Topic of the Special Issue
Business models reveal how organizations function and achieve their goals (Massa et al., 2017). Business model research has been extended into the field of sustainability to explain how organizations achieve their social and environmental goals (Schaltegger et al., 2016). Organizations often struggle to find ways to create social, environmental, and economic value all at once (Bansal, 2005; Sharma, 2000), due to tensions inherent in sustainability (Hahn et al., 2014). The literature on “business models for sustainability” (BMfS) has traced out how organizations can change their goals and practices to create value for all their stakeholders (Schaltegger et al., 2016). At the same time, the mainstream literature has elevated sustainability as a major driver of business model innovation (Foss & Saebi, 2017). While BMfS research has attracted much attention, its orientation so far has been strongly practical. It lacks a clear foundation in organization theory.
The main objective of this special issue is to invite scholars to draw on insights from organization theory to examine how and under what conditions the development and implementation of BMfS are related to organizational change, and to what effect.
Business model research has long been criticized for its lack of theoretical foundations (Foss & Saebi, 2017; George & Bock, 2011; Zott et al., 2011). Recent contributions show, however, that business model research draws on and contributes to ongoing debates in strategy, organization, and entrepreneurship. Massa et al. (2017) argue that business model research adds a novel perspective to strategy, as organizations reinvent value by involving customers and complementors in value creation. This perspective has clear implications for BMfS. How would business models change when a broader set of stakeholders becomes involved in value creation (Freudenreich et al., 2019)? What type of value would be created? How would stakeholder involvement translate into new organizational identities, structures, routines, and behaviours?
Ongoing debates discuss how organizations manage to bring novelty or purpose into their business models. Snihur and Zott (2020) draw on imprinting theory to show how founders not only bring in novelty when starting their ventures but also manage to institutionalize novelty over time. Muñoz et al. (2018) also use imprinting theory but examine how B Corp certified organizations embed purpose into their business models. From a cognitive approach on business models (Martins et al., 2015), Berends et al. (2016) show that established organizations combine cognitive search and experiential learning to develop radical business model innovations. In the context of BMfS, similar challenges arise. Through what mechanisms can organizations imprint sustainability into their business models? What are the additional challenges? Which organizational features and processes will facilitate business model innovation for sustainability, and which will hinder it instead? Under which conditions can organizations contribute to market transformations by applying adapted or new business models?
Business model innovation is also closely related to technological change. Technologies have no economic value unless they are combined with a suitable business model (Chesbrough & Rosenbloom, 2002). Yet how do organizations develop new business models when these could make their existing business model obsolete (Tripsas & Gavetti, 2000)? This issue is particularly pressing in the case of sustainable technologies like electric vehicles (Bohnsack et al., 2014). There is already much uncertainty about the best ways to unlock the latent economic value of sustainable technologies. But what about the social and environmental value? Ricart et al. (2020) suggest that stakeholder theory can be relevant for business model design. How do business models help unlock these more ambiguous sources of value that are more likely to accrue to wider society rather than individual organizations? How can business models be designed to cater to a variety of stakeholders, particularly in the digital age?
Technology is not only a driver of business model innovation but can also be an enabler (Teece, 2018). Social institutions and new technologies can both have an enabling and inhibiting effect for the relationship between BMfS and organizational change. Laasch and Pinkse (2019) show that the complexity of organizations’ institutional environments shapes their BMfS. Lüdeke-Freund (2020) argues that sustainable entrepreneurs interact with their sociotechnical contexts, influencing how they develop their BMfS. Researchable topics emerge. How can environmentally and socially oriented business models be scaled up with digitalized processes? What does this mean for the organization and its members who are implementing this business model? What are the challenges for the involved individuals but also related ecosystems in terms of learning and adapting to new business models? How do contextual factors shape these processes and the resulting organizational and business model design?
Investigating such questions can incorporate theoretical insights that range from micro-level cognitive explanations of organizational behaviour (Hahn et al., 2014) to meso-level stakeholder and ecosystem-related approaches (Ricart et al., 2020) to macro-level systems perspectives that consider the limits posed by planetary boundaries (Whiteman et al., 2013). This Special Issue of Organization and Environment invites contributions that explore the relationship between BMfS and organizational change, while drawing on and contributing to organization theory. It solicits contributions that provide a better theoretical foundation for BMfS research.