as firms must orchestrate and coordinate resources and activities across multiple actors to narrow, slow, close and regenerate material streams. Aligning organizational boundaries can be difficult as current boundary configurations emerge from prevailing value creation logics and business models. Organizational boundary work can therefore help to improve the understanding of the required organizational boundary changes and facilitate negotiation and alignment between companies and stakeholders within their network.
Through in-depth empirical work with companies and their network stakeholders, we developed, demonstrated and evaluated a workshop process and tool that helps companies to innovate collaborative, sustainable business models. We followed the design science approach by organizing expert panels, academic testings, workshop presentations, internal company testings, testings with the company and its external stakeholders, and inquired the impact one week and two months after the workshop was held. The workshop consists of five steps: (1) defining a collective ambition, (2) mapping and negotiating the changing organizational boundaries of the focal company and its multi-stakeholder network in the tool, (3) exploring opportunities and tensions for aligning stakeholders, (4) defining first interventions (5) developing a collaboration pitch.
Application of the tool in multi-stakeholder workshops learned that it was used as both an open exploration of sustainable business model opportunities and collaboration partners, as well as an assessment of collaboration opportunities around a specific sustainable business model innovation. We observed that eliciting the different organizational boundaries made tensive topics, such as power reconfigurations, negotiable. Additionally, the tool created joint discussions on stakeholder’s individual challenges for alignment, leading to a joint intention for finding solutions. The tool was flexible to the different stakeholder contexts in terms of type and amount of stakeholders engaged in the workshop, although for large or multiple networks adjustments visual are needed to include all relevant stakeholders.
Participant evaluations were positive about the ability of the tool to formulate a collective ambition, learn about the changing organizational boundaries and its opportunities and challenges. They particularly appreciated the translation of the findings into specific interventions, but also pointed out the need for more time to do this. Further improvements lied in improving conceptual clarity of the different boundaries. The impact assessment showed that the workshop made participants realize that their own boundaries could be better suited for the sustainable business model innovation, and that they had to let go of some existing ways of doing business. They also mentioned that the workshop provided a starting point for engaging in collaboration or intensifying existing collaborations.

The theoretical contribution of boundary work lies in enriching sustainable business model innovation by studying the multi-stakeholder organizational boundary dimensions as impeding or accelerating elements in the innovation of sustainable business models. On a process level, boundary work offers guidance for collaborative sustainable business model innovations through studying the ways in which firms and intermediaries explore, negotiate and align organizational boundaries. The application of the tool supports companies in finding sustainable business model innovation opportunities in their multi-stakeholder network, assessing the suitability of their own organizational boundaries, and engaging in collaborations to follow-up this process. While being aimed at innovation managers at companies, the tool but holds relevance for NGOs, citizen initiatives and policy makers which aspire a more sustainable and circular industry as well.
Period9 Sept 2021
Event titleEuropean Roundtable for Sustainable Production & Consumption
Event typeConference
LocationGraz, AustriaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational