Chance or genius?: A garbage can exploration of the institutionalisation of sustainability reporting in the Netherlands

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I have explored the institutionalisation of sustainability reporting in the Netherlands by combining insights from the garbage can model and institutional theory. In particular I have offered an account of the rise of sustainability reporting that questions the assumptions of individual institutional entrepreneurs who engage in their work with foresight and purpose. Below I first sketch more generally ‘garbage can institutionalism’ (figure 1). Subsequently I discuss in more detail the role of historical contingencies that open up opportunities for change and how a multiplicity of actors muddle through in an attempt to ‘take advantage’ of the opening for institutional change that these serendipitous moments offer.

      1. Institutional change and the garbage can model

I started this chapter with a discussion of extant work on institutionalisation and change, most notably a selection of studies using the institutional entrepreneurship framework. The concept of agency has been of great interest to these institutional scholars (e.g. Battilana, 2006; Delbridge & Edwards, 2007; Weik, 2011), particularly also the enabling conditions for institutional entrepreneurs to engage in change. Studies have focused on the social position of individual and organizational actors (Battilana et al., 2009; Battilana, 2006; Dorado, 2005) and field-level conditions such as the degree of heterogeneity and institutionalisation (Dorado, 2005; Pache & Santos, 2010). Rather than denying the importance of these factors, garbage can thinking supplements thinking on possible mediating mechanisms as it highlights the sometimes suggested (Aldrich, 1999; Czarniawska, 2009) but rarely explored possibility of historical contingencies as a serendipitous enabler of agency.

Historical contingencies in this line of thought are thus not to be understood as instances of meaningless randomness which turn institutional processes beyond actors’ control. Rather, over the course of history events take place that can be seen as “unanticipated conjectures of powerful forces” (Padgett, 2013: 474). Whereas they may seem infinitely small, as institutional actors shape and change institutions “by a complicated ecology of local events and locally adaptive actions” (March & Olsen, 1998: 968) they turn out to be much greater in their consequences. In effect, these contingencies are not unlike the exogenous jolts that can open up space for action and precipitate institutional change (see e.g. Fligstein, 2001; Meyer, Brooks, & Goes, 1990), although this study shows their continuous occurrence throughout the process. Moreover, these contingencies (e.g. Shell’s Brent Spar) provided impetus for new issues or choice opportunities and a related constellation of people, problems and solutions. This emerging space for action (Fligstein & McAdam, 2011) thus helps to alter and shape something akin an opportunity structure (McAdam, 1982; Tilly, 1978). Unlike typical accounts focusing on opportunity structures, a fundamental difference with the garbage can model is that I offer an account of agency that is based on temporality rather than consequences (Lomi & Harrison, 2012).

With historical contingencies as an enabling factor and evolving choice opportunities, next is the emergence of (collective) action, which works according to my analysis through the conducive and timely configuration of the various components of the garbage can. My account of institutionalism and the garbage can highlights the boundedly rational actor and aims to strike a balance by stipulating a type of “change driven by attempts of deliberate design, adaptation, and “organic” and co-evolving historical processes” (Cohen et al., 2012: 28). Both individual as well as more collective accounts of institutional entrepreneurship have typically assigned actors(s) with a great deal of intentionality and active change management, whereas my analysis stipulates the work of various actors whose actions oftentimes more resemble a kind of muddling through with what is offered to them. While this muddling is often rationalised away, it represents more than just handling random chance. Following De Rond and Thietart (2005: 17), it ultimately requires the “ability to ‘see bridges where others saw holes’. To see bridges, or ‘matching pairs’, is to creatively recombine events based on the appearance of a meaningful rather than causal link”. Rather than the result of careful design, it resembles the ability to construct a meaningful collage by combining elements, not unlike institutional bricolage (see e.g. Garud & Karnøe, 2003; Phillips & Tracey, 2007) which typically involves a plurality of actors.

Finally, this collective and possible somewhat messy response to serendipitous events causes a change in the institutional environment and at the same time can help to further cement the practice’s legitimacy. That is, as my analysis shows, with each response to an event, the outline and agenda of the institutional arena altered, leading to the possibility of new large or small events that would set in motion a renewed balance between problems, solutions and participants around choices deemed important at that point in time. To be sure though, it can be assumed that some cases lend themselves better to be analysed using a garbage can perspective than others. As discussed, it was originally developed to analyse decision making in ‘organised anarchies’ with problematic and ambiguous goals, unclear technologies and fluid participation of actors over time. Put in more institutional terms, it thus resonates with cases characterised by a high degree of pluralism and complexity (Greenwood et al., 2011). Relatively mature and highly institutionalised and non-fragmented fields may indeed allow for a large degree of strategic intentionality as institutional rules, roles and positions have crystallised (Dorado, 2005). New and multifaceted practices emerging in highly fragmented fields (Pache & Santos, 2010) or in lowly institutionalised ones with a multitude of actors and typically higher levels of uncertainty (Dorado, 2005; Garud et al., 2002; Maguire et al., 2004) do not allow for as much intent and foresight though. It is in particular here that the added value of the garbage can lies. Below I discuss two important aspects of my alternative interpretation of an example of institutionalisation and change: the importance of historical contingencies and collectivity.

      1. Historical contingencies

The oftentimes more serendipitous meandering of history has remained undervalued (see Czarniawska, 2009) by extant institutional studies focusing on the strategies of institutional entrepreneurs and the stages of institutional change processes (e.g. Battilana et al., 2009; Greenwood et al., 2002). The “undercurrent of purpose, order and necessity” (De Rond & Thietart, 2007: 540) visible in most extant work is, in garbage can style, linked to the modern Western cultural context in which this research is situated (Cohen et al., 2012). Looking at Dutch sustainability reporting though, it was partly set in motion exactly because of these more serendipitous moments of timing and a general conducive zeitgeist of first environmentalism in the 1980s that saw the simultaneous linkage around environmental systems. With the subsequent age of accountability and transparency of (corporate) life an extension of this could handily form the basis of a solution to newly emerging problems. Initial regulation was agreed upon among government, firms and NGO’s as a satisfactory solution, yet it ultimately failed as problems and solutions diverted. The Brent Spar ignited corporate interest in reporting though and showed the value of sustainability to firms, bringing the arrival of the solution of reporting to the problem of accountability, trust and transparency. Later, the wish of the Dutch government for a more active policy towards corporate transparency was rather coincidentally met by the Transparency Benchmark that was developed independently of the wishes of the government by a consultancy firm for commercial purposes. In short, these findings suggest things often happen because of a certain temporal constellation of people, their problems and solutions at hand at a particular moment in time.

This account of Dutch reporting stipulates the role of more serendipitous historical contingencies that emerge over the course of time. Rather than representing a neat purposeful process these “... complications tend to convert history into a meander. Rules and institutions become locally stable. Historical branches tend to be irreversible. The direction taken at any particular branch sometimes seems almost chancelike and subject to minor intentions, but the specific direction taken can be decisive in its effect on subsequent history (March & Olsen, 1998: 955). By highlighting the importance of historical contingencies in institutionalisation and change the interrelated role of timing, context and zeitgeist is flagged up as “the system of temporal coincidences at the core of the GCM may be viewed as one way of bringing back the causal role of context in our understanding of organized action” (Lomi & Harrison, 2012: 14).

To be sure, I do not refer to meaningless randomness here, but rather highlight the importance of timing, context or zeitgeist to better understand institutionalisation and change. In fact, when interviewing one of GRI’s founders himself (typically heralded with institutional entrepreneur status), he hinted at his more modest role as he argued “I think sustainability reporting, the concept has been a beneficiary of movements and pressures that are driving business or signalling business that transparency is not an option any longer, it's really an expectation and you must respond to it”. It follows more closely Rorty’s (1989: 37) notion of contingencies and his analysis of the progress of thoughts, actions, practices etc. and their purposefulness and intentionality:

“The difference between genius and fantasy is not the difference between impresses which lock on to something universal ... and those which do not. Rather, it is the difference between idiosyncrasies which just happen to catch on with other people - happen because of the contingencies of some historical situation, some particular need which a given community happens to have at a given time”.

Overall, this account thus represents “… a view that is more temporally contingent and less powerfully intentional, but often comes closer to matching the realities of organizational life” (Cohen et al., 2012: 22). Still, people need to find a response to these events and eventually these very same people are the ones involved in the institutional process of sustainability reporting as well. I argue this is a collective process where problem, solutions and participants are momentarily combined and matched to a choice relevant at that moment in time.

      1. Collectivity

Emphasising context and contingencies by extension problematises the hero-centric accounts present in many institutional entrepreneurship studies. Highlighting the importance of what I have labelled historical contingencies is not to say that actors do not matter. On the contrary, a wide range of research has highlighted the active strategic agency that institutional entrepreneurs have and use (Battilana et al., 2009; Hardy & Maguire, 2008; Pacheco et al., 2010). I suggest that relaxing some of the dominant assumptions may be useful, in this case in support of a more collective form of institutional entrepreneurship.

My interpretation of Dutch sustainability reporting suggests that a single institutional entrepreneur was not driving the process but rather highlights the collective nature. After all, analysing sustainability reporting over time and with an emphasis on the interplay between problems, solutions and participants makes clear the multiplicity and diversity of the process. For example, whereas at first mostly the Dutch government and civil society pushed for reporting, it gradually became a topic of more active interest among firms in the wake of the Brent Spar incident and the persistence of the accountability and transparency discourse. The Dutch government proved then largely unsuccessful in further pushing through reporting via legislative means, but actors such as the SER and Council of Annual Reporting did manage to give further impetus. Still, the work of the GRI was instrumental for reporting’s rise, yet GRI’s visibility in the Netherlands was enhanced by supporting work of consultants and the socially responsible investment community (e.g. VBDO). The government made a soft-law comeback in the institutional process through its work on the Transparency Benchmark. This short overview still does not do justice to the multiplicity of actors involved and singling out the work of any one actor as being of institutional entrepreneurial status would seem to negate the role of the other.

The collective aspects of institutionalisation and change get thus stipulated by a garbage can inspired analysis. Research attention has so far been focused primarily on the work of a small number of institutional entrepreneurs (Battilana et al., 2009; Pacheco et al., 2010; Wijen & Ansari, 2007) and in the case of sustainability reporting primarily on the GRI as an institutional entrepreneur (Brown et al., 2009; Etzion & Ferraro, 2010). My analysis thus indicates the continuous in- and outflow of a multitude of, oftentimes unconnected, institutional change agents (participants), problems and solutions. Dutch reporting rather resembles what Dorado (2005: 400) calls institutional partaking, or “institutional change as the autonomous actions of countless agents converging over time. Partakers act as a collective and no single individual or organization can be identified as responsible for the change”. Perhaps somewhat less ‘sexy’ than the more common heroic account of institutional entrepreneurs, my findings are more in line with other studies that show the collective nature of institutional entrepreneurship (Czarniawska, 2009; Delbridge & Edwards, 2008; Lounsbury & Crumley, 2007; Wijen & Ansari, 2007) and, relatedly, those that question the neat and linear progression through stages (Blackler & Regan, 2006; Delbridge & Edwards, 2008). In effect, Dutch sustainability reporting more resembles a situation of incrementalism or ‘muddling through’ (Lindblom, 1959, 1979). In particular the complexity of sustainability reporting and what it is exactly for and about (i.e. what are its problems and solutions and who are concerned), and the related blurred relationship between means and ends (Lindblom, 1959: 83), or between solutions for a problem in this case, makes way for the continuous incremental steps of various actors in reporting’s institutionalisation.

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