In this study, we take an inductive approach (Goddard and Melville 2004). Thus, we collected our empirical data without hypotheses and preconceptions on how the study would evolve. This approach increased the possibilities of discovering intriguing and new findings beyond preset knowledge and relationships (Robson and McCartan 2015). Our research followed a trajectory from the particular (i.e., a Swedish farm cooperative; hereafter Sigma) to the general (i.e., other cooperatives and similar organizations).
Research on joint BMs and sustainability in the Swedish farm-based biogas industry is still at an early stage. Therefore, we used qualitative research methods in our study, because the exploration of BMs in this context involves various actors, resources, and activities intertwined in complex and interdependent relationships (Evans et al. 2017). Creswell and Creswell (2017) claim that it is appropriate to conduct qualitative research in dealing with such complexity and with unfolding sequences and stages in relationships and collaborative actions in which in-depth knowledge is required. Use of qualitative research methods allows the researcher to describe how people experience particular events and situations as well as describe the variations and relationships among the actors (Robson and McCartan 2015). In addition, qualitative research allows deep interaction with the subjects of interest and promotes flexibility in the interaction with actors (Rowlands 2005).
In taking the inductive approach and in using qualitative research methods in our study, we expect to increase our knowledge of the collaborative development of the network-level BM and the stakeholder business case for sustainability. Because our research theoretically addresses business modelling for developing a network-level BM for sustainability and finding solutions to the practical issue of low profitability at a biogas-producing farm cooperative, the action research approach is also suitable for our study.
In action research, the researcher works in a “community of practice” to solve a social or organizational problem (Shani et al. 2012). According to Shani and Pasmore (1985), action research is a research method that focuses on conducting the research process with those whose life and actions are studied. Action research is research in action rather than research about action. It emphasizes the generation of useful knowledge co-produced in the local context with practitioners (Susman and Evered 1978). As a method for sequencing events and solving problems, action research allows the researcher to simultaneously study a practical problem, propose solutions, and produce scientific knowledge (Shani and Pasmore 1985).
Using action research, we worked closely with representatives from Sigma to initiate and facilitate the development of a network-level BM for sustainability. With a joint network-level BM, the farmers and their stakeholders might benefit from each other’s experiences and knowledge, and might co-create value aimed at establishing a profitable biogas production system that contributes to sustainable, regional development. In contrast with retrospective studies often found in BM research, our use of action research facilitates the study of an existing BM and the attempts to modify it or to craft a new one. According to Demil and Lecocq (2015), action research is a rare and promising approach for informing researchers and managers about the difficulties of implementing changes in the existing and prospective BMs as well as limiting the biases of retrospective studies.
In an action research study of a network or cooperative (such as Sigma), researchers use the plurality of experiences and the capacity in the network as a way to enrich the research process (Shani and Pasmore 1985). Therefore, the researchers for this study (with reference to its theoretical framework) and the Sigma representatives (with reference to their BM development problems) jointly planned, implemented, and evaluated the research process with the intention of producing useful results. The goal was to develop a network-level BM for sustainability that addressed Sigma’s organizational problems. Therefore, as participants rather than independent observers of the research (Middel et al. 2006), we acquired knowledge of Sigma’s social and organizational issues otherwise unavailable had we used the traditional research methods (Coughlan and Coghlan 2002). In addition, Bergold and Thomas (2012) report that our approach enables researchers to put familiar routines and forms of interactions aside as they challenge and rethink established interpretations of situations and strategies.
Action research has several research advantages. It focuses on a range of research activities such as planning, theorizing, exploring, and learning. In this research and learning process, the researcher’s long-term relationship with studied phenomena offers a promising opportunity for identifying contextually and theoretically well-grounded research findings (Susman and Evered 1978). Moreover, it is unnecessary in an action research study to rely on the second-hand narratives (e.g., questionnaires and surveys) (Coughlan and Coghlan 2002) because of the researcher’s proximity to the studied phenomena.
The flourishing business canvas
The use of the collaborative FBC tool (Fig. 1) in our study facilitated the collection of primary data through the first-hand observation and interaction. The FBC, which is a significant extension of the widely used and purely profit-focused Business Model Canvas, identifies and describes the fundamental characteristics of BMs conceptualized in the context of real-world economic, environmental, and social systems (Elkington and Upward 2016). The FBC components—(1) three contextual systems, (2) four perspectives, and (3) sixteen building blocks—are both necessary and sufficient to describe a sustainable BM. The three contextual systems are the environment (the planet, all life, and all associated processes), society (people as individuals and groups), and the economy (revenues, costs, and profit). The four perspectives are process, people, value, and outcomes. The sixteen building blocks are topics intended to provoke stakeholder questions about a firm’s current or future BM. The responses to these sixteen questions are used to describe and design the BM elements for any firm—past, present, or future, irrespective of the firm’s goals. Thus, the FBC provides a consistent way for a firm and its stakeholders to capture the results of its business-modelling efforts (Upward and Jones 2016).
The FBC is the only such tool that can provide the required holistic visual expression of a shared understanding of the frame within which the firm and its stakeholders co-create sustainable BMs (Upward and Davies 2018). The use of the FBC contributes to individual and shared learning about integrated business sustainability, thereby increasing the possibility that firms and stakeholders co-create outcomes aligned with that knowledge. In so doing, use of the FBC overcomes one of the main weaknesses of the Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas tools: the neglect of the networked nature of value co-creation and the importance of all stakeholders’ interests (Äyväri and Jyrämä 2017). The FBC can thus create consensus amongst a group of people who are working together by motivating them to engage in broader and deeper conversations about the topic at hand, furthering creativity and innovation.
Upward and Davies (2018) report three main advantages of the FBC compared to other business-modelling tools. First, using questions, the FBC systematically helps the actors to learn about every aspect of a sustainable BM—both existing and future—and the connections of the firm to its economic, social, and environmental contexts. These questions are useful for identifying the various risks and opportunities—whether these arise individually from economic, social, or environmental contexts or from some combination of the three. Second, the FBC, which facilitates recording of the responses to the building block questions, offers a consistent way of documenting the business modelling work. These responses are the narrative elements of the BM stories that the firm and its stakeholders think relevant to the firm at present and in the future. Third, once the collective understanding of an existing or future BM using the consistent structure of the canvas is established, the FBC creates trust among actors, which can facilitate the collaboration on other activities.
Our primary data were collected in March and April of 2016 at a Board of Directors meeting and at two collaborative ideation workshops. We were participants at the board meeting where development issues for Sigma were discussed. We also participated in the workshops attended by Sigma participants (board members and other individuals) and by external participants (university students, researchers, and consultants). All workshop participants worked with the FBC in the formulation of new ideas and possible solutions related to the future development of Sigma’s BM.
We took notes on our observations at the board meeting. We audio-recorded the workshops, took more notes, and collected other materials (primarily the FBCs). We also collected secondary data (reports, documents, articles, and website information) that complemented and validated our primary data (Robson and McCartan 2015). Table 1 summarizes our data collection.
Board of Directors meeting
We introduced ourselves at the Board of Directors meeting and described our study. We presented the BM, the business-modelling concepts, and the FBC tool. We explained how sustainable BM prototypes could be used to develop a network-level BM. We asked questions about Sigma’s development plans. Ten board members and two external consultants with specific interests in Sigma attended the 3 h meeting.
The two ideation workshops
A workshop can be an effective way to gather a large amount of diverse data on a single occasion (Graham et al. 2015). Therefore, our aim in the two workshops was to collect ideas on how Sigma might develop in the future. We planned and conducted the workshops jointly with a Sigma board member. Together, we evaluated the ideas produced in the workshops. In selecting the workshop participants, we followed Frankenberger et al.’s (2013) advice on the need to select participants capable of out-of-the-box thinking when generating ideas. The workshops lasted 4 h each.
The aim of Workshop 1 (March 2016) was to generate ideas for sustainable BM prototypes on how Sigma could overcome its current organizational inertia to develop its biogas activity. The participants were the four researchers, the Sigma board representative, and 41 undergraduate Business Administration students from Halmstad University, Sweden. The researchers were the workshop “facilitators”; the students were the “problem-owners” and “problem-solvers”; the Sigma Board representative was the “knowledge provider” and “utility evaluator”. The premise of the workshop was that Sigma required a new and comprehensive network-level BM. The participants, who had no biogas production knowledge, were not constrained by preconceived ideas about biogas production and sale. We wanted to exploit their “outside-the-box thinking” so as to generate novel ideas.
The aim of Workshop 2 (April 2016) was to develop sustainable BM prototypes using the FBC and to evaluate the results from Workshop 1. The 22 participants were the four researchers, five Sigma Board members (including the Sigma Board representative from Workshop 1), eleven other Sigma members, and two consultants with expertise in biogas development. The researchers were the “facilitators” and “knowledge providers”; the Sigma members and consultants were the “problem-owners”, “problem-solvers”, and “utility evaluators”. We summarized the results from Workshop 1 at the beginning of Workshop 2. The participants were quite familiar with biogas production in general and with Sigma in particular.
The workshops produced 362 ideas related to the sixteen FBC building blocks. A Sigma board member and the researchers eliminated 147 ideas as too broad or repetitive. The 215 remaining ideas were then analyzed and visualized as five sustainable BM prototypes (Figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). These prototypes represent the main findings from the data set. We began our analysis by textualizing our participatory observations, conversations, and experiences. We then analyzed our empirical data—the workshop transcripts and materials, our board meeting notes, and other documents. We looked for repeated patterns such as actions, events, words, or phrases (Robson and McCartan 2015). In analyzing the data, we developed and applied codes (i.e., words or short phrases that represented an overall theme). Assigning the codes, meaningful titles facilitated the identification of patterns that underpin significant concepts (Goddard and Melville 2004) indicated by the ideas. Based on these concepts (e.g., improved marketing and communication and greater profitability through sustainability), we created the five prototypes which are overall representations of the main findings from the data set.
To create a shared understanding of the data as recommended in the action research approach (Shani et al. 2012), at least two researchers were present throughout the entire research process. Their continued presence was useful for the discussions on individual observations and analyses. Moreover, other researchers, who were knowledgeable about the study but were not involved in the data collection, contributed their analyses. Their analyses complemented and validated other researchers’ analyses.