Sub-theme 47: Multi-stakeholder Initiatives: Inclusive Dynamics to Address Grand Challenges

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Angelika Zimmermann
Loughborough University, United Kingdom
Benjamin Huybrechts
emlyon Business School, France
François Maon
IESEG School of Management, France

Call for Papers

Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have become an important arena through which different actors can be included in designing solutions for and making decisions on how to deal with Grand Challenges, i.e. the “global problems that can be plausibly addressed through coordinated and collaborative efforts” (George et al., 2016). MSIs range from small stakeholder collaborations that deal with local manifestations of Grand Challenges, such as the degradation of particular ecosystems due to climate change (Reed et al., 2017), to large cross-sector partnerships that tackle global issues. The latter are exemplified by the UN’s cross-sector partnerships that aim at increasing equity and reducing poverty (Utting & Zammit, 2009), and by large non-state regulatory certification initiatives such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or the Fair Labor Association (FLA). Whilst larger MSIs tend to include organisations that represent business, government, and civil society (Selsky & Parker, 2005), smaller MSIs often also include non-organisational stakeholders such as local communities (Raymond & Kenter, 2016; Reed et al., 2017). One common feature of these initiatives is the principle of participation of multiple stakeholder groups in decisions that affect them.
In its ideal type, the participative decision-making characterizing MSIs aligns with Habermas’ concept of deliberative democracy, claiming that citizens have the right of participation in political deliberation (Habermas, 1998; Mena & Palazzo, 2012). Such processes of deliberation and participatory decision-making are deemed central for dealing with Grand Challenges (Dentoni et al., 2018). MSIs have thus been praised as vehicles of inclusive dynamics through which various and a priori diverging views and interests can be conciliated in the process of addressing Grand Challenges (Martens et al., 2018; Scherer & Palazzo, 2011). At the same time, several studies have surfaced challenges and shortcomings of MSIs in practice, resulting in different evaluations of their impact (de Bakker et al., 2019). It has often proven hard to bridge stakeholders’ different or even conflicting priorities, interests, and understandings of the issues and solutions at stake (Dentoni et al., 2018; Raymond et al., 2010). Moreover, power imbalances between stakeholders have repeatedly been found to impede equal participation in decision-making in MSIs (Moog et al., 2015; Utting & Zammit, 2009).
Across disciplines, scholars have started to delineate conditions that help inhibit such detrimental dynamics in MSIs, but there are still open discussions on how MSIs can reach inclusive decisions, achieve their aims, and thereby confront Grand Challenges. For example, in the context of international collaborations on climate change, Ansari, Wijen, and Gray (2013) propose conditions for the emergence of a common logic across among diverse actors embedded in multiple fields. These conditions include actors’ recognition of an interconnected fate, acceptance of responsibility by all, and collective commitment to act. Others have further described how stakeholder groups can develop shared cognitive frames over time (Klitsie et al., 2018; Le Ber & Branzei, 2010).
In this sub-theme, we are interested in deepening this discussion and extending it in terms of levels of analysis, to both more micro- and more macro-perspectives on MSIs, which have been relatively less approached to date. At the micro-level, more research is needed on how to manage deliberative interaction and exploit in-situ interpersonal dynamics (DeWulf & Bowen, 2012; Ferraro & Beunza, 2018; Hassenforder et al., 2016) for achieving shared understanding and joint decisions in MSIs. At the macro-level, more research is needed on the ways deliberation within MSIs is affected by the regulatory systems and socio-political contexts in which MSIs are embedded (de Bakker et al., 2019). In addition, as MSIs gather stakeholders from different fields, they can be seen and further studied as “experimental” (Cartel et al., 2019) and “interstitial” spaces (Furnari, 2014) in which different logics carried by stakeholders are combined in novel ways, potentially leading to the emergence of “hybridized” fields (York et al., 2016). That is, there is yet an untapped potential for research into the connection of MSI dynamics and field changes (Gray & Purdy, 2018), which are required for achieving systemic adaptation and tackling Grand Challenges (Ferraro et al., 2015).
Against this backdrop, this sub-theme aims at stimulating discussions on interpersonal, interorganizational and field-level conditions and dynamics that enable MSIs to achieve their objectives and contribute to addressing Grand Challenges. We encourage submissions of empirical and theoretical papers from a broad range of disciplines and methodological stances. Questions can include, but are not limited to:

  • Under what conditions can MSIs actually achieve inclusive, participatory dynamics?

  • How do governance modes of MSIs affect the dynamics of the initiatives and their capacity to tackle Grand Challenges?

  • How do interpersonal level processes and relationship building efforts affect the development and outcomes of MSIs?

  • How can MSIs bridge divergent perspectives, interests, and logics at both the interpersonal and interorganizational levels?

  • How do interorganisational stakeholder relationships in MSIs develop over time?

  • What are the contributions of different stakeholder categories to the development of MSIs (government, business, civil society, local communities, …)?

  • How can power differentials in MSIs be avoided or managed?

  • How do the larger regulatory systems in which MSIs are embedded condition their development and their capacity to address Grand Challenges?

  • What influences do different socio-political contexts in which MSIs are developing bear upon their dynamics and effectiveness in tackling Grand Challenges?

  • What effects do MSIs have on the fields from which the different stakeholders originate?

  • To what extent do MSIs represent “interstitial spaces” between fields? Do they lead to the emergence of new, “hybrid” fields geared towards addressing Grand Challenges?



  • Ansari, S.M., Wijen, F.H., & Gray, B.Z (2013): “Constructing a climate change logic, An institutional perspective on the ‘Tragedy of the commons’.” Organization Science, 24 (4), 1014–1040.
  • de Bakker, F.G.A. Rasche, A., & Ponte, S. (2019): “Multi-stakeholder initiatives on sustainability: A cross-disciplinary review and research agenda for business ethics.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 29 (3), 343–383.
  • Cartel, M., Boxenbaum, E., & Aggeri, F. (2019): “Just for fun! How experimental spaces stimulate innovation in institutionalized fields.” Organization Studies, 40 (1), 65–92.
  • Dentoni, D., Bitzer, V., & Schouten, G. (2018): “Harnessing wicked problems in multi‑stakeholder partnerships.” Journal of Business Ethics, 150 (2), 333–356.
  • Dewulf, A., & Bowen, R. (2012): “Issue framing in conversations for change: discursive interaction strategies for ‘doing differences’.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 48 (2), 168–193.
  • Ferraro, F., & Beunza, D. (2018): “Creating common ground: A communicative action model of dialogue in shareholder engagement.” Organization Science, 29 (6), 1187–1207.
  • Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015): “Tackling Grand Challenges pragmatically: Robust action revisited.” Organization Studies, 36 (3), 363–390.
  • Furnari, S. (2014): “Interstitial spaces: Microinteraction settings and the genesis of new practices between institutional fields.” Academy of Management Review, 39 (4), 439–462.
  • George, G., Howard-Grenville, J., Joshi, A., & Tihanyi, L. (2016): “Understanding and tackling societal grand challenges through management research.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (6), 1880–1895.
  • Gray, B., & Purdy, J. (2018): Collaborating for Our Future: Multistakeholder Partnerships for Solving Complex Problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Habermas, J. (1998): The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Hassenforder, E., Brugnach, M., Cullen, B., Ferrand, N., Barreteau, O., & Pittock, J. (2016): “Managing frame diversity in environmental participatory processes. Example from the Fogera woreda in Ethiopia.” Journal of Environmental Management, 177, 288–297.
  • Klitsie, E., Ansari, S., & Volberda, H. (2018): “Maintenance of cross‑sector partnerships: The role of frames in sustained collaboration.” Journal of Business Ethics, 150 (2), 401–423.
  • Le Ber, M.J., & Branzei, O. (2010): “Value frame fusion in cross-sector interactions.” Journal of Business Ethics, 94 (s1), 163–195.
  • Martens, W., van der Linden, B., & Wörsdörfer, M. (2019): “How to assess the democratic qualities of a multi-stakeholder initiative from a Habermasian perspective? Deliberative democracy and the Equator Principles Framework.” Journal of Business Ethics, 155 (4), 1115–1133.
  • Mena, S., & Palazzo, G. (2012): “Input and Output Legitimacy of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 22 (3), 527–556.
  • Moog, S., Spicer, A., & Böhm, S. (2015): “The politics of multi-stakeholder initiatives: The crisis of the Forest Stewardship Council.” Journal of Business Ethics, 128 (3), 469–493.
  • Raymond, C.M., & Kenter, J.O. (2016): “Transcendental values and the valuation and management of ecosystem services.” Ecosystem Services, 21 (B), 241–257.
  • Raymond, C.M., Fazey, I., Reed, M., Stringer, L., Robinson, G., & Evely, A.C. (2010): “Integrating local and scientific knowledge for environmental management.” Journal of Environmental Management, 91 (8), 1766–1777.
  • Reed, M., Vella, S., Challies, E., de Vente, J., Frewer, L., Hohenwallner-Ries, D., Huber, T., Neumann, R., Oughton, E.A., del Ceno, J., & van Delden, H. (2017): “A theory of participation: What makes stakeholder and public engagement in environmental management work?” Restoration Ecology, 26 (s1), 1061–2971.
  • Scherer, A.G., & Palazzo, G. (2011): “The new political role of business in a globalized world – A review of a new perspective on CSR and its implications for the firm, governance, and democracy.” Journal of Management Studies, 48 (4), 899–931.
  • Selsky, J.W., & Parker, B. (2005): “Cross-sector partnerships to address social issues: Challenges to theory and practice.” Journal of Management, 31 (6), 849–873.
  • Utting, P., & Zammit, A. (2009): “United Nations – business partnerships: Good intentions and contradictory agendas.” Journal of Business Ethics, 90 (1), 39–56.
  • York, J., Hargrave, T., & Pacheco, D. (2016): “Converging winds: Logic hybridization in the Colorado wind energy field.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (2), 579–610.
Angelika Zimmermann is a Senior Lecturer in International Business and Strategy at Loughborough University, School of Business and Economics, United Kingdom. Her research centres on cross-boundary collaborations in the contexts of international virtual teams, offshoring relationships, and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Angelika’s research has appeared in journals including the ‘Journal of World Business’, ‘Journal of Vocational Behavior’, ‘Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice’, ‘Journal of Strategic Information Systems’, ‘Information Systems Journal’, ‘Journal of Information Technology’, ‘International Journal of Management Reviews’, and ‘International Journal of Human Resource Management’.
Benjamin Huybrechts is Associate Professor in Social and Cooperative Entrepreneurship at emlyon Business School, France. His research topics include social and sustainable entrepreneurship, hybrid organizing, and cross-sector partnerships and networks in the area of sustainability. Benjamin’s work has been published in journals such as ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, ‘International Small Business Journal’, and ‘British Journal of Industrial Relations’.
François Maon is Full Professor of Strategy and Corporate Social Responsibility at IESEG School of Management in Lille and Paris, France. In his research, François focuses mainly on topics linked to corporate social responsibility and sustainability learning, implementation, and change-related processes as well as cross-sector partnerships. His work has been published in various international journals, including ‘Organization Studies’, ‘California Management Review’, ‘International Journal of Management Reviews’, and ‘Journal of Business Ethics’.
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