Driving sustainable innovation through collaborative networks in diversified business groups: an action research study
Cubero Mata, Victoria
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INTRODUCTION Though the role of collaboration in business has been widely studied (Verdecho et al., 2011), significantly less is known about cross-subsidiary collaboration in business groups (Sandford et al., 2022). To find a generalizable approach for addressing sustainability issues among subsidiaries entails complexity (Camarinha-Matos et al., 2008). Hence, the aim of this study was to understand and expand knowledge, in theory and practice, around the creation process of a cross-subsidiary collaborative network (CSCN) in diversified business groups (DBGs) to foster sustainable innovation (SI); using a sample of nine SME subsidiaries of a decentralized DBG in the Netherlands. THEORY Literature on open innovation effectiveness and empirical studies on CSCNs were reviewed, and a triple-bottom-line definition of sustainability was adopted. Regarding CSCNs, the influences of four effectiveness factors: holding company support, subsidiary-centric approach, nature of knowledge, and goal congruency, were explored. Concerning SI, it was theoretically expected from a CSCN to make a substantial contribution in subsidiaries’ understanding of the stakes and paths towards potential sustainable solutions to sustainability challenges (Camarinha-Matos, Afsarmanesh, et al., 2010). METHODS The study used an exploratory action research. This method encompassed theory-informed researcher interventions in the DBG; enabling an in-depth research of the case, in which all relevant stakeholders helped define the methodology as it unfolded. For this, an extensive set of qualitative data was collected for seven months through workshops, surveys, interviews, and participant feedback. The data was coded (mainly) deductively using the four factors as the analytical lens, and examined using thematic analysis. RESULTS & DISCUSSION The individual influences of the four factors were proven to be deeply intertwined, and all factors’ influence in effectively fostering SI seemed to be moderated by the level of subsidiary (and participants) motivation and curiosity. Aspects found essential when creating a CSCN were the support and engagement of the holding company, remaining sensitive and responsive to subsidiaries’ express needs for collaboration, and having collective clarity on the network’s goals. Evidence also showed that diversity in employee and firm knowledge fostered collaborative innovation and nurtured innovation capabilities. The CSCN also empowered subsidiaries to discover a share of common sustainability issues, which increased their motivation and sense of urgency. CONCLUSION This study made both theoretical and practical contributions for DBGs to apply collaboration for SI. The data offered robust answers substantiated in empirical evidence and stakeholder input, advancing the fields of collaborative networks and of applied action research.