Sub-theme 50: Meta-Organizations and Sustainability Transitions: Challenges and Opportunities --> HYBRID!

Frank de Bakker
IÉSEG School of Management, France
Héloïse Berkowitz
Aix-Marseille University, France
Sanne Bor
LUT University, Finland

Call for Papers

The urgent need for environmental, social and economic sustainability transitions increasingly directs attention in management and organization studies (and beyond) towards large-scale collaborative approaches to tackle grand challenges like climate change, poverty alleviation, gender inequalities. These collaborations often take the form of ‘meta-organizations’, organizations whose members are themselves organizations. Meta-organization as a concept incorporates a wide-range of phenomena, from formal groupings of businesses, like trade associations, business associations, business groups, and alliances (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008; Berkowitz & Bor, 2018), or of governmental organizations, like nations, provinces, or municipalities (Kerwer, 2013; Zyzak & Jacobsen, 2019), to more diverse forms of organizing, like cross-sectoral partnerships (CSPs) and multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) (Berkowitz et al., 2017; de Bakker et al., 2019). These various types of meta-organization share key characteristics. Chief amongst these: they constitute a coordination mechanism that enables member organizations to mediate, negotiate, monitor and achieve system-level goals that span entire industries (Berkowitz et al., 2017), fields (Hinings et al., 2017) or even global supply chains (Carmagnac & Carbone, 2019). However, their “associative”, horizontal organizational structures provide both unique advantages and serious drawbacks when it comes to mobilizing collective action for sustainability.
Meta-organizations can catalyze and support system transitions and build members’ collective capacity for sustainability in various ways. These include regulating practices, building capabilities, pooling resources, sharing knowledge, mediating interests, negotiating with outside parties, convening decision-makers, and acting as a unified voice for their members (Berkowitz et al., 2017; Chaudhury et al., 2016; Valente & Oliver, 2018). Organizations are increasingly setting up these associative collaborations in different forms to tackle socio-environmental problems – from industries (Berkowitz et al., 2017), to NGOs (Laurent et al., 2020) to municipalities (Zyzak & Jacobsen, 2019). Inclusive meta-organizations, such as multi-stakeholder initiatives, in particular may play key roles in ensuring corporate sustainability (de Bakker et al., 2019).
However, owing to their inherent dependence on their membership base, meta-organizations are often required to serve their member-organizations (Berkowitz & Bor, 2018). This can limit a meta-organization’s transformative potential, or even stall progress. An industry business association, for instance, may seek to primarily protect members’ interests and thus resist, rather than promote, system change (Marques, 2017). Trade associations in “regime” industries, like carbon intensive sectors or fossil energy dependent ones, also may advocate for maintaining the status quo through actions like increasing energy efficiency instead of deeply transforming systems of production and consumptions. Or they may promote considerably watered-down change initiatives, forestalling or crowding out more ambitious transformative efforts.
Despite considerable growth in the number and influence of meta-organizations, and growing interest in the concept of meta-organization (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008), these organizations remain considerably understudied. In this subtheme, we wish to explore what drives meta-organizations to either take a proactive role in sustainability transitions or, on the contrary, to resist change. The sub-theme builds on several earlier EGOS subthemes on meta-organization and sustainability (2015–2022). We are particularly interested in understanding the roles they play in sustainability transitions, and how their organizational properties both shape, and are shaped by, their positions and ambitions. Some of the questions the subtheme could address include, but are not limited to:

  • Organizing meta-organizations as actors for transitions: What does this mean in terms of internal structure and dynamics in the meta-organization? Under which organizational conditions can meta-organizations contribute to transitions towards sustainability? Why is this form of organizing chosen to deal with transitions? How does the diversity of membership affect a meta-organization’s ability to drive sustainability transitions?

  • Level of meta-organizations’ actions and system transformation: how do meta-organizations affect multi-level system change, i.e. niche, landscape and regime change? Is their reach limited to their membership or can they articulate transformations at different levels?

  • Actions and outcomes: what kind of activities do meta-organizations conduct that contribute to either transition or resistance? How do meta-organizations deal with the outcomes of their activities? How are outcomes determined, measured and attributed to organizational members?


  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2008): Meta-organizations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Berkowitz, H., & Bor, S. (2018): “Why meta-organizations matter: A response to Lawton et al. and Spillman.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 27 (2), 204–211.
  • Berkowitz, H., Bucheli, M., & Dumez, H. (2017): “Collective CSR strategy and the role of meta-organizations: A case study of the oil and gas industry.” Journal of Business Ethics, 143 (4), 753–769.
  • Carmagnac, L., & Carbone, V. (2019): “Making supply networks more sustainable ‘together’: The role of meta-organisations.” Supply Chain Forum: An International Journal, 20 (1), 56–67.
  • Chaudhury, A.S., Ventresca, M.J., Thornton, T.F., Helfgott, A., Sova, C., Baral, P., Rasheed, T., & Ligthart, J. (2016): “Emerging meta-organisations and adaptation to global climate change: Evidence from implementing adaptation in Nepal, Pakistan and Ghana.” Global Environmental Change, 38, 243–257.
  • 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.
  • Hinings, C.R., Logue, D.M., & Zietsma, C. (2017): “Fields, institutional infrastructure and governance.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T. Lawrence, & R.E. Meyer (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism. London: SAGE Publications, 170–197.
  • Kerwer, D. (2013): “International organizations as meta-organizations: The case of the European Union.” Journal of International Organizations Studies, 4 (2), 40–53.
  • Laurent, A., Garaudel, P., Schmidt, G., & Eynaud, P. (2020): “Civil Society Meta-organizations and Legitimating Processes: The Case of the Addiction Field in France.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 31 (1), 19–38.
  • Marques, J.C. (2017): “Industry Business Associations: Self-Interested or Socially Conscious?” Journal of Business Ethics, 143 (4), 733–751.
  • Valente, M., & Oliver, C. (2018): “Meta-Organization Formation and Sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Organization Science, 29 (4), 547–571.
  • Zyzak, B., & Jacobsen, D.I. (2019): “External managerial networking in meta-organizations. Evidence from regional councils in Norway.” Public Management Review, 22 (9), 1347–1367.
Frank de Bakker is a Full Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at IÉSEG School of Management, France, and a member of LEM-CNRS. In his research, Frank combines insights on institutions, social movements and multi-stakeholder initiatives to examine interactions between activist groups and firms on issues of corporate sustainability. Some current projects include work on micro CSR, organizing to counter mafia, and corporate political activity. His work was published in journals such as ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘Academy of Management Discoveries’.
Héloïse Berkowitz is a research fellow at CNRS, LEST, Aix-Marseille University, 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 journals such as ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, and ‘European Management Review’.
Sanne Bor is post-doctoral researcher and project manager at LUT University, Finland. Her research deals with questions related to interorganizational collaboration, specifically with the internal dynamics of meta-organizations, and the role of inter-organizational collaboration in sustainability transitions. Her research interest also covers topics related to self-steering, horizontal organizing, collective decision-making and governance, and knowledge co-creation more generally. Current research projects relate to sustainable food packaging, environmental conflicts, and entrepreneurial ecosystems.