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Multi-stakeholder governance and wicked problems: new empirical examples and competing theories


Track Coordinators: Domenico Dentoni (Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, Wageningen University).

Starting from a track session at the latest Conference Edition 2012, WICANEM participants from the agricultural and food industry, NGOs, civil society, academia and international organizations and from Africa, Asia, South and North America and Europe contributed with 18 empirical papers (collected in two subsequent Special Issues: IFAMR 2012; IFAMR 2013) to develop a theory on why, when, which and how multi-stakeholder engagements are appropriate governance mechanisms to deal with “wicked problems”. Figure 1 summarizes the emerging theory from the empirical cases provided.

        Source: Dentoni and Ross (2013)

        This collective work was rooted on the concepts of wicked problems and multi-stakeholder engagements. “Wicked problems” differ from other difficult, ill-defined problems because they involve a) scientific uncertainty, since their causes and effects so far impossible to disentangle based on scientific evidence; b) dynamic complexity, since the problem continuously changes over time; c) value conflict among stakeholders, which cannot be reduced or solved through negotiation (Rittel and Webber 1973, Batie 2008, Peterson 2009, Dentoni and Bitzer 2013). Examples of wicked problems discussed in the literature so far are food insecurity and malnutrition, climate change and deforestation, violation of human rights, marine coastal protection and the use of genetically-modified organisms in agriculture.

        Multi-stakeholder engagements embrace both formal and informal mechanisms of simultaneous interaction, knowledge-sharing and/oror decision-making among multiple societal actors. These include informal multi-stakeholder networks or dialogues (Payne and Calton, 2002; Kaptein and van Tulder, 2003) and formal multi-stakeholder partnerships or alliances (Selsky and Parker 2005; Bäckstrand, 2006). Scientists provided wide evidence that multi-stakeholder engagements are effective organizational and institutional mechanisms for firms, universities, public institutions and NGOs to gain resources and capabilities to innovate, compete and survive in context of turbulent and uncertain environments, as well as when facing complex and wicked problems (Teece 2007; Freeman 2010, Scherer et al. 2013).

        In this new WICANEM Conference Edition 2014, we seek both empirical and conceptual contributions to deepen, broaden or reframe our discussion on the “why, when, which and how questions” on multi-stakeholder engagements and wicked problems. In particular, we look for papers that challenge the existing frameworks or that make it alive and relevant to the current challenges that our global and local economies, eco-systems and societies (and ourselves as part of them!) struggle to face, and to the adaptive (short-term and long-term) solutions that we seek to resist and reduce these problems.

        Among the others, we seek ideas for empirical contributions that include case studies and/ quantitative analyses on:

        • What are other examples of apparently intractable problems, which seem to become worse, fuzzier and more urgent over time, despite a number of different strategies, policies, technologies and practices developed and adopted by businesses, policy-makers, civil society, citizens, and universities to tackle them?
        • Think for example of socio-economic crisis and unemployment affecting the Southern part of Europe, corruption and criminality (e.g., mafia, illegal or unethical use of public budgets), weak prevention of natural and environmental disasters, controversial public planning investments (e.g., bridge from Calabria to Siciliy, private banks’ bailouts), disasters in migration waves, violation of gender rights and arable land reduction among others.
        • Are these problems wicked or are they just complex? Why, when, which and how have multi-stakeholder engagements at least reduced these problems, or how could they reduce them?
        • Instead of multi-stakeholder engagements, are other social, organizational, political or technological innovations necessary, sufficient or complementary to reduce or possibly solve these problems? For example, how can information and communication technology can complement or substitute personal engagements in dealing with wicked problems?

        Ideas for conceptual contributions that would help us advancing our framework in Figure 1 include:
        • To what extent do wicked problems require different multi-stakeholder engagement practices, as well as different organizational resources and capabilities and different human and leadership skills relative to other complex problems?
        • To what extent does the formal or informal nature of multi-stakeholder engagements, or their evolution, change the impact of societal efforts to deal with wicked problems?
        • To what extent does the inclusive or exclusive nature of multi-stakeholder engagements, or their evolution, change the impact of societal efforts to deal with wicked problems?
        • To what extent does the knowledge-sharing versus decision-making nature of multi-stakeholder engagements, or their evolution, change the impact of societal efforts to deal with wicked problems?
        • What are theories which could better explain and predict societal actors’ choices of a certain type of multi-stakeholder engagement in the context of wicked problems over others?
        • What do “success”, “value creation”, “win-win outcomes” or at least “acceptable outcomes” mean in a societal, collective, multi-stakeholder effort to deal with wicked problems?

        We strongly encourage novel ideas, early-stage works and multi-disciplinary submissions especially from early-career scholars in domains that include management and organization, law, economics, public administration and policy, sociology, education, international development and agriculture among others; and practitioners including NGO, business and public sector representatives.

        Please submit your paper by January, 6th 2014 at wicanem2014@wur.nl either in full format (max 30 pages, double-spaced, font 12, excluding references, figures and tables) or in the format of notes from the field (i.e., paper outline, max 10 pages, double-spaced, font 12, with a defined structure of the paper that highlights the intended contribution to the track and the empirical data/theoretical material available). Authors with accepted notes from the field should submit a full format paper by March 31st, 2014. All relevant dates for the conferences can be found here.

        Participants nominated as authors of the best and most innovative papers will be invited to submit their manuscripts to the conference issue of the Journal of Chain and Network Science.



Bäckstrand, K. (2006). ‘Multi‐stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development: rethinking legitimacy, accountability and effectiveness’. European Environment, 16(5), 290-306.
Batie, S.S. (2008). ‘Wicked problems and applied economics’. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 90(5), 1176-1191.

        Dentoni, D. and Bitzer, V. (2013). Dealing with Wicked Problems: Managing Corporate Social Responsibility Through Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives. Paper Presented at the Journal of Management Studies "Managing for CSR" Workshop, Copenhagen, May 24th-25th 2013.

        Kaptein, M. and Van Tulder, R. (2003). ‘Toward effective stakeholder dialogue’. Business and Society Review, 108(2), 203-224.

        Peterson, H.C. (2009). Transformational supply chains and the 'wicked problem' of sustainability: aligning knowledge, innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership. Journal on Chain and Network Science, 9, 71-82.

        Payne, S.L. and Calton, J.M. (2002). ‘Towards a managerial practice of stakeholder engagement’. Journal of Corporate Citizenship 6, 37-52.

        Rittel, H. W. and Webber, M.M. (1973). ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

        Selsky, J. W. and Parker, B. (2005). ‘Cross-sector partnerships to address social issues: Challenges to theory and practice’. Journal of Management, 31(6), 849-873.

        Scherer, A.G., Palazzo, G. and Seidl, D. (2013). ‘Managing Legitimacy in Complex and Heterogeneous Environments: Sustainable Development in a Globalized World’. Journal of Management Studies, 50(2), 259-284.

        Teece, D. J. (2007). Explicating dynamic capabilities: the nature and microfoundations of (sustainable) enterprise performance. Strategic Management Journal, 28(13), 1319-1350.

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