Vision: Empirical context

Environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, climate change, poverty, malnutrition and violation of human rights are examples of wicked problems that organizations face in today’s society (Howard-Grenville et al. 2014). Wicked problems are complex societal challenges with three distinctive features: 1) they have cause-effect relationships impossible to define univocally; 2) they keep changing over time; 3) they involve conflict of beliefs and values among stakeholders. As such, they cannot be solved but only managed or dealt with (Rittel and Webber 1973).

Wicked problems are particularly daunting in the food and agricultural sector, which lays at the intersection between natural resource scarcity issues upstream the chain and malnutrition challenges downstream the chain (Batie 2008), especially in emerging economies that experience major turbulences due to these issues (Dahan et al. 2010). Thus, the food and agricultural context challenges the field of management studies to develop theories that explain how organizations engage in strategic change management for a more effective use of natural resources in the ecosystem (George et al. 2015). The nature of wicked problems require companies to continuously adapt by engaging with multiple stakeholders in the ecosystem (Selsky and Parker 2005) and stimulating bottom-up processes that continuously recombine resources within and outside their boundaries (Brown and Eisenhardt 1997; Mitzberg 2015).

Despite the concept of wicked problems is increasingly familiar to business managers (Hamilton 2013), companies and their stakeholders still receive limited science-based evidence on how to re-organize their resources to adapt to changing external conditions to deal with the nature of these societal challenges (Etzion et al. 2015). When seeking collaborative solutions (such as partnerships) to the problems at hand, companies experience conflicts with stakeholders in framing the problems (Reinecke and Ansari 2015), in deciding how to address them, and in controlling and enforcing the outcomes to reach (Banerjee 2000). This may lead to high coordination costs both within and across organizations. Without adequate prevention, poor or costly coordination may even lead to socio-political conflicts and natural disasters.

These managerial challenges stem from a persisting knowledge gap on how companies can effectively re-organize their resources, both within and outside their organizational boundaries, to deal with wicked problems. Outside the management studies field, research has focused on institutions dealing with wicked problems from a public policy (Levin et al. 2012), complex adaptive systems (Rotmans and Loorbach 2009; Pahl-Wostl 2010) and individual learning standpoint (Brown et al. 2010). Yet, knowledge gaps persist in linking the business organization to the mentioned intra- and inter-organizational levels so far studied in the literature.

Adapted from the organizational development framework of Cummings and Worley (2014), Figure 1 provides a synopsis of the knowledge gap that persists in the literature in understanding how organizations can re-align their human processes, structures, human resources and strategies to continuously adapt to the uncertain, changing, conflicting nature of wicked problems embedded in eco-systems.

FIGURE 1. Agribusiness organizations dealing with wicked problems in complex eco-systems: An overview of the persisting knowledge gaps.

Legend: The organization and the complex systems where wicked problems are embedded into (Waddock et al. 2015) represent the two interconnected (intra- and inter-organizational) levels of analysis. The arrows represent the knowledge gaps in understanding the dynamics of change within and outside the organizational boundaries necessary to deal with wicked problems.
Source: Adapted from Cummings and Worley’s framework of organizational change (2014).


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