Business Models for Sustainable Technology

Emmanuelle Reuter reflects on “Business Models for Sustainable Technology: Strategic Re-Framing and Business Model Schema Change in Internal Corporate Venturing,” which was co-authored by Tao Krauspe and published in Organization and Environment. The reflection appears below the paper’s abstract.

Established firms often develop new businesses through internal corporate venturing (ICV), for instance, to capture value from novel sustainable technologies. We illuminate the early definition stage of ICV’s by asking: When and how do business model schemas—that is, managerial understandings of how value is created and captured—change in ICV? We conduct a qualitative, embedded case study of the change in a business model schema for e-mobility in a Swiss utility’s ICV. We uncover a key trigger: strategic re-framing—the active re-formulation of the definition of a given situation within ICV–top manager interactions. The strategic re-framing’s specificity level provokes either schema restrictions or expansions via the distinct accommodation practices it induces. Our theoretical model of business model schema change contributes to the literatures on managerial cognition, business models, and ICV, suggesting that business model schema change in ICV is a semi-autonomous process that involves both independent and joint endeavors.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Incumbent electric utilities are heavily impacted by the energy transition, as the emerging new sustainable technologies have the potential to disrupt their once profitable business. At the same time, it offers opportunities for these firms to renew themselves in the face of increasing sustainability requirements. Understanding how they may succeed in adapting to the new realities motivated this line of research. This research has also been part of a larger EU-funded Horizon 2020 project (EMPOWER), in which we investigated into business model innovation in the context of the energy transition.

Stenciled outline of vehicle connected to a power adapter painted on a green wall.
(Photo: Ralph Hutter/Unsplash)

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings?

The research was conducted as the business model development was still in progress inside the firm. As such, we did not know ex-ante what outcome it would eventually lead to and when it would reach a certain level of stability. Researchers need to handle the surprises of in-depth and real-time data collection.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

First, our research situates at the intersection of strategy and sustainability research. We believe there are ample opportunities for future research to investigate into how firms may strategically adapt to sustainability requirements and become more sustainable. Second, internal corporate venturing (ICV) has often been put forward as a critical mechanism for large established firms to renew themselves. Despite this recognition, however, we know surprisingly little about the ICV process itself, and specifically, about the early stages when new business model concepts emerge. This may be true even for the research on business model innovation more generally, because these early definitional stages are often less structured, more experimental and are difficult to grasp in particular for outside researchers. Shedding light onto this early stage is, in our view, a first key innovative aspect of this study. Third, the findings of this study extend the field by showing the distinctive role of language for shaping the business model development process. Language, as mobilized in ICV-top management interactions, may be seen as a critical managerial mechanism that critically shapes the behaviors of lower-level managers.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

Our advice for new scholars at the intersection of strategy and sustainability research is that there are big opportunities to further cross-fertilize the strategy and sustainability research fields. To develop rich insights and nuances onto the focal phenomenon, one may consider entering organizations to study the micro-level practices and processes at play.

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Emmanuelle Reuter

Dr. Emmanuelle Reuter is an assistant professor of innovation management at the University of Neuchâtel. She holds a PhD in management from the University of St. Gallen. Her research explores the role of individuals, and particularly of their cognition, in creating innovation and change in organizations.

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