Sub-theme 55: Tackling Societal Grand Challenges through Unconventional Forms of Organization

Héloïse Berkowitz
CNRS, Toulouse School of Management, France
Michael Grothe-Hammer
Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, Germany, & Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
Annachiara Longoni
ESADE Business School, Spain

Call for Papers

Our society faces multiple global challenges such as climate change, digital workforce, algorithmization, datafication, exploitive labor, extreme poverty, gender inequality, mass migration, aging populations, or increasing disaster risks. Scholars have named such problems “grand challenges”, i.e. “specific critical barrier(s) that, if removed, would help solve an important societal problem with a high likelihood of global impact through widespread implementation” (George et al., 2016: 1881). Grand challenges are characterized by wide constellations of interrelated systems and stakeholders, either directly involved or indirectly affected. This deep interconnectedness makes it increasingly difficult to forecast grand challenges’ future developments (Ferraro et al., 2015). Therefore, grand challenges confront society with enormous complexities and uncertainties that call for more adaptive collective action forms to provide solutions.
Organizations are related to grand challenges in two crucial respects. First, organizat ions are more often than not directly affected by those challenges and have to cope with them (Vaara & Durand, 2012). For instance, organizations have to deal with natural disasters, manage migration, and implement digital transformations. Second, organizations are fundamental when it comes to tackling grand challenges (Ferraro et al., 2015). Due to their unmatched capabilit ies, organizations can fight poverty and gender inequality, shape digital changes, and ensure decent work environments (cf. Ahrne et al., 2016; Apelt et al., 2017). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that grand challenges are an issue of growing importance in organization studies.
Scholars have, for example, investigated organizational responses to issues like climate change (Chaudhury et al., 2016; Schneider et al., 2017; Schüssler et al., 2014), underwater noise pollution and sustainable innovation (Berkowitz, 2018), societal effects of “datification” (Newell & Marabelli, 2015), disaster risk (Grothe-Hammer & Berthod, 2017), sustainability of supply chain (Acquier et al., 2015; Longoni et al., 2014), extreme poverty (Besio & Meyer, 2015), aging societies (Schirmer & Michailakis, 2016), refugee crises (Kornberger et al., 2017), or digital and exploitative labor (Bartley, 2007; Bauer & Gegenhuber, 2015). Given their complexities and wide-reaching effects, grand challenges thereby often evade well-establis hed organizational forms such as conventional bureaucracies. Instead, grand challenges seem to both spawn and require rather fluid and unconventional forms of organization (Brès et al., 2018; Schreyögg & Sydow, 2010).
In this respect, we identify at least three possibilities of how unconventional forms of organization relate to societal grand challenges:

  • First, organizations organize their environments. For instance, in meta-organizations, organizations create new organizations that have organizations as their members in order “to transform part of their environment into organization” (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008: 90). Such meta-organizations have been identified to co-construct responses to sustainability problems (Berkowitz et al., 2017). Moreover, environments can also be partially organized to varying degrees of organizationality (Ahrne et al., 2016; Dobusch & Schoeneborn, 2015). New forms of partially organized settings like “crowdsourcing” have emerged, creating new challenges such as digital exploitative work (Nielsen, 2018). In other instances, such partially organized constellations allow for tackling issues such as public safety (Grothe-Hammer, 2019).

  • Second, organizations can combine and mediate between differing macro-logics. Hybrid organizations and multi-referential organizations tackle challenges like extreme poverty by combining differing societal-level logics in order to make certain problems perceivable and processable for certain logics (Apelt et al., 2017; Battilana & Dorado, 2010; Besio & Meyer, 2015; Gümüsay, 2018). Similarly, boundary organizations address challenges of climate change in environmental policy making by connecting differing realms of social reality (Guston, 2001) while polyphonic organizations bring together differing voices to manage diversity (Trittin & Schoeneborn, 2017).

  • Third, organizations can bridge the global and the local. For example, referent organizations link societal projects to local contexts to tackle societal “meta-problems” (Trist, 1983). Moreover, grand challenges seem to foster the emergence of different levels of meta- and macro-organizations (Brunsson et al., 2018) that organize specific sectors and markets from the local up to the global.

Our sub-theme aims at advancing this line of research. We want to explore how the mentioned as well as other unconventional forms of organization can tackle societal grand challenges and/or how grand challenges spawn the emergence of new organizational forms. Submission can be both empirical or theoretical in nature. Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • How do grand challenges affect organizations and perhaps force changes in organizational forms? How do grand challenges foster the emergence of new forms or categories of organization or trigger the decline of established organizatio nal forms? Different types of grand challenges may differently impact organizations and may produce varying changes. How can we build a better understanding of the interconnection between these specific problems and the way organizations have evolved?

  • How can certain organizational forms provide solutions to grand challenges? Under which conditions are specific organizational forms more efficient or effective in offering solutions to grand challenges? What do we mean by efficiency here? To what extent are organizations for grand challenges necessarily spatially, temporally, culturally embedded and therefore not only grand challenge specific but also era and region specific?

  • Critical comparative analysis of organizations’ contribution to grand challe nge solutions versus other devices of collective action, regulation or governance (networks, institutions, etc.). To what extent are organizations the answer to grand challenges? How do they or should they interact with other governance devices?



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Héloïse Berkowitz is a researcher at CNRS, Toulouse School of Management Research, Université Toulouse Capitole, France. Her research deals with industry transitions to sustainability, focusing on sectoral governance and meta-organizations, in several empirical settings from natural resources to collaborative economy or ocean sustainability. Héloïse’s work has been published in the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, and ‘European Management Review’.
Michael Grothe-Hammer is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, Germany, and affiliated with the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway. His field is organizational sociology with a focus on the perspectives of partial organization and communication constitutes organization (CCO). Michael is especially interested in new forms of organization and their relation to society. His work has appeared in various outlets such as the ‘Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory’, ‘Organizational Research Methods’, and ‘Current Sociology’.
Annachiara Longoni is an Associate Professor at ESADE Business School, Spain, and Director of the research group Business Network Dynamics (BuNeD). She studies the role of sustainability in products and processes innovation within operations and supply chains. Her research explores new manufacturing and supply chain paradigms related to sustainability management, emerging in local and global environments. Annachiara’s work has been published in the ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, ‘International Journal of Operations & Production Management’, and ‘International Journal of Production Economics’.