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New systems for sharing and ‘collaborative consumption’ like Airbnb are increasingly gaining a foothold in society. In an article freely shared until 24 April 2019, an international team of authors including ESCP Berlin Professor Florian Lüdeke-Freund, tries to rise above the current debate over the meaning and content of the sharing economy, and thereby help improve the understanding of the phenomenon while acknowledging its diverse nature.

“The sharing economy has recently become a popular umbrella construct for a wave of new renting, leasing, bartering, and pooling services linked to different aspects of life, including lodging, transportation, work, leisure, and fashion, as showed by other scholars including my colleague Aurélien Acquier, who is the scientific co-director of the Deloitte Circular Economy & Sustainable Business Models Chair, which I am a member of,” explains Corporate Sustainability Chairholder Florian Lüdeke-Freund, citing examples of sharing models like Airbnb, Couchsurfing, eBay, Grabshare and Poshmark.

In the article led by Sarah Netter and Esben Rahbek Gjerdrum Pedersen, both from the Copenhagen Business School, the authors explain that from a historical perspective, sharing in itself is not a new phenomenon and has always been an integrated part of everyday life: “However, advances of the Internet and mobile technology imply that sharing moves from the private sphere and personal networks to online/offline exchanges among strangers, i.e., new technologies allow companies to experiment with new business models and organizational forms, adding further variety to the already very heterogeneous sharing economy.” The article, which is partly based on Sarah Netter’s PhD research, has been published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, a leading scientific journal in the domain of sustainability research.

A framework moving away from existing definitions and scales

The development and resulting plurality of the sharing economy are not without controversy, sparking an academic debate not only over the sharing models’ sustainability, but also about how to define, structure, group, and categorize the rapidly growing number of initiatives that fall under the popular “sharing umbrella” – up to the point where people suspect “sharewashing”. “Several scholarly attempts have been made to conceptually outline the contours of the sharing economy in recent years, but there is still limited consensus on fundamental characteristics of sharing models, the markets they create, and the controversies surrounding them,” the co-authors wrote.

Based on an assessment of existing typologies of the sharing economy, their paper outlines a new theory-driven framework for describing and analysing business-to-consumer and peer-to-peer (also called consumer-to-consumer) sharing models - these are the most discussed and best documented models in the current literature - that draws on the nascent literature of so-called “partial organization.” “The development of our framework builds on the observation that existing classifications are often phenomenon-based rather than theory-based, and remain largely silent about the fundamental organizational characteristics underlying the sharing models,” they added. “Moreover, while existing classifications arguably provide valuable insights into the conceptual understanding of the sharing economy, they often focus on one or two dimensions only while leaving out a number of other factors that hold analytical and explanatory power. Consequently, there is currently a lack of insights into the broader organizational characteristics that can be used to describe and analyse sharing models”. For instance, they explain the tensions and debates surrounding sharing models (e.g., Airbnb and Uber) may well be rooted in imbalances within and between the core organizational components (membership, hierarchy, rules, monitoring, and sanctions) and the ways in which they have been communicated to stakeholders; for example, in cases such as Uber, where the image of a community of belonging members is created while the underlying platform is highly centralized and formalized and is thus perceived as purely commercial and impersonal.  

Sharing models

Building upon the concept of partial organization to be more impartial

The notion of “partial organization” offers a useful theoretical framework to analyse and explain the composition of, and eventual imbalances between, the organizational features of sharing models, which in turn can improve the understanding of the tensions and debates related to different approaches to sharing and collaborative consumption. “That is why we used the partial organization perspective to outline a new, ‘agnostic’ conceptual framework to analyse and explain sharing economy models,” the authors say.
The concept was first introduced by Göran Ahrne (Stockholm University) and Nils Brunsson (Uppsala University) in an attempt “to broaden the concept of organization to include some aspects of the order that exists outside and among organizations.” This broader definition of organization as a special form of social order recognizes that organization does not just take place within but also outside and between formal organizations, thus voiding the distinction between organization and environment.

This concept helps explains how the five core dimensions of organizing play a pivotal role in organizing the continuum between purely user-driven (communal) and purely platform-driven (commercial) sharing models. The framework emphasizes key elements of organization, which allow characterizing sharing models (i.e., sharing organizations and their sharing markets) as what they are: diverse and sometimes hardly comparable types of organization. According to Florian Lüdeke-Freund and his colleagues, it also “allows for description and analysis of the fast-growing sharing economy phenomenon without indulging in speculations about strategic intent and normative ideals of what sharing should be. The new framework is not above reproach but provides a useful starting point for empirical studies and further theoretical development of the emerging field of sharing…”