University of Leicester
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Supplier absorptive capacity: learning via boundary objects in sustainability-oriented supplier development initiatives

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journal contribution
posted on 2022-07-11, 08:19 authored by Meng Jia, Linda Caroline Hendry, Mark Stevenson
Purpose: To study the learning processes and mechanisms involved in sustainability-oriented supplier development (SSD), including how knowledge is transmitted by the buyer and how it is received, understood and internalised by the supplier. Design/methodology/approach: An exploratory longitudinal multi-case study approach is adopted. The research context is a social SSD project focusing on occupational health and safety (OHS) management at four supplier factories. The paper draws on the constructs of absorptive capacity and boundary objects. Findings: The development of a supplier's absorptive capacity for OHS management is triggered by the transfer of boundary objects that are created by the buyer. Findings suggest that each supplier starts explorative learning in a similar and passive way in order to accept the knowledge, but then each supplier proactively transforms and exploits the knowledge through continuous sensing, seizing, and reconfiguring loops that develop the boundary objects in a way that fits their own needs and contexts, incorporating the objects into organisational structures and routines. Research limitations/implications: The research furthers the understanding of the development of supplier absorptive capacity for sustainability via SSD projects, including how it is triggered and sustained. The impact of ostensive and performative aspects of boundary objects on knowledge transfer is presented. Finally, insight is provided into how absorptive capacity and dynamic capabilities are linked in the context of SSD. Practical implications: Buying firms should seek to develop boundary objects that can trigger and maintain learning momentum for sustainability at supplier organisations in addition to effectively transferring SSD-related sustainability knowledge. There is also a need to allow for sufficient flexibility in the design of the boundary objects, and to pay sufficient attention to how suppliers contextualise and embed them into their own organisations, providing support for this process where necessary. For the supplier, establishing structures and routines for OHS management can help to prepare for future audits, thereby reducing audit fatigue. Originality/value: The paper contributes to the supply chain learning literature by exploring the development of supplier absorptive capacity for sustainability triggered by the focal buying firm. It sheds new light on the role of boundary objects for facilitating knowledge transfer and learning between supply chain members in the context of SSD projects.



International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 2022,

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School of Business, University of Leicester


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International Journal of Operations & Production Management







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