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Fostering Cross-Disciplinarity in Business Model Research

Authors:
  • ESCP Europe Berlin
  • Aalborg University Business School

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Purpose: We illustrate how cross-disciplinarity in business model research (multi-, inter-and transdisciplinarity) can help scholars overcome silo-building and span disciplinary boundaries. The seven articles contained in the special issue 'Fostering Cross-Disciplinarity in Business Model Research' are summarised, and the authors' perspectives on the phenomena studied as well as the theories and methods adopted are portrayed. Methodology: We provide literature-based definitions of cross-disciplinary research modes and discuss their potential for business model research informed by insights from the seven special issue articles. Findings: There is much variety regarding the theories applied in business model research. These include design, imprinting , information asymmetry, paradox theories and many more. This variety illustrates that traditional domains, such as organisation, management and entrepreneurship studies, can be extended in creative ways, and hence can be equipped to deal with emerging and complex issues such as sustainability, circular economy, data management and base-of-the-pyramid entrepreneurship. Interdisciplinarity seems to be well developed regarding the use of theories, but more must follow in terms of research methods and collaboration formats. Research Implications and Limitations: The common understanding of the potential and importance of cross-disci-plinarity can be considered the major implication of this special issue. Beyond this, further critical reflection is required. Important questions remain open, primarily regarding research methods and collaboration formats. This editorial article reflects the perspectives of both the guest editors and the authors in this special issue. The presented understandings of cross-disciplinary business model research and implications for its future are of a preliminary nature. Originality and Value: Business model research is growing rapidly and scholars from various fields contribute to expanding our knowledge. An explicit focus on the potential of multi-, inter-and transdisciplinary research approaches is missing so far.
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Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
i
Fostering Cross-Disciplinarity in Business Model Research
Florian Lüdeke-Freund1, Romana Rauter 2, Christian Nielsen3, Marco Montemari4, Nikolay Dentchev5, Niels Faber6
Abstract
Purpose: We illustrate how cross-disciplinarity in business model research (multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity) can help
scholars overcome silo-building and span disciplinary boundaries. The seven articles contained in the special issue ‘Fos-
tering Cross-Disciplinarity in Business Model Research’ are summarised, and the authors’ perspectives on the phenomena
studied as well as the theories and methods adopted are portrayed.
Methodology: We provide literature-based definitions of cross-disciplinary research modes and discuss their potential
for business model research informed by insights from the seven special issue articles.
Findings: There is much variety regarding the theories applied in business model research. These include design, imprint-
ing, information asymmetry, paradox theories and many more. This variety illustrates that traditional domains, such as
organisation, management and entrepreneurship studies, can be extended in creative ways, and hence can be equipped
to deal with emerging and complex issues such as sustainability, circular economy, data management and base-of-the-
pyramid entrepreneurship. Interdisciplinarity seems to be well developed regarding the use of theories, but more must
follow in terms of research methods and collaboration formats.
Research Implications and Limitations: The common understanding of the potential and importance of cross-disci-
plinarity can be considered the major implication of this special issue. Beyond this, further critical reflection is required.
Important questions remain open, primarily regarding research methods and collaboration formats. This editorial article
reflects the perspectives of both the guest editors and the authors in this special issue. The presented understandings of
cross-disciplinary business model research and implications for its future are of a preliminary nature.
Originality and Value: Business model research is growing rapidly and scholars from various fields contribute to expanding
our knowledge. An explicit focus on the potential of multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary research approaches is missing so far.
Please cite this paper as: Lüdeke-Freund, F., Rauter, R., Nielsen, C., Montemari, M., Denchev, N. and Faber, N., (2021) Fostering Cross-Disci-
plinarity in Business Model Research, Journal of Business Models Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i-xiv
Keywords: Cross-disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, business model research
Acknowledgment : We would like to thank all authors for their contributions and the reviewers for their time and eorts in reviewing the
manuscripts. Our special thanks go to the Editor-in-Chief, Professor Robin Roslender, for his support during the production of this special is-
sue, and to Mette Hjorth Rasmussen, for her excellent, conscientious editorial assistance. Earlier versions of some papers included in this spe-
cial issue were presented at the New Business Models Conference 2019 (https://www.newbusinessmodels.org/) and at the Business Model
Conference 2019 (http://businessmodelconference.com/). Hence, our gratitude also goes to all conference participants who contributed to
the various discussions on fostering cross-disciplinarity in business model research.
List of reviewers: Petri Ahokangas, Andres Alcayaga, Christina Bidmon, Krzysztof Dembek, Andrew Earle, Timber Haaker, Anna Holm, Maya
Hoveskog, Gjalt de Jong, Moniek Kamm, Susan Lambert, Dirk Lüttgens, Laura Michelini, Allan Næs Gjerding, Samuli Patala, Arijit Paul, Jonatan
Pinkse, Birthe Soppe, Yariv Taran and Sjors Witjes
1 ESCP Business School Berlin, fluedeke-freund@escp.eu, 2 University of Graz, romana.rauter@uni-graz.at
3 Aalborg University Business School, chn@business.aau.dk, 4 Università Politecnica delle Marche, m.montemari@univpm.it
5 Vrije Universiteit Brussel, nikolay.dentchev@vub.be, 6 University of Groningen / Hanze UAS, n.r.faber@rug.nl
DOI: https://doi.org/10.5278/jbm.v9i2.6739
ISSN 2246-2465
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
ii
Introduction
The field of business model research is garnering more
diverse attention, and publication activity is growing
rapidly (Nielsen et al., 2018). It is remarkable that this
research field attracts researchers from many diverse
disciplines, including management and organisa-
tion studies, entrepreneurship and innovation, indus-
trial design, information technologies, engineering,
sociology, sustainability studies and many more (e.g.
Dentchev et al., 2018; Foss and Saebi, 2017; Massa et
al., 2017; Maucuer and Renaud, 2019; Wirtz and Daiser,
2018). This involvement of multiple disciplines speaks
not only to the inherent complexities of business mod-
els (cf. Massa et al., 2018) but also to the richness and
potential of this research field.
Referring to the latter, we can state that business
model research holds potential for cross-disciplinary
modes of knowledge generation, bringing together
researchers from more than one discipline to inves-
tigate a specific phenomenon (Mennes, 2020). For
example, several disciplines deal with shared or recur-
ring business model phenomena from their indi-
vidual perspectives, which allows juxtaposing their
specific insights (e.g. what management scholars
discover about business model innovation compared
to what designers can tell us). However, despite, or
maybe because of, this situation there seems to be
a tendency towards ‘silo-building’ in business model
research, hampering progress towards other, more
integrative, cross-disciplinary modes, including multi-,
inter- and transdisciplinary research.
Let us look at two recent developments. First, silo-
building takes place between dierent business model
(sub-)communities. We see at least one community
dealing with ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ business
models, and another one interested in ‘new’ or ‘sus-
tainable’ business models. The existence of two confer-
ence series—International Conference on New Business
Models and Business Model Conference—is an indica-
tion of these dierent communities.1 Similar patterns
can be found in the topics typically discussed in lead-
ing journals such as Long Range Planning and Journal
of Management on the one hand and Organization &
1 See http://businessmodelconference.com/ and https://www.
newbusinessmodels.org/
Environment and Journal of Cleaner Production on the
other hand.
Second, silo-building takes place within these commu-
nities as well, as researchers tend to limit themselves
to discipline-specific phenomena, theories and meth-
ods and fall back to their camps in the multidisciplinary
spectrum. Such a tendency is natural since specialisa-
tion in once-acquired knowledge and skills together
with subordination to given cultures of research, hier-
archies and knowledge structures are key features of
disciplines (cf. Turner, 2017) and serve the very pursuit
of an academic career (Aagaard-Hansen, 2007). As a
consequence, we observe some hesitation with regard
to the development and application of more diverse
cross-disciplinary research modes (cf. Mennes, 2020).
As guest editors of this special issue, we wondered:
What if we could make use of the richness and potential
of various streams of business model research early on,
before specialisation turns into unsurmountable barri-
ers, and help researchers from dierent disciplines to
connect and learn from each other? This may have been
a naïve stance, but we insisted on giving it a chance
and hence called for contributions showcasing cross-
disciplinary research in business models applied to
diverse topics and phenomena (e.g. paradoxes of busi-
ness model development and performance, disruptive
business models and industry dynamics, ecological and
social entrepreneurship, business models for sustain-
ability transitions and so on)—referred to as ‘multi- and
interdisciplinary’ in the original call for papers.2 Our aim
was to explore the variety of current business model
research and to motivate cross-disciplinary exchange
to make sure that progress in specialised streams of
business model research translates into progress of
the field as a whole. We deliberately invited partici-
pants from both 2019 business model conferences to
submit their papers to this special issue.
Let us take stock of what we did and did not find. But
before, we briefly explain our understanding of cross-
disciplinarity in business model research and why striv-
ing to overcome silos and disciplinary boundaries is a
worthwhile endeavour.
2 See http://www.journalofbusinessmodels.com/media/1253/cfp-
fostering-multi-and-interdisciplinary-business-model-research.
pdf
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
iii
Why Strive to Overcome Silos and
Disciplinary Boundaries?
In 2011, Zott, Amit and Massa found that the busi-
ness model literature was ‘developing largely in silos,
according to the phenomena of interest to the respec-
tive researchers. The main interest areas identified
were (1) e-business and the use of information technol-
ogy in organizations, (2) strategic issues, such as value
creation, competitive advantage, and firm performance
and (3) innovation and technology management’ (Zott
et al., 2011, p. 1019). From more recent reviews we can
conclude that this tendency is becoming more pro-
nounced and that other special interest groups, such
as entrepreneurship and sustainability researchers,
are adding new camps to the business model research
landscape (e.g. Dentchev et al., 2018; Foss and Saebi,
2017; Lüdeke-Freund and Dembek, 2017; Massa et al.,
2017; Maucuer and Renaud, 2019).
Increasing specialisation within a maturing research
field is undoubtedly necessary to gain more detailed
insights into its phenomena, improve its research
methods and theories, discover new ones, and, in
general, make use of ecient division of labour and
variety in perspectives. In a similar vein, Lecocq et
al. (2010) argued for the advantages of developing
a ‘research programme’ for business models, which
was followed by Nielsen et al.s (2018) four distinct
phases of business model research. In particular, the
first phase focuses on definitions and conceptualisa-
tions of business models as well as the links between
business models and strategies. The second phase is
dominated by the research stream of business model
innovation. The design of frameworks and the foun-
dations for theory-building are at the core of the third
phase. The fourth phase is centred on the performa-
tive approach. Studies in this phase explore what
actually happens in companies when business model
tools are designed, implemented and used (e.g. what
works and what does not work, levers and barriers of
designing, implementing and using business model
tools; see Montemari, 2018). Research adopting a
performative approach builds on the assumption
that business models are context-dependent and are
given meaning by subjects in the specific situations in
which they are developed and applied (Roslender and
Nielsen, 2019).
Taking these developments in business model research
into consideration, this special issue builds on the con-
viction that the increasing specialisation and search for
a research programme should be complemented by a
search for cross-disciplinary approaches (cf. Mennes,
2020) or, at least, the openness to look beyond disci-
plinary boundaries. Our assumption is that cross-dis-
ciplinarity improves our understanding of phenomena,
methods and theories, particularly regarding complex
questions that scholars aim to address, for example,
how entrepreneurial values motivate the shape and
performance of ecologically and socially beneficial busi-
ness models. Finding answers to questions such as this
one requires expertise from diverse fields (e.g. entre-
preneurship, psychology and sustainability). Cross-dis-
ciplinary approaches (in contrast to mono-disciplinary
approaches) should be better suited to grasp these
issues and to study business models as they actually
are: complex and multi-dimensional systems (Massa et
al., 2018). As such, business models integrate human
interactions, organisational structures, markets and
diverse stakeholders, and thus, they typically cross the
boundaries of various social, economic and techno-
logical systems, for example, by connecting supply and
demand, technologies and markets, stakeholders and
value creation and so on (for exemplary overviews of
the variety in business model research see Lüdeke-Fre-
und and Dembek, 2017; Dentchev et al., 2018; Maucuer
and Renaud, 2019).
Accordingly, Maucuer and Renaud suggest that ‘dis-
ciplines should cross-fertilize in order to enrich their
own conceptualization [of business models] and rein-
force the co-development of their respective fields …
[and to] combine their eorts in developing transver-
sal issues …’ (Maucuer and Renaud, 2019, p. 38). The
benefits of such an approach can be illustrated with
another example: Some researchers work on the cogni-
tive micro-foundations of business model development
and propose that these involve configurations of sim-
ple design and decision-making rules, so-called heuris-
tics (Loock and Hacklin, 2015), or schemas representing
firms’ value-creating activities (Martins et al., 2015;
Massa et al., 2017). Such cognitive perspectives are also
important to understand how actors deal with ambigu-
ous and even paradoxical issues, such as integrating
sustainability considerations into business activities
(Hahn et al., 2014). In turn, how such challenges can be
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
iv
addressed eectively by developing new business mod-
els is a question that may be answered by building on
two decades of research on business model innovation
(Foss and Saebi, 2017; Wirtz, Göttel et al., 2016, Wirtz,
Pistoia et al., 2016). Business model researchers have
a natural tendency to deal with complex and multi-
dimensional issues (cf. Massa et al., 2018) involving
multiple stakeholders’ needs and interests (Lüdeke-
Freund et al., 2020) and hence require correspondingly
integrative and diverse research modes.
What is Cross-Disciplinarity?
We follow Mennes (2020) and use the term cross-dis-
ciplinarity ‘to refer to the general category of research
that involves more than one discipline’ (p. 3). Domi-
nating taxonomies of cross-disciplinarity typically
distinguish three modes. The following definitions
proposed by Mennes particularly highlight the role of
collaboration:
‘‘multidisciplinarity’ refers to the collaboration
of researchers with dierent backgrounds where
their respective disciplines are juxtaposed instead
of integrated …;
‘interdisciplinarity’ stands for the collaboration of
researchers with dierent disciplinary backgrounds
where (elements of) the respective disciplines are
integrated …; and
‘transdisciplinarity’ either refers to a collaboration
where the integration of (elements from) dier-
ent disciplines is so extensive that the origin of the
elements gets lost, or refers to a collaboration of
researchers and non-academics such as stakehold-
ers and/or practitioners who integrate their knowl-
edge and know-how.’ (p. 4–5)
Multidisciplinarity is typically described as juxtaposing
dierent disciplines (Klein, 2017; Vermeulen and Witjes,
2021). The involved disciplines, for example, innovation
management and psychology, remain separate and their
characteristics, such as theories and methods, retain
their original identity. This research mode involves dif-
ferent approaches to studying shared phenomena, for
example, how entrepreneurs come up with new busi-
ness models. While innovation management scholars
and psychologists may both study this phenomenon,
the theories and methods they use and the knowledge
they generate remain within their respective disciplinary
boundaries. The obtained results will be complementary
and may even be combined in a joint framework, but they
will only be loosely related and presented in a sequential
or encyclopaedic manner. The multidisciplinary research
mode leads to multiple perspectives on jointly studied
business model phenomena, but it does not foster theo-
retical or methodical integration.
By contrast, interdisciplinarity is characterised by pro-
active integration and interaction between disciplines
(Klein, 2017; Vermeulen and Witjes, 2021). Methods and
concepts are borrowed from other disciplines to test
hypotheses, develop new theories and find answers
to research questions that require the knowledge and
skills from more than one discipline. Such approaches
are driven by, for example, the complexities of natu-
ral and social phenomena, the search for solutions
to societal problems and technological change. For
example, innovation management scholars can bor-
row psychological concepts, such as values and moti-
vation, to study the antecedents and moderators of
entrepreneurs’ sustainability-oriented business model
innovation processes. Beyond ‘borrowing’, researchers
may cross disciplinary boundaries—in fact, create new
disciplines—by proactively integrating their approaches
and developing new theoretical constructs and empiri-
cal methods. Psychologically enhanced innovation
theories and empirical investigations of ‘values-based
business model innovation’ (e.g. Breuer and Lüdeke-
Freund, 2017) or the development of new reference
frames for ‘sustainability-oriented business models’
(e.g. Dentchev et al., 2018) serve as examples.
Attributes associated to transdisciplinarity include
‘hyper-integrative’ (Mennes, 2020), ‘transcending’
and even ‘transgressive’ (Klein, 2017). While interdisci-
plinarity crosses boundaries by being integrative and
interactive, transdisciplinarity goes further in that the
original characteristics of involved disciplines may even
disappear. The use of transdisciplinary inquiry aims to
reach such integration at multiple levels of abstraction
(Max-Neef, 2005). Such overarching synthesis can lead
to new sciences, such as anthropology as the science of
humans, universal ‘interlanguages’ that transcend not
only disciplines but also science, education and practical
application (e.g. mathematics or system theory), and the
redefinition of hierarchies, structures and actor roles in
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
v
the creation and application of knowledge. Transdiscipli-
narity is driven by the quest for systematically integrated
and universal knowledge, critical evaluation of theories,
concepts and methods as well as the underlying socio-
political antecedents. Transdisciplinary research driven
by environmental and sustainability issues (Schaltegger
et al., 2013; Vermeulen and Witjes, 2021), for example,
acknowledges the ‘life-worlds’ of humans, and not disci-
plinary interests, as frames for the definition of research
problems and knowledge production. New forms of
collaboration between academics, business and other
social actors, in which scientifically reliable knowledge
is merged with socially robust problem definitions and
knowledge, are another result of the search for more
integrative and universal modes of research.
Mono-disciplinarity represents an ‘opposite’ research
mode in which scholars apply a rather limited or focused
perspective to investigate a phenomenon. However,
one must bear in mind that a clear dierentiation
between these dierent research modes is dicult to
achieve and is context dependent.
It is not dicult to see that cross-disciplinary research
holds some potential for contemporary business model
studies as these often require, at least theoretically,
cross-disciplinary collaboration, diverse theories and
methods and new ways of dealing with complex phe-
nomena such as innovation, entrepreneurship and sus-
tainability. In the following, we briefly summarise the
articles and key findings of the special issue articles and
how researchers deal with various phenomena and use
diverse theories and methods. These articles’ contribu-
tions to, and implications for, cross-disciplinarity in busi-
ness model research are discussed in the final section.
Articles in the Special Issue
This special issue contains seven articles, all of which
provide inspiration for, and contribution to, future cross-
disciplinary conversations and projects in the field of
business model research. Table 1 provides an overview
of these articles, the diversity of phenomena studied
and the variety of applied theories and methods.
The short paper by Dror Etzion (2020), ‘Radical Resource
Productivity as an Inspiration for Business Model Innova-
tion: The Case of Foodchain’, addresses business model
innovations in the service sector. Foodchain is a fast-
casual restaurant recently founded in Montreal, Canada,
with the primary aim of serving uncooked, vegetable-
based meals. The research objective is to understand
the eects of waste-minimisation eorts, following a
radical resource productivity (RRP) approach on busi-
ness model design. A major RRP design choice was to
use so-called Robot-Coupes for food production, which
increases eciency gains in earlier manufacturing-like
stages of the value chain. Furthermore, an activity map
was found to be a useful tool to visualise essential busi-
ness model design choices and consequences.
The article by Michael Fruhwirth, Christiana Rop-
posch, and Viktoria Pammer-Schindler (2020), ‘Sup-
porting Data-Driven Business Model Innovations: A
Structured Literature Review on Tools and Methods’,
reviews research on tools and methods for data-driven
business model innovation. The analysed literature is
structured according to the types of contribution (tax-
onomies, patterns, visual tools, methods, IT tools and
processes), types of thinking supported (divergent and
convergent) and the business model elements that are
addressed (value creation, value capturing and value
proposition). By drawing on these findings, the authors
identify three avenues for future research: first, tools
and methods that enable convergent thinking require
additional studies; second, more research is needed to
provide a holistic view that integrates single tools and
methods; and third, designing software tools to sup-
port data-driven business model innovation is an area
that should be further investigated.
The article by Martin Glinik, Michael Rachinger, Chris-
tiana Ropposch, Florian Ratz, and Romana Rauter
(2021), ‘Exploring Sustainability in Business Models of
Early-Phase Start-up Projects: A Multiple Case Study
Approach’, explores the drivers for integrating sustain-
ability aspects in the business models of early-stage
start-ups. The authors studied the sustainability in
the business models of six early-stage entrepreneur-
ial projects. They found that most cases indicate that
early-stage start-ups do not holistically integrate sus-
tainability, but rather consider it as an additional ben-
efit to their products and services. The authors assert
that the main drivers of sustainable business models
in early-stage ventures are entrepreneurial motiva-
tion, careful resource use and waste reduction. Both
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
vi
altruistic and strategic, respectively financial motiva-
tions were found to be important for the inclusion of
sustainability considerations.
The article by Päivi Luoma, Anne Toppinen, and Esko
Penttinen (2021), ‘The Role and Value of Data in Realis-
ing Circular Business Models: A Systematic Literature
Review’, is positioned at the crossroads between circu-
lar business models and data. It studies the role that
data, such as supply-chain and life-cycle data, plays
in circular business models. The review shows that
this role is still poorly understood. The recognition of
data as both driver and enabler for circular economic
activities is common. Additionally, two approaches
Author(s) and title Phenomena studied Theories and methods used
Etizon, D. (2020), Radical resource productivity as
an inspiration for business model innovation: The
case of foodchain, Journal of Business Models,
Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 1–6.
Foodchain’s business model
Business model design driven by radical
resource productivity and eciency
Radical resource productivity; business
model innovation
Teaching case data; activity mapping
Fruhwirth, M., Ropposch, C. and Pammer-Schin-
dler, V. (2020), Supporting data-driven business
model innovations: A structured literature review
on tools and methods, Journal of Business Mod-
els, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 7–25.
Data-driven business model innovation
Types of thinking related to business model
innovation
Tools and methods for business model
innovation
Data- and analytics-enabled business
model development
Structured literature review; concep-
tual framework development
Glinik, M., Rachinger, M., Ropposch, C., Ratz, F.
and Rauter, R. (2021), Exploring sustainability in
business models of early-phase start-up projects:
A multiple case study approach, Journal of Busi-
ness Models, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 22-43.
Sustainability in business models of early-
phase start-ups
Imprinting processes giving shape to new
business models
Imprinting theory; sustainable busi-
ness model development
Multiple case study approach; qualita-
tive content analysis
Luoma, P., Toppinen, A. and Penttinen, E. (2021),
The role and value of data in realising circular
business models: A systematic literature review,
Journal of Business Models, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp.
44-71.
Role of data in circular business models
Data as a source of value in data-driven
business models
Data- and analytics-enabled business
model development; circular business
models
Systematic literature review; concep-
tual framework development
Endregat, N. and Pennink, B. (2021), Exploring the
coevolution of traditional and sustainable busi-
ness models: A paradox perspective, Journal of
Business Models, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 44-71.
Tensions and paradoxes of sustainability-
driven business model development
Strategies to deal with co-evolutionary ten-
sions and paradoxes
Business model co-evolution; paradox
perspective
Multiple case study approach; concep-
tual framework development
Alba Ortuño, C. and Dentchev, N. (2021), We need
transdisciplinary research on sustainable busi-
ness models, Journal of Business Models, Vol. 9,
No. 2, pp. 72-86.
Transdisciplinary research in vulnerable
entrepreneurship
Data-related challenges in sustainable busi-
ness model research
Information asymmetry; sustainable
business models; international man-
agement; base-of-the-pyramid
Case study; interviews and focus
groups; data triangulation
Urmetzer, S. (2021), Dedicated business mod-
els – connecting firms’ values with the systemic
requirements of sustainability, Journal of Busi-
ness Models, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 87-108.
Role of business models in changing inno-
vation systems
Integration and diusion of sustainability
values
Dedicated innovation systems; sus-
tainability transitions
Systematic literature review; concep-
tual framework development
Table 1: Articles contained in the special issue
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
vii
regarding the value of data are distinguished: the out-
ward-oriented approach emphasises the value of data
to shape the user experience relating to the design of
circular products and services, and the inward-focused
approach focuses on the way in which data operation-
ally contributes to improving economic and environ-
mental performance.
The article by Niklas Endregat and Bartjan Pennink
(2021), ‘Exploring the Coevolution of Traditional and
Sustainable Business Models: A Paradox Perspective’,
uses seven case studies to investigate the tensions
and paradoxes that occur when traditional and sustain-
ability-oriented business models co-evolve under one
corporate roof. The identified tensions and paradoxes
include competing demands in terms of performance
and value creation, fit with organisational culture and
mindset, challenges in training and stang, the alloca-
tion of resources between traditional and sustainable
business models and balancing the roles and expecta-
tions of multiple stakeholders. The authors present a
framework to structure these challenges and to ana-
lyse their sample of cases. Four coping strategies are
identified: ‘splitter’, ‘operational perfectionist, ‘strate-
gic mandator’ and ‘transformer.
The article by Claudia Alba Ortuño and Nikolay Dentchev
(2021), ‘We Need Transdisciplinary Research on Sus-
tainable Business Models’, argues in favour of transdis-
ciplinarity in sustainable business model research. The
authors developed their arguments based on a trans-
disciplinary programme in Bolivia and 57 interviews and
10 focus group discussions with vulnerable entrepre-
neurs and relevant stakeholders, alongside numerous
on-site observations. The authors used the theoretical
lens of information asymmetry and argue that trans-
disciplinary research can resolve the problems of moral
hazard, information analysis and information access,
which occur while investigating complex phenomena,
such as sustainable business models. Based on the
findings of this study, the authors make five sugges-
tions for how scholars can adopt transdisciplinarity in
their sustainable business model studies: (i) under-
stand the context, (ii) adapt to the context, (iii) develop
relationships of trust, (iv) be flexible with the research
focus and (v) systematically present to other disciplines
and non-academic actors.
The article by Sophie Urmetzer (2021), ‘Dedicated Busi-
ness Models – Connecting Firms’ Values with the Sys-
temic Requirements of Sustainability’, brings together
insights from innovation system theory, sustainability
transitions and innovation trajectories. The main find-
ing is that dedicated business models aect an inno-
vation system at the level of its leading paradigms.
These business models commit to sustainability val-
ues, increase their influence through expansion of their
networks and actively impose these sustainability val-
ues on consumers and suppliers. The theorical link this
paper explores between innovation system and tran-
sition theories culminates in the role business models
play as a linking pin to shape and instigate change at
a fundamental level. More in-depth insights into diu-
sion mechanisms and patterns of values, and how these
reconfigure leading paradigms at regime and systems
levels, call for the inclusion of additional disciplines
(e.g. social psychology, innovation management).
Implications and Potential for
Cross-Disciplinarity in Business
Model Research
The goal of this special issue is to illustrate the variety
of phenomena studied by business model scholars and
to shed light on the diversity of theories and methods
they apply. While this special issue can of course only
oer a very limited snapshot, it covers diverse topics
including business model design, entrepreneurship,
sustainability and data and analytics, in addition to
diverse combinations of these topics. Several indica-
tions of cross-disciplinarity in studying these topics can
be found in the articles, mostly in terms of interdiscipli-
nary approaches to defining phenomena under investi-
gation and to using theory. We discuss the implications
of these observations in more detail below.
In addition to our reading of the articles, we asked the
authors to appraise their research modes, using a sim-
ple continuum ranging from mono- to multi-, inter-
and transdisciplinarity. The authors were provided with
the definitions of research modes proposed by Mennes
(2020) (see the ‘What is Cross-Disciplinarity?’ section).
Figure 1 demonstrates how the authors appraised their
own work by responding to the following question:
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
viii
‘Please position your paper along the continuum from
mono- to transdisciplinary. The cross-disciplinary
aspects of your research approach adopted could refer
to, for example, theories, methods, collaboration pro-
cesses, or disciplinary backgrounds of the authors.
According to the authors, most of the studies pre-
sented in the special issue involve interdisciplinary
research modes.
Acknowledging that interdisciplinarity seems to be a
common research mode applied by the special issue
authors and that future research should be more
transdisciplinary, we reflect on some implications
for cross-disciplinarity in business model research.
We focus on the four most prominent topics covered
in our special issue, namely business model design,
entrepreneurship, sustainability and data and analyt-
ics. In doing so, we also present the authors’ points of
view. Asked for their key learnings, they oered some
interesting insights and explanations for why cross-
disciplinarity makes sense in the context of business
model research.
Business model design
Many special issue articles deal with topics related to
business model design, including business model inno-
vation, design principles and methods and tools for
business model development. Business model design
is a ‘hot topic’ in business model research, exempli-
fied by a constantly growing number of journal arti-
cles focusing on it (e.g. Wirtz and Daiser, 2018). In this
special issue, it is addressed from various theoretical
perspectives, including engineering- and sustainabil-
ity-inspired approaches to resource use (Etzion, 2020),
imprinting theory to explain organisational behav-
iour (Glinik et al., 2021), data- and analytics-enabled
Figure 1: Research modes adopted and thematic areas covered in the special issue articles
(according to the authors)
Note: (1) Etzion; (2) Fruhwirth, Ropposch and Pammer-Schindler; (3) Luoma, Toppinen and
Penttinen; (4) Glinik, Rachinger, Ropposch, Ratz and Rauter; (5) Endregat and Pennink;
(6) Alba Ortuño and Dentchev; (7) Urmetzer
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
ix
business model development (Fruhwirth et al., 2020;
Luoma et al., 2021) and tensions and paradoxes occur-
ring in the co-evolution of dierent types of business
model (Endregat and Pennink, 2021).
This variety shows that, regarding theories, interdisci-
plinary approaches are common and maybe even the
norm, given the many various issues studied in rela-
tion to business model design. This is an interesting,
but perhaps not surprising, observation, given that
business models and related phenomena are, per se,
complex and related to a huge variety of systemic and
multi-level issues (cf. Dentchev et al., 2018; Massa et
al., 2018). Entrepreneurship, management and busi-
ness scholars seem to be accustomed to applying theo-
retical perspectives coming from ‘alien’ domains such
as design, engineering and information technology, as
well as domains such as psychology and biology. This
openness to interdisciplinary approaches in the form of
using theory seems to be a useful research strategy—
first, to deal with new and complex socio-technical and
socio-economic phenomena, and second, for cross-
fertilisation (see ‘Why Strive to Overcome Silos and
Disciplinary Boundaries?’ section). Novel and promis-
ing perspectives can be expected the more business
model scholars delve into other domains’ theories, for
example, those derived from psychology (e.g. micro-
foundations of business model development), biology
(e.g. business model evolution and ecosystems) and
data sciences (e.g. new business models driven by, and
driving, big data). This expectation seems to be shared
by the special issue authors:
‘Not only in academia, but also in business and policy,
there is a significant need for more people that have
insight on the interfaces of dierent disciplines, oppor-
tunities and challenges etc. Multi- and interdisciplinary
business model research can make a great contribution
to this. Frameworks used in some disciplines could add
great value when used in others.’ (Luoma, Toppinen and
Penttinen; personal statement)
‘Most of the investigated start-up projects did not
holistically integrate sustainability-related values.
Instead, sustainability was considered as an ancil-
lary benefit to providing products or services. Besides
intrinsic motivation, there are also strategic reasons …
(Glinik, Rachinger, Ropposch, Ratz and Rauter; personal
statement)
The value of interdisciplinary approaches to using
theory is obviously appreciated. The Glinik et al. (2021)
paper, as an example, shows that better understand-
ing of how sustainability is integrated into new busi-
ness models requires both strategic management and
psychological, respectively ethnographical perspectives
that can be embedded in an imprinting theory frame-
work borrowed from animal studies.
Although the potential for interdisciplinarity is obvious,
questions and challenges remain beyond the special
issue articles, such as whether appropriate empirical
methods are available and how collaborative research
settings can be instituted in a fruitful manner.
Entrepreneurship
Continuing with the Glinik et al. (2021) paper, we see
how a focus on various interrelated aspects of a phe-
nomenon, such as sustainability-oriented business
model design, can give shape to interesting, yet hardly
understood, research topics in the realm of entrepre-
neurship. These topics include the development and
acceleration of new ventures with a sustainability ori-
entation; the characteristics, motivations and inten-
tions of entrepreneurs driving these ventures; their
values and normative orientations; how they arrange
value creation for multiple stakeholders; or their ven-
tures’ strategic positioning. Going deeper into any of
these facets of entrepreneurial behaviour and its out-
comes not only requires cross-disciplinary collabora-
tion, theories and methods, but can also serve as a
steppingstone to transdisciplinarity.
An example of moving towards a transdisciplinary
research mode is presented by Alba Ortuño and
Dentchev (2021). Regarding theory, they build on infor-
mation asymmetry, international management and
base-of-the-pyramid approaches to study the busi-
ness models of vulnerable entrepreneurs in Bolivia. The
authors actively participated in a programme aiming ‘to
contribute to the development of the Bolivian society by
enhancing institutional capacity building’ for local com-
munities and entrepreneurs (Alba Ortuño and Dentchev,
2021, p. 75). Creating meaningful insights and new
knowledge required intense collaboration with various
stakeholders, including continuous formal and informal
discussions with local communities, dierent partici-
patory methods, primary data collection through inter-
views and focus groups and analyses of secondary data.
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
x
The authors summarise their experience as follows:
‘Transdisciplinary research allows to understand the
opportunities and challenges of sustainable business
models (SBM) more precisely due the interaction of all
involved actors. Transdisciplinary research is highly ben-
eficial to overcome problems in information asymmetry
when researching SBM.’ (Alba Ortuño and Dentchev; per-
sonal statement)
This example tells us that complex entrepreneurship
topics, such as vulnerable entrepreneurship and its
potential for social value creation, can be addressed by
combining dierent theoretical lenses, which are not
limited to ‘pure’ entrepreneurship theories. Further-
more, the immersion of researchers into a local context
and object of study is not only promising but maybe
even required. In support of this, longitudinal research
designs, action research and data triangulation are
useful elements in a transdisciplinary toolbox for the
study of entrepreneurship business models.
Sustainability
Sustainability, for example, in terms of integrating
principles of ecological or social value creation into busi-
ness model design or seeing it as an entrepreneurial
motivation, has already been mentioned (Alba Ortuño
and Dentchev, 2021; Etzion, 2020; Glinik et al., 2021).
This shows that sustainability topics seem to be likely
and promising subjects for cross-disciplinary business
model research. An interesting and innovative inter-
disciplinary perspective is oered by Urmetzer (2021).
Her conceptual work deals with how values of sustain-
ability (e.g. customer expectations for better ecologi-
cal performance) can become part of a business model
and diuse in innovation systems. Her theory is that
the design of value proposition, delivery and capture is
an important mechanism to diuse certain values and
hence to link business model and system-level sustain-
ability. Values of sustainability are touched on by Glinik
et al. (2021) as well, as the motivation of entrepreneurs
to give their business models a certain direction, and
Etzion (2020) makes a very explicit link between eco-
logical design principles and business model design.
While Etzion (2020) and Glinik et al. (2021), in simple
terms, study how sustainability becomes a part of busi-
ness models, Urmetzer (2021) attempts to understand
how business models can help diuse sustainability
values throughout the wider innovation systems in
which business models are embedded. Both perspec-
tives are highly complementary and indicate a new
field of study, namely values-based business models
(Breuer and Lüdeke-Freund, 2017). With a view to the
future, Urmetzer (2021) concludes that more in-depth
insights about diusion mechanisms and patterns of
values are needed, and how these reconfigure leading
paradigms at the regime and systems levels. This is a
much needed, but no less ambitious call for cross-dis-
ciplinary business model research and a call for various
micro-, meso- and macro-level disciplines to join in (e.g.
social psychology, culture studies, policy research, inno-
vation and sustainability transition studies).
A novel firm-level perspective is oered by Endregat
and Pennink (2021). They identify tensions and para-
doxes that occur when companies operate traditional
business models and aim to add sustainability-ori-
ented business models to their portfolios. Competing
demands regarding performance and value creation,
lack of fit with the dominant organisational culture and
mindset, as well as challenges related to training, sta-
ing and resource allocation are observed. While these
challenges and the theoretical lens through which they
are studied remain largely in the field of organisation
and management studies, deeper analysis of the ori-
gins of the corresponding tensions and paradox will
require a broad multi- or interdisciplinary approach.
As with the examples above, various disciplines are
required to understand how business performance is
impacted (e.g. accounting), how organisational and
business cultures are formed and (de-)stabilised (e.g.
cultural studies, institutional theory), how human
resources can be managed with regard to sustainabil-
ity demands (e.g. psychology, human resource research
and how decision-makers find solutions to paradoxical
decisions about resources (e.g. paradox theory, psy-
chology, leadership studies).
The authors’ statements below show that such issues
oer promising contexts for cross-disciplinary business
model research:
‘Integrating theories from dierent disciplines is a chal-
lenge but worth doing: It results in interesting new
questions and ‘black-boxes’ to discuss from multiple
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
xi
angles. Introducing more philosophical arguments in
your research broadens the theoretical perspective, for
example it can overcome previously established divides
(as in the concepts of TBM [traditional business model]
and SBM [sustainable business model]).(Endregat and
Pennink; personal statement)
‘I learned that business models tell us so much more
about the true values and objectives of a firm than mis-
sion statements, sustainability reports, or interviews
with CEOs.(Urmetzer; personal statement)
Again, the availability of corresponding research meth-
ods and collaboration formats is crucial. Given the
attention that universities and funding bodies are cur-
rently paying to issues of sustainability and circular
economy, the future looks quite promising for business
model research in these fields.
Data and Analytics
An interesting direction at the junction of sustainability
and data sciences has been taken by Luoma et al. (2021).
They studied the role and value of data for the develop-
ment of circular economy business models and found
an outward-oriented and inward-focused approach to
business model development, the former emphasising
how data (such as product life cycle data) can be used
to shape the user experience with circular products and
services, and the latter focusing on how using data can
improve the economic and environmental performance
of circular economy business models. For the outward
approach, further studies may encourage behavioural
sciences to obtain more insights into consumer behav-
iour and the data requirements this creates. In addition
to data on products and services, this approach calls for
the inclusion of data on user behaviours and attitudes.
The inward approach calls for a more intimate rela-
tion with the discipline of information management,
obtaining a clearer picture of the requirements for data
process optimisation, information systems, storing and
search, or artificial intelligence for the optimisation of
circular economy business models. While it seems rea-
sonable to continue with a multi-disciplinary approach
in which, for example, data sciences and psychology
prepare the ground, later stages will most likely require
inter- and transdisciplinary approaches in which theo-
ries and methods from these fields are merged.
In a similar vein, Fruhwirth et al. (2020) call for a more
intense integration of dierent disciplines for future
studies on data-driven business model design. These
include, for example, innovation management, infor-
mation systems and data sciences. Further integration
issues, such as the need to better understand the role
of collaboration and to integrate insights from data-
specialists, are mentioned by Luoma et al. (2021), all
pointing to the need for further theoretical and method-
ical advances. In addition, Fruhwirth and colleagues
emphasise in their statement that more knowledge at
cross-disciplinary intersections is needed, particularly
when there is the need to combine dierent business
model conceptualisations and tools:
‘Tool support for (data-driven) business model innova-
tion needs more conceptualisation and integration in
the scientific community. Tools typically are very spe-
cific to a single element of a business model or phase of
business model innovation – and very little knowledge
has been created about how these dierent conceptu-
alisations map to each other, and how tools can be used
in combination, and in a coherent process.(Fruhwirth,
Ropposch, and Pammer-Schindler; personal statement)
Researchers, managers and entrepreneurs obviously
have dierent understandings of business models. The
same holds true for engineering, organisation theory,
circular economy and data experts. This is a challenge
and an opportunity, as for example, Alba Ortuño and
Dentchev (2021) tell us very explicitly.
In short, we have just begun exploring the business
model concept, but we can see that cross-disciplinary
business model research can deliberately create situ-
ations in which theoretical and methodical diversity,
fruitful deviance and sometimes tensions and conflicts
are created to make the most of the otherwise uncon-
nected expert perspectives.
For the moment, this is maybe our conclusion, we are
moving rapidly towards interdisciplinary applications of
theory, but in terms of research methods, more must
come. This might result also in dierent perceptions of
(empirical) findings, or dierent findings, per se, and
allow for diverse implications. This relates to the overall
idea of interdisciplinarity that describes a collaboration
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
xii
of researchers leading to an integration of elements of
the disciplines involved (Mennes, 2020), but it does not
need to happen all at once.
The same for the ‘ultimate’ move towards transdisci-
plinarity, of course, without falling into the fallacy that
more cross-disciplinarity is always the best solution. As
with many things in life, it depends. Our colleague Dror
Etzion nicely reminded us of that:
‘My paper suggests avenues for future research that
remain mono-disciplinary, within the management dis-
cipline, but I do not want to suggest that cross-discipli-
nary business model research is a bad idea. Quite the
opposite.(Etzion; personal statement)
Journal of Business Models (2021), Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. i - xiv
xiii
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Investigating the benefits of sustainable business models for our societies is an important and timely topic. This Special Volume contributes to current research by exploring a variety of sustainable models in use around the world. The accepted articles provide an overview of the various organizational forms, management mechanisms, sustainability solutions, challenges, theoretical lenses and empirical evidence, i.e. fundamental elements in the study of sustainable business models. In this introductory paper, the thirty-seven articles included in this Special Volume are presented, organized in four approaches to sustainable business models: 1/the generalist approach, 2/the technology-based approach, 3/the entrepreneurship and innovation approach and 4/the behavioral approach. In conclusion, avenues for future research are formulated, with a call for solid theory building, more sophisticated research methods, focus on the interplay of sustainable with existing conventional business models, and systemic consideration of the role of governments in advancing sustainable business models.
Article
Ever since the Internet boom of the mid-1990s, firms have been experimenting with new ways of doing business and achieving their goals, which has led to a branching of the scholarly literature on business models. Three interpretations of the meaning and function of “business models” have emerged from the management literature: (1) business models as attributes of real firms, (2) business models as cognitive/linguistic schemas, and (3) business models as formal conceptual representations of how a business functions. Relatedly, a provocative debate about the relationship between business models and strategy has fascinated many scholars. We offer a critical review of this now vast business model literature with the goal of organizing the literature and achieving greater understanding of the larger picture in this increasingly important research area. In addition to complementing and extending prior reviews, we also aim at a second and more important contribution: We aim at identifying the reasons behind the apparent lack of agreement in the interpretation of business models, and the relationship between business models and strategy. Whether strategy scholars consider business model research a new field may be due to the fact that the business model perspective may be challenging the assumptions of traditional theories of value creation and capture by focusing on value creation on the demand side and supply side, rather than focusing on value creation on the supply side only as these theories have done. We conclude by discussing how the business model perspective can contribute to research in different fields, offering future research directions.