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On the importance of meta-organization

As part of her thesis, this research project is carried by Héloïse Berkowitz (HEC alumna, PhD applicant at Ecole polytechnique) and her supervisor Hervé Dumez (CNRS). Marcelo Bucheli (Urbana-Champaign) co-authored with them a communication and a paper on the topic.

On which topic are you currently working?

The world around us is filled with meta-organizations: FIFA, MEDEF, trade unions federations, etc. Meta-organizations are organizations which members are themselves organizations. Two Swedish authors, Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson coined this concept of “meta-organization”, with its very specific meaning. They published a book on meta-organizations in 2008, which opened a whole new field of research, even though scholars in political science and sociology had studied meta-organizations before. The difference is that we can now investigate how companies use meta-organizations as a tool to collectively manage problems they are confronted to, such as those of social responsibility or sustainable development.

We conducted the first exhaustive study of meta-organizations’ roles in a given sector, the oil and gas industry. Our results showed that meta-organizations representing and defending the oil and gas industry’s interests exist in almost every country (even Luxembourg has one). But it also turned out that meta-organizations constitute a tool of choice to deal with specific issues: environmental ones, such as oil spill response, or societal, such as human rights defense. Meta-organizations can operate at the sector level itself, but also at the infra-sectoral level (some are specialized in upstream or downstream topics), supra-sectoral (some gather extractive companies and industries linked to energy, oceans, etc.) or even cross-sectoral (when they bring together multiple unrelated businesses).

Meta-organizations, as a tool for collective action, appear as flexible and innovative instruments, which, however, rely on a paradox. Since meta-organizations can act only with the consensus of all members, and since it does not have any coercive power, meta-organizations can seem like an inefficient and heavy machine. Still, voluntary engagement from firms can be more efficient than we think. And above all, meta-organizations help deal with reputation, a key parameter to take into account in firms’ strategies. Indeed, lack of membership in or exit from a meta-organization can result in heavy losses in reputation, while initiating the creation of a visible meta-organization – to deal with environmental issues for instance, can conversely profit to a firm’s reputation. This probably explains why some meta-organizations are very often created, in very different domains and why some are dormant but only very few disappear.

What evolutions do you see for this project in the near future?

We will soon publish a paper on meta-organizations as an instrument for collective action between firms in l’Année sociologique, the sociological journal created by Durkheim. We presented a communication at EURAM 2015 (in Varsaw). We submitted papers to the Journal of Business Ethics and the European Management Review. We will also coordinate a track in EURAM 2016 (in Paris) with our Swedish colleagues Nils Brunsson and Christina Garsten (call for papers here)

Interview by Marie-Claude Cléon