Overcoming inertia in climate mitigation: How can organization theory contribute?


  • Susanna Alexius Score, Stockholm University
  • Nils Brunsson Score and Dept. of Business Studies, Uppsala university
  • Staffan Furusten Stockholm Business School and Score, Stockholm University
  • Ingrid Nordin Gustavsson Stockholm University


Many attempts are currently made to organize in order to tackle the grand societal challenges we are all facing (Ferraro et al, 2015; George et al, 2016). When actors from different sectors get involved and collaborate, this is seen as hopeful. Yet, the attempts look very different, are taken for different purposes and with different results. In this paper we compare differently organized attempts to foster climate change, and we focus on attempts that aim to create collective action between organizations to reduce the use of fossil fuels.


Climate research has shown what needs to be done, but a common complaint is that the transition is both too slow and too incremental (e g Aangenheyster et al, 2018; Dunlop and Spratt, 2019). In other words, inertia poses serious challenges to the much needed path generation. The purpose of this paper is to develop theory that contributes to explain how come some types of organizing seem to create more inertia, while other types of organizing may have the capacity for more radical and speedy change.


Empirically we analyze and compare differently organized attempts aimed to trigger organizations to act for climate transition for the public good. We map and categorize attempts such as the development of standards for sustainability (Brunsson & Jacobsson 2000; Boström & Tamm Hallström, environmental awards and prices, partnerships and collaboration programs (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2019). We also map attempts to establish meta-organizations (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008) where membership requires particular environmental concerns, and hybrid organizations where social and environmental responsibility are built into the very constitution (Alexius & Furusten, 2019). Typical examples of the former category are industry associations, and of the latter; state owned enterprises (such as LKAB and Vattenfall).


Since the attempts to organize for climate transition are often aimed to generate new paths for organizational behavior, we draw upon theories of collective action and path generation as an overall theoretical frame (e g Bothello and Salles Djelic, 2018). However, we also problematize and complement these macro theories from the viewpoint of theories of partial organization (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2010; Ahrne & Brunsson, 2019) and hybrid organization (Alexius & Furusten, 2020).


We argue that different forms of organization are likely to have different and complementary capacities to trigger path generation through collective action between organizations. More specifically, we are interested in unfolding any co-variance between degrees of organization and degrees of inertia in the attempts. In order to categorize attempts according to their different degrees of organization, we analyze whether five organizational elements are present or not; membership, hierarchy, rules, monitoring and sanctions. We also relate the degree of organization of an attempt to its perceived inertia, where antecedents of inertia are likely to include conflicts of interests, power struggles and unclear assignment of responsibility.


Following Ahrne & Papakostas (2002/2014) we assume that inertia in organizations derive from both inability and unwillingness to change and adapt quickly and radically. Collective resources give strength and power to an organized attempt but also limitations, such as inertia. Another fundamental source of inertia is found in the organization’s structures (rules, decision-making processes etc), whereas a third source of inertia lies in the organizers ability (or rather inability) to perceive new things or the need for change. Inertia may also be associated with an unwillingness to change. This unwillingness may be rooted in the motives to join or make other exchanges with the organization or a particular attempt. The unwillingness may also come from own vested interests as well as ideological or cultural factors and a fear of change.


In terms of the analysis, we also acknowledge that many instances of inertia experienced in contemporary society spring from good intentions and high held ideals of inclusion and universal human rights. It is simply a fact of organizational life that democratic procedures, the rule of law, taking multiple perspectives into account as well as careful preparation and critical debate, all require their due time. Some of the most sought after values of bureaucracy; such as equal treatment and proper documentation, illustrate this point as well and highlight the need for value conscious judgment, as well as the need for critical, qualitative analysis of any instance of inertia.


While some instances of inertia may be there for better reasons (such as inclusion of more stake-holders), other instances of inertia may presumably be less well motivated (such as certain types of bureaucratic inertia) and perhaps then also easier to handle or avoid at little social cost? Hence, inertia may be more or less ethically motivated. When analyzing and comparing different attempts to achieve collective action for climate change, we assume that we will often come across these trade-offs between high-held values (Alexius and Tamm Hallström, 2014; Bres et al, 2018). The paper will thus also make a contribution to our understanding of how such dilemmas of climate organizing are handled in differently organized attempts aimed for climate change and path generation.




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5.1 Business in Society - Society in Business