Summer Seminar in Stakeholder Theory: Thoughts and reflections

In August 2019, we had a great possibility and honour of participating in the Summer Seminar in Stakeholder Theory 2019 at the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. This one-week seminar brought together 28 participants from a wide diversity of countries (USA, Denmark, Italy, Finland, Germany, Singapore, Mexico, Netherlands, UK, Brazil and Thailand); and 17 leading scholars in the field, such as Professor R. Edward Freeman, Professor Bidhan L. (Bobby) Parmar, Professor Sybille Sachs, and Professor Robert Phillips, along with some members of the B2N research team: Professor Johanna Kujala and Senior Research Fellow, Dr. Anna Heikkinen. .

Picture 1. Summer Seminar in Stakeholder Theory 2019, participants and faculty members.

The seminar was organized by the Darden School of Business and the Institute for Business in Society, and its main objectives were to help scholars gain a better understanding of the current research in stakeholder theory and build new relationships and collaborations among the researchers from the field. During the seminar, after an interesting initial panel to discuss what stakeholder theory really is (see picture 2), we attended several research sessions where the faculty members presented their current projects.

Picture 2. Panel: What is Stakeholder Theory? With Professors Rob Phillips, Jeff Harrison, Doug Bosse, Sybille Sachs, Vit Henisz, Johanna Kujala and Bobby Parmar.

We also had more interactive and participative sessions where all the participants worked together in groups. One of the most interesting sessions was “Stakeholder Theory Criticisms and Responses”, where, in groups, we had to find the weaknesses and unanswered issues related to stakeholder theory, and try to find a proper explanation to them. The session was really intense and thought provoking, and we engaged in a nice discussion on how the natural environment could be included within stakeholder theory: Can nature be considered a stakeholder or an intermediary driving stakeholder engagement? This topic is still widely discussed in the current stakeholder literature, and it represents one of the starting points of the B2N research project.

Another interesting session was led by Professor Bobby Parmar: “Design Thinking”. In this session, we squeezed our minds to find new research ideas of our interest. Surprisingly, after some initial practice using a case study, some participants came up with a common topic: How do stakeholder relationships emerge and evolve in networks, and how is value created within these networks? Quite a challenging topic we are trying to address here! Work in progress :)

The Summer Seminar in Stakeholder Theory 2019 was also an excellent opportunity for networking. Not only could we learn from and talk to the leading scholars in the field, but we had also a chance to discuss openly with other participants. Many interesting conversations emerged after every seminar day, especially among us, young scholars and early stage researchers. By engaging in these conversations, we created a strong bond and a relaxing environment, and we became what we called a “stakeholder family”. After all, as Professor R. Edward Freeman said: “Every stakeholder theorist has a second home at Darden”. Who does not feel comfortable and motivated in such an environment?

Picture 3. Darden School of Business: Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia

We would like to end this blog post by sharing some of our reflections and thoughts on the seminar, and more concretely, on the current state of art in the field of stakeholder theory. As researchers who are deeply oriented toward society, we were quite amazed by the strong corporate-orientation of the stakeholder research conducted in the USA. While we understand that, in the USA, the importance of the firm and its contributions to society are essential and more influential than in Europe, we found ourselves sometimes missing a deeper focus on the stakeholders’ perspective. Thus, we found out that cultural differences can be clearly visible in the current research on stakeholder theory. We also observed that complex and currently relevant issues, such as sustainability and the natural environment, could be included more often into the debate. While the topics appeared occasionally, we felt that they were not highlighted enough during the seminar.

These thoughts led us to the following reflections: How can stakeholder theory contribute to solve the current sustainability crisis we live in? Can stakeholder theory be expanded to include environmental sustainability issues more deeply; for instance, by acknowledging the need for a more nature-inclusive research on stakeholder theory? Can we adapt stakeholder theory to sustainability issues, or is it turning out to something totally different if we do so? We firmly believe that stakeholder theory can be applied to many current topical environmental and sustainability issues; and its flexibility and applicability in other disciplines and arenas could be of great use to solve many problems we must urgently deal with worldwide. We are living in complicated and unsustainable times, and we strongly believe that stakeholder theory has great potential to interpret, and even improve, the world we live in. Current research has already started to address all these issues, so this is just the beginning…

As Professor R. Edward Freeman said during the seminar, “stakeholder theory is morally right”, and we could not agree more. He also noted that “stakeholders have names and faces and children”, “business is a human activity”, “purpose, values and ethics must be embedded in the organization” and “firms must create as much value as possible for all stakeholders”. If there is a theory that supports all these arguments, then that is the theory we want to explore, and this is the field we belong to. And, if there is something we know for sure now, after attending the seminar, it is that we want to further explore stakeholder theory, and offer a more comprehensive view from the stakeholders’ side.

To sum up, the Summer Seminar in Stakeholder Theory 2019 was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the current trends in the field of stakeholder theory, and especially, to meet and discuss with other researchers in the field. It was extremely useful and thought provoking, and it definitely served us well to reflect and redefine our researcher identities and research goals. As Professor R. Edward Freeman said: “Business done right makes this world a better one". We believe that science and research done right can make this world a better one, too.

Of course, we also had some free time to have fun and visit Charlottesville and its beautiful surroundings! We enjoyed some time hiking and climbing the Humpback Rock, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia. Enjoy the astonishing and breath-taking views!

Picture 4. Humpback Rock, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia.

Blog post by: Lara Gonzalez Porras (Tampere University) and Idda Parkkinen (University of Eastern Finland)