Transdisciplinarity in Corporate Sustainability

Business Strategy and the Environment, 20(5), p. 348-350

3 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2012

See all articles by Stefan Schaltegger

Stefan Schaltegger

Leuphana University of Lueneburg

Markus Beckmann

Leuphana University Lueneburg

Erik G. Hansen

Johannes Kepler University (JKU) Linz

Date Written: July 1, 2011


A growing number of businesses is dealing with corporate sustainability issues. As corporate sustainability covers a wide range of complex topics such as emission reductions, biodiversity management, sustainability-oriented product and service innovation, sustainable supply chain management, or corporate influences on communities and regional development, its successful implementation depends on the contributions of experts from various disciplines in management, environmental science, psychology, sociology, economics, and related disciplines. In fact, the complexity of many sustainability challenges requires problem-solving approaches that transcend not only boundaries between academic disciplines but also between academics and practitioners. This is what transdisciplinarity is about. Transdisciplinary approaches, however, are just being developed. Both managers and academics are only beginning to learn to organize joint transdisciplinarity processes of analysis and solution creation. This is why a special issue on approaches and experiences of transdisciplinarity in pursuing corporate sustainability is needed and timely.

Though transdisciplinarity relates to and shares aspects with other existing concepts and methodologies, such as action research, participatory enquiry, insider-outsider research, design thinking, cross-functional/interdisciplinary teams, amongst others, transdisciplinarity has some specifics and can be characterised by the following key points:

Real life challenge as starting point. The starting point is not a theory problem but a concrete case of a complex sustainability challenge (e.g. a company has a large number of complex supply chains with substantial ecological, social, and economic risks which shall be reduced effectively). While many conventional research approaches are often model- or theory-driven, transdisciplinary research is phenomenon driven and does not draw on prefixed assumptions.

Complexity requires collaboration. Transdisciplinary approaches focus on complex challenges that cannot be fully solved within a single perspective or discipline. As a consequence, the creation of real, effective, and lasting solutions requires collaboration, both between academic disciplines and between researchers and practitioners.

Joint clarification of the challenge at hand and collaborative problem definition. Given many complex sustainability challenges, the precise problem definition is often not clear-cut but difficult to specify in advance. Transdisciplinarity means that researchers and practitioners collaborate in a joint effort to describe the chosen real-world phenomenon and to specify the research problem to be addressed.

Iterative joint problem-solving process. Following the joint problem definition, the analysis of the problem(s) and the development of solutions is not the job of academics or of practitioners only, but a co-evolutionary process between academics and practitioners. Transdisciplinarity involves practitioners not just as interview partners or receivers of reports but as providers of expertise. Thus, academics conducting research and corporate practitioners interact strongly and are not divided as much as it is traditionally the case. Research and the application of research methods receive a "rolling character".

No strict separation between knowledge production and knowledge transfer. The created knowledge and practical solutions often do not fit into the traditional scheme of a discipline. In interactive transdisciplinary processes, these results are often directly tested, contested, modified, and advanced. The diffusion of the results is part of the interactive process and project development in the way that reality is changed through e.g. the modification of organizational practices and policies. Thus, knowledge production and diffusion happen in parallel, not after each other.

Keywords: Corporate Transdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinary Research, Corporate Sustainability, Sustainability

JEL Classification: M19

Suggested Citation

Schaltegger, Stefan and Beckmann, Markus and Hansen, Erik G., Transdisciplinarity in Corporate Sustainability (July 1, 2011). Business Strategy and the Environment, 20(5), p. 348-350 . Available at SSRN:

Stefan Schaltegger (Contact Author)

Leuphana University of Lueneburg ( email )

Scharnhorststra├če 1
L├╝neburg, 21335

Markus Beckmann

Leuphana University Lueneburg ( email )

Scharnhorststrasse 1
Lueneburg, 21314
+49(0)4131-677 2167 (Phone)
+49(0)4131-677 2186 (Fax)


Erik G. Hansen

Johannes Kepler University (JKU) Linz ( email )



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