This research intends to investigate the influence of a design process on the creation of sustainable business models.
In effect, we combined two methods to generate data and provide a means for analysis. Action research is the first and most encompassing method for this exploratory research. The main characteristic of this method lies in the necessity to create an action which in turn provides the material that can later be analyzed. This entitles devising an intervention plan to generate the occurrence of a practical action. Consequently, the researcher plays a role in the production and collection of data. Action research is best suited for our goals because without the purposeful participation of the researcher there would be no data to research. Alternatives such as positivist quantitative and even qualitative research either do not fit the problem or can’t recreate this specific process. The second method we used was case studies (Yin 1981) to compare and contrast amongst different occurrences of a similar research protocol. We will begin the methods section by describing how both research strategies were developed to answer the research question. After describing the data collection methods, we conclude with a word on ethical considerations.

Action research

Lewin (1946) first used the term “action research” to describe his research on social action by influencing the conditions and effects that lead to further social action. The most famous appeal for action research is embedded in this now famous quote:There is nothing so practical as a good theory” (Lewin 1951, p.169). He illustrates this process with spiral steps, each composed of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action. Simply put, a person or a group of people identify a problem, act upon the situation, validate their efforts, and if not solved, they attempt to resolve the problem again while taking into account the lessons learned in the first iteration.The following process diagram represents the cyclical nature of action research:

Action research process cycles

Figure 6. Reproduced from MacIsaac 1995

The goal of action research is to “produce practical knowledge that is useful to people in the everyday conduct of their lives” (Reason & Bradbury, 2001 p.2). Action research finds its roots in Dewey’s approach of “learning by doing” (1909). There are two simultaneous objectives to action research. The first is to try to solve the problem at hand. The second is to provide the field of research with new knowledge that addresses gaps within the field of research. O’Brien (2001) speaks of a dual commitment to study a system while collaborating with members of the system towards preferable outcomes. This approach is also used to research professional practices by investigating successive cycles of action (Winter 1996). The distinction with practical knowledge for professional improvement comes with the rigour of scientific research and its endeavour to generate new theoretical knowledge. In other words, the problem solving context links theory and praxis in a form of pragmatism.

The complicity between the design process and action research was discussed by Swann (2002). Many aspects of action research are also present in a design process. As described earlier, the design process is iterative, convergent and divergent and integrative. Swann also elaborates on how the design approach to problem solving and the action research method of generating knowledge are similar in vocation.

Within action research methods, specific approaches vary widely although the criteria of relevance and rigour are upheld (Melrose 2001). Chisholm and Elden (1993) distinguish three types of action research: instrumental, theoretical and emancipatory. For example, the early works of Charles Taylor could be considered instrumental action theory as he meticulously refined production practices in order to enhance performance and generate theory. Our research mostly falls into the instrumental category as our goals are to instill a practice of designing sustainable business models.

Still according to Chisholm and Elden (1993), there are three aspects of action research that should be detailed by the researchers: the research purpose, the researcher roles, and research design flexibility. The next paragraphs will expose those aspects in relation to this present research.

Research purpose. The choice of action research is motivated by our project to design preferred situations. In this case, the project is the conceptualization of an organizations’ business model as sustainable. Our purpose is to find the means to design business models that can benefit the organization as well as the environment and society at large. We have undertaken a design process with organizations where sustainability is not a focus and inversely with some organizations where sustainability is at the core of their mission. This research method also allows to improve the process as well as the tools to achieve our transformation goals. In the future, we hope to build this workshop into a consulting practice that can be effective and replicable no matter the starting point of the organization.

Researcher roles.Because the researcher is knowingly participating in creating the data, action research provides a setting to take into account this bias. In the end, there are many types of roles for researchers in action research such as an expert or a collaborator (Lusher & Lewis 2008). Here, the researcher plays both the role of the expert insuring the quality and effectiveness of the research design, data collection, analysis, and induction while maintaining a collaborative relationship by facilitating the activities with organizational participants.

The role of the researchers is highly relevant in action research because they are initiating a pattern of events with engaged participants that would otherwise not happen naturally. Action research is participatory in nature which makes it suitable for exploring “latent dynamics” in organizations (Argyris 1993). In this study, they play the role of facilitators to influence participants in successive steps from awareness, to critique, to reflection and then creation upon their organization’s situation. Business models are often tacit and centred on profits (Upward 2013). Thus the role of the facilitator is to guide participants during a workshop to make their business model more explicit and sustainable.

In preparation for these workshops, much of the researcher’s time is spent on refining the tools to suit the requirements of the situation. Then on collecting, analyzing, and presenting data on an ongoing, cyclical basis (O’Brien 2001). Furthermore, as each new case is undertaken, the facilitator’s expertise was naturally shaped towards improving the workshops. The business model design process evolved as the facilitator learned to adapt and cater to the context and the participants of each organization.

Because action research is interpretative by nature, the role of the researcher in this study is effectively under consideration. The values, judgement and biases of the researcher inevitably influence the results of action research. The literature review is one of the main strategies to avoid bias and misinterpretation throughout the study. Moreover, judgments and interpretations that arise in the upcoming analysis of the results have been grounded in past theory.

Research design flexibility. Action research methods seek to predetermine the extent to which the research process can and should vary. Although some designs systematically guide the researchers intervention, our approach differed slightly depending on the relationships we built with the organizational participants. By that we mean that we were flexible with the modes of interactions with the participants according to their preferences. This led to a multiplicity of forms of communication from online video conferencing, phone calls, email exchanges and face-to-face meetings. Another aspect that demonstrated flexibility were the tools used in the iterative process. In all accounts, the facilitator ended up using the business model canvas to inform and support the conversation. However, there were many cases where additions to the canvas were made to encapsulate a specific aspect of the business like growth, issues or alternatives. Because our focus is on the process that leads to business models for sustainability, we were highly collaborative and explorative in our approach.

Case studies
The second research strategy that will complement the action based research approach will be case studies (Yin 2004). By recreating the research design with multiple cases, the experience will differ with each case. This will provide variability in the results and will generate insights on what causes better performance and its consequences for different organizations. According to Yin (2004, p.46) research containing multiple cases as opposed to single case studies is more compelling and thusly more robust. Finally, all the data is analyzed in aggregation to provided analysis on a generalized level as well as on a particular level. This is known as using multiple levels of abstraction and considered an important quality of analysis in a successful qualitative study (Creswell 2007).

In order to get the most complete data to answer the research question and given the timeframe constraints, two organizations that have sustainability as a high priority were identified and explored through case-study analyses. We wish to mention that case studies are not necessarily a methodological epistemology but a selection of what is to be studied (Stake 2005). In other words, any given case can be studied with a different lens. Either holistically, analytically, hermeneutically, organically, culturally, or by mixed methods. Again, our approach was using a design process as a lens into the sustainable business models of theses cases.

This research was conducted in two phases. The first phase was created to broadly survey the interest of participating organizations in this research. From the six different cases in phase one, we choose to go in depth with two specific cases (SPCA and Metacycle) for the second phase. As advocated by Melrose (2001), surveying different cases before growing a deeper collaboration relationship not only increases the rigour of our research it also insures a form of pertinence for the participating organizations.

In the first phase, we conducted design workshops with six organizations whom responded with interest to our invitation to design their business models. As mentioned by Lusher and Lewis (2008), “participant engagement is critical to ensuring relevance”. Our sample of six organizations for phase one was opportunistic to maximize flexibility (Patton 2005). We believe that the reason for which the organizations willing to participate happened to be start-ups is that they are still in the midst of validating their business model. That makes for critical cases where it is ideal to test our methods. We did not address sustainability issues head-on in the first phase. Our objective was to answer an underlying research question: Does our process for creating business models share the fundamental characteristics of a design process? If we are to find iteration, divergence-convergence and integration, then we can move on to a second phase by specifically targeting sustainability issues within another business model design workshop.

As a sample for the second phase, we choose the cases of the SPCA and Metacycle for two reasons. The first is the fact that they both were already founded on objectives of sustainability. This inherent motivation increased the will to participate in a second phase. This reduces the number of variables when comparing and contrasting the two cases. It could have been possible to bring an organization to perceive how sustainability could play a key role in their current and future business model. (That will be the modus operandi for the doctorate thesis sampling).

What is more, the two organizations were chosen as case studies based on their relevance to the research question. They present cases where the business model canvas was used as a tool to identify the relationships amongst the different building blocks of the organization towards creating a sustainable form of value. The goal of our case studies is to dissect how the design process and the tools used during the process can address sustainability issues at the business model level.

Strengths and weaknesses of our Mixed Method

Having decided upon this hybrid of action research and case studies methodology, we shortly discuss the strengths and weaknesses. The strengths of the hybrid action research case-studies methodology for this project are the following: it is a real life project, not a simplified simulation; the close collaboration with the company creates awareness of the company culture and processes; relating with the company develops trust between the parties; the researcher/facilitator is agile in that he can react quickly and appropriately to situations as they arise; and lastly, observations and resulting data are direct and easy to come by. The weaknesses of this approach are the following: the results are based on only a few companies and so may not be fully representative; the research is only carried out by one observer/researcher and may be subject to biases; finally, time is a limiting factor. The researcher acknowledges that this type of research contains biases and subjectivity. To counteract this danger, transparency is the best way to avoid discrediting the research. To do so, the researcher has participated in some cases as an observer of another facilitator. Overall, this hybrid research design has proven to be a wealth of relevant information into organizational change.

Research data collection

Works by Reason (1993) suggests that action research offers two types of outcomes: both process and discrete products. To attain these outcomes, we needed to instill methodological rigour. McKernan (1996) proposed action research cycles of plan development, implementation, and evaluation. To guide our data collection we started by offering our counselling services to start-ups looking to better conceptualize their business model and then formulated a plan for intervention. Our implementation was based on facilitated workshops. Then, a design process enabled participants to dig into their initial understanding of their business to examine more specific relationships. The evaluation phase came in the form of an interview which promoted reflection on action (Schon 1983) wherein participants would assess their workshop sessions and subsequent business models. The process was undertaken with all six organizations as the evaluation phase generated insights with which we could improve the next case in terms of our three modes of intervention: workshops, tools and the interviews themselves. We now describe each in greater detail.
Each workshop lasted about 90 minutes. The number of participants varied from one to four. In all, we facilitated six workshops for the first phase and two additional workshops in the second phase. Much in the same way interviews make explicit a participant’s thoughts, emotions or even actions, we facilitated our workshops to help organizations make explicit their business model ideas with the business model canvas. In the first phase, the workshops served to concisely frame the business model, and in the second to explore the opportunities for promoting sustainability within the business model.

Except for the Metacycle case, the workshops began with the presentation of the business model canvas tool by Pigneur and Osterwalder (2010). That served to create a common language and a visual tool to communicate. Our tool adaptation was essentially adding a few spaces for specific business aspects that we’re addressed by the original canvas. In the Metacycle case, we spent some time during the second workshops to create social and environmental layers to the original business model canvas. For example, in the cost and revenues spaces, we translated that to impacts and benefits. More on that in the results section.

Lastly, we conducted interviews with each participant of the workshops. They provided feedback to ensure that the process they experienced resonated with the design process. This also allowed to gather more information on our design process from their standpoint as participants. In addition, their experience lead us to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of our approach as we moved along. For example, some participants preferred the workshops to be focused on making sure the revenue model adds up, others on the general description of the uniqueness of the business model.

Table 1. Data collection activities for each organization

Data collection activities

Language school

Lead Web

Ciscar Consulting

SPCA dog Walkers




Email exchanges

Internet video conference

In person

Tool adaptation

Additions to original canvas

Improvement of sustainability canvases

Other tool than canvas


Internet video conference


In person

Following Lincoln and Guba (1985), we can ensure the trustworthiness of our data by taking several measures during the data collection procedure. First, we meticulously collected and managed our data which included contact records, interview transcripts, workshop videos, field notes, pictures and documents. In light of Spradley’s writings (1980), we took condensed notes during the workshops which contained personal reflexions, reactions and some interpretations of the process. To insure credibility and dependability, we constructed multiple demonstrations of the design process with our workshop notes, the images of the the business model iterations and the interviews. This allows for triangulation as Eden and Huxham (1996) stressed the benefits approaching research from different angles enables more reliable, valid, and creative results. To insure transferability we replicated the process with six organizations. The last aspect of trustworthiness is the neutrality of the research. The first element to attest our quest for neutrality is having a facilitator external to the research team in four of the six workshops in phase one. The second testament of the neutrality of the research team can be judged by the quantity and the quality of the results and our subsequent analysis in the following sections. Before that, we conclude the methods section with a few ethical considerations.

Ethical considerations

There are different ethical considerations that arise because of the consulting aspect of this pilot study. Because the participants were invited to participate, they were able to simply refuse our invitation. In fact, four of the ten contacted chose not to participate. However, one of the reasons why an organization would participate in our research is because it can absorb the knowledge from the researchers and their cutting-edge expertise in terms of sustainable business models. The ethical consideration is thus for the participating organizations to insure that they understand that these processes and concepts are exploratory. Our research protocol is by no means a validated problem-solving approach that leads to dependable results. Hence, our participants will be briefed to adjust their expectations in light of the exploratory nature of our research.


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