The purpose of this paper is to investigate the mediating role of boundary objects in interaction processes within business networks. From a single case study in the grocery retail industry, we find that such objects are used within interaction processes for collaboration, but are also used extensively for handling conflict, facilitating economic negotiations, and power execution. As such, network-level boundary objects do not require broad consensus by all the involved actors, but instead narrow consensus in a particular interaction process.
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the mediating role of boundary objects in interaction processes within business networks. We adopt the concept of boundary objects from organization studies and use it to show how such objects are used to interact, facilitate cooperation, handle conflict, and achieve narrow consensus in interaction processes. Such objects can be considered as a form of “inter-cognitive representation” in business networks (Mouzas & Henneberg, 2015). They can be defined as “…both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites” (Star & Griesmer, 1989:393). In studies of inter-organisational networks, interaction is seen as the activities performed across firms at multiple levels to co-ordinate and to create value by combining resources from multiple actors (cf. Håkansson, 1982; Håkansson & Snehota, 1995). It involves all the industrial marketing and purchasing activities that are performed on a day-to-day basis (Håkansson & Waluszewski, 2013) including both ongoing and future potential business solutions. In a business network setting, relationship interactions are characterized by both cooperation and conflict (Ellegaard & Andersen, 2015; Ford, 1980). A central issue is how to achieve collaboration among diverse and partly competing actors in networks (e.g. Bengtsson & Kock, 2000; Tidström, 2015) when both individual interests and collective purposes are present (Medlin, 2004; Munksgaard, Johnsen, & Patterson, 2015; Wilkinson & Young, 2002). Boundary objects provide a lens to investigate how cooperation and conflict are handled within specific interaction processes. As such, our research question is; ‘how are boundary objects used in business network interactions?’ The empirical setting in this paper is that of the supplier-retailer network context. While power is an inherent part of relational interaction in business networks (e.g., Baraldi & Nadin, 2006; Kutschker, 1982; Meehan & Wright, 2012; Welch & Wilkinson, 2005; Wilkinson, 1973; Wilkinson & Young, 2002), supplier-retailer network contexts are typically concentrated networks, in which there are asymmetrical relationships based on powerful retailer actors (Hingley, 2001; Hingley & Hollingsworth, 2003; Sutton-Brady, Kamvounias, & Taylor, 2015). In other words, the power dimension inherent in all interactions comes to the fore (Authors, Rindt & Mouzas, 2015; Maglaras, Bourlakis, & Fotopoulos, 2015). The in-depth single case study reported below is based on a twomonth period of intensive interaction across retailers and suppliers in the Norwegian grocery retail industry. Negotiations take place every autumn in the sector, known as the “Autumn Hunt”. The negotiations which form the basis of the case occurred against the backdrop of Lidl as a new market entrant. The threat of a new discount chain intensified the interactions, already laden with cooperation, conflict, power and influence. As a result of the contracts agreed at the end of the negotiation process, the Norwegian Competition Authority took the major dairy supplier Tine to court for anti-competitive behaviour. The case study is based on the material from three court cases between Tine and the Norwegian Competition Authority.