The potential for ‘boundary-spanning organisations’ in addressing the research-practice gap in sustainability accounting

Katherine Leanne Christ (School of Commerce, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia)
Roger L. Burritt (Fenner School of Environment and Society, College of Medecine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia)
James Guthrie (Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)
Elaine Evans (Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)

Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal

ISSN: 2040-8021

Publication date: 3 September 2018



The purpose of this paper is to understand the role of boundary-spanning organisations as intermediary institutions potentially able to close the gap between applied research and practice in sustainability accounting.


A review of the literature reveals that boundary organisation theory provides a potential way of understanding the role of boundary-spanning organisations in the context of the research–practice gap. The theory is applied in the context of three cases of potential boundary-spanning organisations involved with sustainability accounting – Chartered Accountants in Australia and New Zealand, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Federation of Accountants.


Findings from the three cases, which consider the application of boundary organisation theory, indicate the potential for professional accounting associations to act as sustainability accounting boundary-spanning organisations has not been realized for four main reasons. These relate to the need for finer granularity in relation to boundary objects and problem-solving; uncertainty about the range of parties to be involved as boundary-spanning organisations; the importance of reconciling views about different incentives for academics and practitioners in the sustainability accounting space; and the necessity for collaboration with other boundary-spanning organisations to address the transdisciplinary nature of sustainability accounting.

Practical implications

Development of a way of seeing the relationships between academics and practitioners in the context of sustainability accounting has two messages for practice and practitioners. First, with such complex and uncertain issues as sustainability accounting, a transdisciplinary approach to resolving problems is needed, one which involves practitioners as integral and equal members of research teams. The process should help bring applied academic and practitioner interests closer together. Second, it has to be recognised that academics conducting basic research do not seek to engage with practitioners, and for this group, the academic–practitioner gap will remain.

Social implications

Two main social implications emerge from the application of boundary organisation theory to analyse the academic–practitioner gap in the context of sustainability accounting. First, development of boundary organisations is important, as they can play a crucial role in bringing parties with an interest in sustainability accounting together in transdisciplinary teams to help solve sustainability problems. Second, collaboration is a foundation for success in the process of integrating applied researchers and practitioners, different disciplines which are relevant to solving sustainability problems and collaboration between different boundary spanning organisations with their own specialised foci.


This paper considers boundary organisation theory and the role of boundary-spanning organisations in the context of the complex transdisciplinary problems of sustainability accounting.



Christ, K., Burritt, R., Guthrie, J. and Evans, E. (2018), "The potential for ‘boundary-spanning organisations’ in addressing the research-practice gap in sustainability accounting", Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, Vol. 9 No. 4, pp. 552-568.

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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Much has been written in recent years concerning the “gap” between academic research and practice. In short, it is argued that research and practice have become increasingly removed from each other with business going its way while academics prefer to remain safe in their ivory towers (Bansal et al., 2012). Whether this gap is something to be concerned about has been a topic for debate, and numerous perspectives are available in the literature. Notwithstanding those who believe academics should remain apart from those, they seek to study (Kieser and Leiner, 2009), the more substantial body of research would seem to suggest such a gap is problematic and needs to be addressed (Bansal et al., 2012). This is especially true in the case of applied disciplines like accounting and sustainability management (Tucker and Schaltegger, 2016).

Accounting for sustainability came to the fore in the 1990s before being further developed in the 2000s and beyond. The need for sustainability accounting was driven by growing recognition that the business sector was a key player in efforts to move society towards a more sustainable future (Schaltegger and Burritt, 2010). Sustainability incorporates three pillars: the economic, the environmental and the social. In a corporate context, sustainability accounting involves how businesses measure and account for issues that relate to each of these three dimensions the purpose being to raise awareness of potential problems and provide an informational foundation on which improved decisions can be made (Schaltegger and Wagner, 2006). Many academics have sought to investigate sustainability accounting and to provide a theoretical base for action, as well as contribute to the development of improved sustainability accounting tools, yet remarkably, evidence suggests an actual engagement with practice remains limited (Adams and Larrinaga-González, 2007; Schaltegger et al., 2013). Given the applied nature of sustainability management and accounting, this observation could be described as concerning. If academics are not engaged with practice will they have the ability to understand or change business to become more sustainable? This is a question many are beginning to ask.

There are many reasons why a close, even collaborative, relationship between academics and practitioners should be nurtured and encouraged in the pursuit of sustainability accounting and management. Sustainability-related issues have been described as “wicked problems” (Bernstein, 2015, p. 8). They are easy to identify, yet inherently complex, uncertain and trying to address (Schaltegger et al., 2013). Sustainability-related problems are embedded within the contemporary business practice, and to address these problems in the absence of practitioners can be linked to putting the cart before the horse; it is not practical and is unlikely to lead to the real-world outcomes researchers are looking for.

Although much has been written on research–practice gaps to date, as noted by Bansal et al. (2012), research efforts have been directed towards identifying that a gap does in fact exists and then to understand why it exists. The discussion has also extended to consider who is responsible for the gap developing in the first place: academics or practitioners. In a somewhat surprising result, research that investigates how the gap can be closed has been almost entirely ignored (Bansal et al., 2012). This paper seeks to address this issue in the context of sustainability accounting.

Working out how to address the research–practice gap is a far from a simple undertaking. Kieser and Leiner (2009), for example, observed that academics and practitioners are fundamentally different with collaboration between the two tending to be fraught with difficulty. These difficulties result from differences in time horizons with academics electing to take a long-term view, whereas practitioners prefer more immediate payoffs which are also reflected in incentive schemes associated with each group as well as differences in communication style, logics and interests (Bartunek and Rynes, 2014). Thus, in the absence of an urgent, inescapable and mutual need on the part of both academics and practitioners, the threat of failure associated with collaboration between the two would be a constant companion. One way in which these difficulties can be addressed and the gap between academics and practitioners possibly “bridged” is through the use of “boundary spanners” or intermediaries.

A boundary spanner is defined as a group or individual who does:

Not identify themselves fully with either the academic or practitioner community and who have the courage and the interest to treat both groups as of value and as having something to contribute to the other (Bartunek, 2007, p. 1329).

Although the role of boundary spanners has been considered in other disciplines (e.g. medical sciences – see Bansal et al., 2012; Guston, 1999) to date, the potential for such parties, and in particular organisations with potential to undertake such a role, in relation to reducing the research–practice gap in sustainability accounting has gone unremarked. This paper addresses this oversight by asking How can boundary-spanning organisations be used to reduce the gap between academic researchers and practitioners in the field of sustainability accounting?

The remainder of this paper is as follows. The next section provides an overview of the research–practice gap about sustainability accounting. This is followed by discussion concerning the nature of boundary-spanning organisations and their role in addressing the impasse between research and practice. Three short case studies follow after which the paper closes with a general discussion, which includes directions for future research and conclusion.

The research–practice gap in sustainability accounting

Recent years have seen increased dialogue concerning the need to bridge the research–practice gap, and arguments in favour of this endeavour have been applied to various disciplines from accounting to medicine to environmental management (Brennan, 2004; Schaltegger et al., 2013). This is especially the case when the subject matter is deemed to relate to an applied area or science. In short, it has been argued that research in applied areas should be both useful and relevant (Uiterkamp and Vlek, 2007). The debate around academic relevance has been circulating for some time with many arguing that “relevance” be needed if academic research and practice are to move closer together (Knights and Scarbrough, 2010). On the counter side, some suggest that closer engagement between academics and practitioners should assist in the development of better theories that relate to the production of relevant knowledge (Knights and Scarbrough, 2010). This suggests both academics and practitioners will be in a position to benefit from the “gap” being bridged and the divide between the two ultimately closed.

As mentioned above, bringing academics and practitioners closer is far from a simple undertaking. Hughes et al. (2008, p. 224), for example, observed a “lack of clarity as to how organisations might or should access [strategic] thinking from within academia”. Likewise, universities are criticised for failing to understand practitioners while not making efforts to reach out to those they seek to study and understand (Hughes et al., 2008). However, who is to blame for this situation? Are both parties responsible or does the nature of the work undertaken by each make the existence of a gap inevitable?

The literature suggests that the distance between academics and practitioners is the result of various tensions that work to create a dichotomy in which each side is pitted efficiently against the other (Bartunek and Rynes, 2014, p. 1186). Bartunek and Rynes (2014, p. 1186) summarised the main issues as relating to “differing logics, time dimensions, communication styles, rigour and relevance, and interests and incentives”. For example, about logics Roper (2002) argued that academics tend to favour generalizability, whereas the practitioner desires solutions to specific problems in a particular setting. Academics also prefer rigour over relevance and concerns be raised that if the focus shifts to practice-based problems then the academy’s independence and scientific process will be compromised with researchers reduced to a role of glorified consultant (Kieser and Leiner, 2009). It does not necessarily follow that such differences will inevitably lead to failed or unproductive collaborations or associations (Amabile et al., 2001). However, ignoring them is likely to complicate the process leaving good intentions and objectives unrealised. Thus, it becomes clear that collaboration between academics and practitioners is fraught with difficulty and, although the literature suggests processes by which rules can be established for the benefit of all parties, like a game of “chicken” many rely on one side capitulating to the other by being the first to swerve.

The research–practice gap is especially pertinent to the field of sustainability management and accounting. Sustainability-related issues are exceedingly complex requiring new approaches to research and practice (Schaltegger et al., 2013). This backdrop gave rise to a new meta-discipline, sustainability science, which among other things calls for increased collaboration between academics and practitioners (Lang et al., 2012; Schaltegger et al., 2013). Whether sustainability science has achieved its lofty aims is, however, a matter for debate. Taking a slightly different approach, Jahn et al. (2012) also called for closer connections between academic research and practice and argue such action is crucial if we are to move closer to the end goal of sustainable development. Shrivastava et al. (2013) concurred observing that despite years of effort and arguably good intentions sustainable business practice remains more dream than reality and that new methods of engagement between research and practice may be needed if progress is to be made. In particular, Shrivastava et al. (2013) called for more research into methods of which academics can have a more significant impact on practice.

The literature on the research–practice gap in both sustainability accounting and management is even less well developed. Nonetheless, some researchers have begun to consider this issue. For example, Adams and Larrinaga-González (2007) noted the lack of engagement with real organisations by sustainability accounting academics. Parker (2005) similarly lamented the current state of affairs accusing academics of seeking to capture the social and environmental accounting agenda holding themselves above those at the coalface and seeking to keep developments in this area within the confines of their ivory towers. Some argue that collaboration is pointless as managerial capture could prevent any meaningful steps towards reducing the gap between academia and practice (Adams and Larrinaga-González, 2007). This is an interesting proposition given that accounting practitioners have been shown not to engage with sustainability to any great extent and prefer sustainability accounting education to be provided by universities (Tingey-Holyoak and Burritt, 2012). Also, they posit that increased collaboration and “closing the gap” is a necessity if the contribution accounting can make towards a more sustainable future is to be realised (Burritt and Tingey-Holyoak, 2012).

Notwithstanding the aforementioned contrasting opinions, it is contended here that this gap is at the very least concerning and that more work should be undertaken to discover how to harness the skill and knowledge base of everyone involved whether they be academic researchers or practitioners. Achieving this in practice, however, is unlikely to be comfortable and with the tensions that exist between academic and practitioner communities outlined earlier in this section, it may be that new methods are needed. One way in which this may be achieved is via the involvement of third parties sometimes referred to in the literature as boundary organisations. The next section will consider how boundary-spanning organisations might bring about progress in this area after which several small case studies will be used to demonstrate this potential.

Boundary organisations and their role in the research–practice interface

Wicked problems like sustainability involve different parties each with “divergent interests” and their unique perspective (Franks, 2016, p. 61). The distinctive characteristics of these groups (e.g. scientists versus policymakers, farmers versus government, accounting practitioners versus accounting academics) are such that collaboration or engagement between them can be difficult, if not impossible unless intermediaries are used who can span the distance or boundary between them. This type of the third party has come to be known as a boundary spanner or boundary organisation depending on the context in question.

Research in the organisational literature concerning boundary spanners has proliferated in recent years. Boundary spanners are defined as individuals who are “especially sensitive to and skilled in bridging interests, professions, and organisations” (Webb, 1991, p. 231). The term boundary spanner has primarily been applied to individuals and the role they play in bridging various junctures that occur within or between disparate yet related organisations and organisational roles (Medvetz, 2012). Interest is now shown in how this concept can be extended to consider the role organisations play in bridging the gap between science and non-science (Carr and Wilkinson, 2005). Recent literature attests to this perspective [see papers in, Schotter et al. (2017) Journal of Management Studies Special Issue on “Boundary Spanning in Global Organisations”]. The co-editors also recognise the different levels of the organisation, group and individual boundary spanners, although not in the broad sustainability context considered here. Carr and Wilkinson’s (2005) work gave birth to the development of boundary organisation theory and the term “boundary organization”. Boundary organisation theory “[…] is based on studies of organisations that are responsible for negotiating resolutions too often long-standing, complex problems and involve multiple stakeholders who have divergent interests” (Franks, 2016, p. 61) and identifies characteristics related to the activities of boundary organisations. Guston first introduced the concept of the boundary organisation in 1999. Guston (1999, p. 87) drew on principal-agent theory to examine “the relationship between society and science” with a focus on technology transfer in US-based health sciences. Structural characteristics include collaborative participation between principals and agents, while practices of boundary organisations potentially involve several functions: convening, bringing together different stakeholders to exchange information and perspectives and build trust; translation, to make available information comprehensible; collaboration, to bring about frank and transparent dialogue; and mediation, to assure fair representation of different stakeholder interests (Franks, 2016).

Guston (1999) argued the problems associated with the gap between science and non-science can be illuminated and better understood by using basic elements of principal-agent theory. The government or those who ultimately want research undertaken and tools for different purposes developed, act as principals. Researchers then act as agents for these principals. The boundary organisation, in contrast, sits between the two fulfilling a dual role as agent to both sides ensuring the boundary between them is negotiated and traversed in a way that is favourable to both perspectives as shown in Figure 1 (Guston, 1999, p. 106). The role undertaken by boundary organisations is referred to in the literature as boundary work (Guston, 2001).

To negotiate successfully the boundary between science and non-science, or academics and management decision-makers, there is a need to establish a degree of stability between the two. Under boundary organisation theory this stability is achieved via the creation of boundary objects or standardised packages (Guston, 2001). Boundary objects should be mutually agreed and provide terms or outputs that parties on both sides of the boundary can understand and use. Examples of boundary objects might be a patent in the case of the hard sciences or a new sustainability accounting tool in the case of the sustainability accounting research–practice gap. In part, it is the role of boundary organisations to help each party in the relationship develop and agree on boundary objects and standardised packages and then positions themselves in the middle ensuring both sides accept the boundary object as the desired outcome they can each use to further their interests. It can be argued that the role of the boundary organisation can be difficult, as it is accountable to two principals with divergent backgrounds and interests. Nonetheless, bridging the gap between research and practice is desirable, as has been argued in the literature on sustainability accounting, it can be reasoned that we need organisations “suspended by the coproduction of mutual interests” engaging in boundary work that brings science and practice closer (Guston, 2001, p. 405).

Interest in the role undertaken by boundary organisations is growing, and the term has been adopted by an increasing number of academics across a large number of topics. Carr and Wilkinson (2005, p. 256), for example, in investigating the link between farmers and scientists described boundary organisations as:

Provid[ing] an institutionalized space in which long-term relationships can develop and evolve, two-way communication is fostered, tools for management (such as models) are developed and utilised, and the boundary of the issue itself is negotiated.

Bansal et al. (2012) investigated the role of the Network for Business Sustainability and argued boundary-spanning organisations have three roles: facilitating, convening, and supporting which can bring sustainability research and practice closer together. Bansal et al. (2012, p. 89) further stated that although “most researchers have some of these skills […] few have them all, which is why we need intermediary organisations to bridge the gap”. Franks (2010, p 283), in contrast, in investigating the role of Dutch Environmental Co-operatives, described the boundary organisation as a “governance arrangement which establish[es] bridges between actors on different sides of the science/decision-making/implementation boundary”.

Notwithstanding an increasing number of studies in this area, the role of boundary organisations in bridging the research–practice gap in sustainability accounting, and indeed accounting in general, has gone largely unremarked. Research has instead been devoted to establishing that a gap does in fact exists and who is responsible for its existence. We now need to consider how the gap can be addressed and minimised. It is the purpose of this paper to propose one such “solution” and to encourage a new direction for those interested in undertaking work in this space.

Boundary organisations that might work in the sustainability accounting context

Laughlin argued there are three main parties in the accounting profession: practitioners, policymakers such as professional associations and academia (Laughlin, 2011). Practitioners have been slow to adopt sustainability practices even though encouraged by academics over several decades to use their professional strengths in the public interest to consider the impacts of business on the environment and society and the environment and society on business (Burritt and Tingey-Holyoak, 2011). Professional associations can encourage such adoption by acting in the capacity of agents for change through the development of convening, translation, collaboration and mediation activities in the context of sustainability (Franks, 2010; Williams, 2002). They have the potential to be catalytic in bridging interests between research academics (science) and practitioners (non-science) in moves towards sustainability accounting by developing boundary objects and packages, which encourage their adoption. In this context, professional associations act as agents for the members of their organisations and the academic institutions, which provide educational services as a foundation of and basis for qualification of new members.

One example is Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ), a professional association could potentially act as a boundary-spanning organisation for over 170,000 professional accounting members operating in practice, academia, public sector and not for profit and business (CAANZ, 2017a). The CAANZ state one mission is to help shape the prosperity of our nations by stimulating debate, sharing fresh ideas and facilitating discussions that lead to new approaches and tangible results for our members, business and the broader community. (CAANZ Annual report, 2017) .As part of its function, the association provides professional development courses to practitioners on sustainability issues as well as promoting its commitment to minimising negative impacts on the environment, the community and society through its advocacy work in sustainability (CAANZ, 2017a). Furthermore, CAANZ encourages members to play a vital role in creating a sustainable future for business and society by keeping up to date with the latest local and international developments in sustainability, climate change, natural capital and integrated reporting (CAANZ, 2017b). CAANZ also engages on sustainability issues with universities who are the principal providers of accounting research in the education of new graduate entrants into practice and in transmitting academic research findings to practitioners (Guthrie et al., 2011).

Apart from these separate sustainability activities, CAANZ develops boundary objects which bridge the gap between academia and practice while they remain within their professional boundaries. Foremost among these is an ongoing commitment to the development of thought leadership in the profession through an annual academic thought leadership forum. These forums bring together annually 100 academics, practitioners and representatives of policymakers to discuss matters of topical importance and interest (Guthrie et al., 2011; Burritt et al., 2016). Discussions at the fora have led to a series of academic leadership publications about ideas such as sustainability at the forefront of the development of the profession. The benefits of the program reach across the accounting profession and encompass practitioners, professional bodies, academics and the broader business community with ideas generated being a catalyst for national and international discussion and an inspiration for change for the betterment of the community.

The fora provide opportunities for increasing awareness of similarities and differences of viewpoints on key issues between the two worlds of academics and practitioners with the professional association being the boundary-spanning organisation. The professional association increases mutual understanding of different perspectives, capacities and needs while allowing individuals from academia and practice to remain within their respective professional boundaries and to maintain their responsibility to their different constituencies (Franks, 2010). In this way, the professional association can act to spread knowledge about the importance of sustainability and produce a standardised approach to developing understanding (Porto Gómez et al., 2016).

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) constitutes a second boundary-spanning organisation seeking to address the academic research-practitioner gap about sustainability accounting. WBCSD is global in its reach bringing together over 200 leading businesses, including the Big 4 accounting firms, through their CEOs and its global network of almost 70 national business councils to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world (WBCSD, 2017a). The businesses come from all business sectors and all major economies in the world and have a combined revenue of over US$8.5tn and 19 million employees. WBCSD’s win-win aim is to help make its member businesses more prosperous and sustainable by focusing on the maximum positive impact for shareholders, the environment and societies. Whereas CAANZ has a general focus on accounting with a subsidiary interest in sustainability accounting, the WBCSD’s main aim is to move leading businesses towards sustainability by integrating social and natural capital with economic metrics, valuation and reporting. Hence, the WBCSD acts as an agent for its member companies through its mission to transition companies to sustainability. Furthermore, WBCSD’s President, Peter Bakker, is committed to sustainability accounting and even suggests sustainability accountants could save the world from itself (Bakker, 2013).

The WBCSD acts directly as a boundary-spanning organisation developing boundary objects by bringing stakeholders such as academics and members together to discuss pathways for sustainability accounting. Also, they convey the needs of management to academics, as well as facilitating understanding and application of new applied knowledge through joint meetings and discussions (Shaw et al., 2013; WBCSD, 2017a). One approach of the WBCSD is to engage academics and practitioners in the industry towards “redefining value” which includes non-financial aspects of business sustainability performance as mainstream [World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and Environmental and Sustainability Management Accounting Network (EMAN) (2016), p. 4]. In support of this aim, WBCSD members are required to report on their sustainability performance and impacts within one year of joining [World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and Environmental and Sustainability Management Accounting Network (EMAN) (2016)], and to this end, publication of independent assurance statements are encouraged (WBCSD, 2016).

The WBCSD develops boundary objects which connect the two worlds of academics and practitioners by hosting bridging activities, thus bringing the parties together to help define and foster collaborative and participative research and implementation of corporate practices. By way of example, in 2015 a joint WBCSD and Environmental and Sustainability Management Accounting Network (EMAN) forum hosted 100 academics and practitioners with diverse expertise to consider issues associated with measuring sustainability performance[1]. Similarly to the process used by CAANZ results of forum discussions were synthesised, published and distributed through the WBCSD global network of contacts [World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and Environmental and Sustainability Management Accounting Network (EMAN) (2016)]. Defining and encouraging measurement and reporting on sustainability performance as a significant part of the WBCSD is redefining value project which has the intention of moving towards performance being based on the underlying vision by 2050 of business being rewarded based on actual profit with externalities internalised, monetised and accounted for (WBCSD, 2016).

Other boundary-spanning sustainability activities are embedded in WBCSD activities. For instance, Direct links with Yale University’s School of Management, provide exposure to top managers from many countries to the latest research and insights through the Sustainable Development Leadership Program (WBCSD, 2017b). The purpose is to integrate strategic sustainability into corporate decision-making. Such programs rely on academics being at the forefront of knowledge about sustainability issues, including sustainability accounting, and being available to promote their contemporary research to top managers. These initiatives are part of a package of actions which, the WBCSD as a boundary-spanning organisation provides to encourage take-up of sustainability accounting.

A final example of a boundary-spanning organisation involved in mediating between academics and practitioners on sustainability accounting is the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). Like the WBCSD, IFAC also commits to encouraging its members to pursue sustainability, but only as part of its broader purpose in serving the public interest by strengthening the profession and contributing to the development of strong international economies through the development and promotion of standards (IFAC, 2017). IFAC comprises over 175 member organisations and associates in more than 130 countries and jurisdictions, representing almost three million accountants in public practice, education, government service, industry and commerce. The members are mainly professional accounting associations including CAANZ. IFAC sees itself as a trusted intermediary there to strengthen the profession through professional accounting associations.

IFAC was the first professional accounting association to lend its support to sustainability accounting. Initially, the boundary object supported was through a new approach to environmental management accounting (IFAC, 2005). International guidance for practitioners on environmental management accounting was developed to encourage take-up by companies because it was recognised that conventional accounting practices do not provide adequate information for environmental management purposes. In the early 1990s, the US Environmental Protection Agency took the lead in promoting environmental accounting (US EPA, 1995) followed by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Sustainable Development which looked towards expanding support for this development through environmental management accounting (Jasch, 2003). IFAC then worked closely with a range of academic and practitioner experts to develop a Guidebook to assist with implementation (IFAC, 2005). The advice was accumulated through a transdisciplinary team of experts from academia, government bodies, and professional accounting associations who were members of IFAC.

Since the initial development of guidance on environmental management accounting to improve environmental management, IFAC has expanded its development of boundary objects to include developing awareness of both broader and narrower sustainability accounting issues, each time spanning the interests of academia and practitioners as represented by its members.

Broader issues are included in developments such as the publication of “Sustainability Framework 1.0” and “Sustainability Framework 2.0” (IFAC, 2009, 2011). The frameworks presented “important aspects of embedding sustainability into the DNA of an organisation and can be applied to entities of all sizes and complexities and focuses on the integration of sustainability factors from perspectives of business strategy, operations and reporting and highlights the important roles that professional accountants play in facilitating the sustainable development of their organisations (IFAC, 2011).

More recently, in “Accounting for Sustainability: From Sustainability to Business Resilience” (IFAC, 2015), the boundary object has been extended to encourage increasing member awareness of the critical role accountants can, and must, play in embracing sustainability to ensure that the organisations they serve are resilient by linking sustainability to a broader business agenda and strategy (CAANZ, 2017c).

Through the development of its Global Knowledge Gateway, IFAC has also provided for academics and practitioners a narrower focus on sustainability accounting via publications on water management accounting and material flow cost accounting (Burritt and Christ, 2015; Christ and Burritt, 2017). These are representative of IFAC’s continuous and long-term concern for developing boundary objects in sustainability accounting, which meet the needs of academics and practitioners through the development of the means for each to further their interests in these institutional spaces. IFAC continues to oversee change in the boundaries of sustainability accounting, as it negotiates the development of tools from its initial boundary-spanning in environmental management accounting through sustainability and beyond to include integrated reporting.

These three cases represent organisations with the potential capacity to act as boundary-spanners about sustainable accounting. Nevertheless, the degree to which they can achieve this is debatable and discussed in the following section.


Notwithstanding the efforts of organisations such as CAANZ, the WBCSD and IFAC to bring academic research and practice closer it can be argued that they have, in reality, not reached their full potential. Indeed, the continuation of the research–practice gap in sustainability accounting suggests these organisations, and others like them, have to date been unsuccessful in securing meaningful progress in this area that can be observed by external parties or the casual observer. This observation gives rise to a fascinating question: why? Each of the parties outlined in this paper has a pre-stated interest in sustainability and way in which organisations can and do account for it. Likewise, they all recognise the role academics and practitioners have in moving society closer towards the end goal of sustainability. Given these intentions why then has there been no meaningful change about the closeness of research and practice when looking at the bigger picture?

Although speculative, it is possible that part of this problem relates to the scope and nature of sustainability as a concept. It has been argued sustainability, and sustainable development is wicked problems. What is meant by this is that they are “complex, ill-defined, messy and unsolvable in any traditional sense” (Peterson, 2009, p. 71). Thus, it can be argued when trying to make the “unsolvable” “solvable” and seeking to cross boundaries and build bridges about the research–practice gap a higher level of granularity is needed. This would imply that we do not need to address the research–practice gap in sustainability accounting as a whole per se; that would be too big a task for any organisation. Instead, like a spider web, what is needed is individual strands that can collectively build strength by looking at what might initially seem insignificant areas or projects. If sustainable development is defined as the sum of individual actions aimed at improving individual aspects of corporate sustainability it does not necessarily follow that focused projects will be inconsequential. Instead, it may be that a different lens is needed, and boundary-spanning organisations can help by bringing parties together in this space.

A second problem is the nature of the research–practice gap itself. Although much talked about it remains unclear who is, or should be, involved with sustainability accounting at both the academic and practitioner levels. That said, most agree that sustainability and sustainability accounting are inherently transdisciplinary concepts. Paradoxically, mono-disciplinary approaches abound even though no one discipline has the potential to provide answers to these issues. In this context, it may be that accounting specific organisations such as CAANZ or IFAC should operate as sole agents but act in tandem with others such as WBCSD if the purpose is to bring together interdisciplinary teams that can ultimately solve sustainability challenges through the development and use of sustainability accounting methods. Against this background, the WBCSD could be better positioned to engage practitioners and academics. After all, a sole focus on the accounting profession is unlikely to generate meaningful outcomes in this area. This is not to say accountants cannot be involved, but they cannot be the only ones involved.

It then follows that what might be needed is the development of one or more sustainability accounting-specific boundary-spanning organisations that could facilitate interdisciplinary discussion and engagement. The advantage of this approach is that it would be easier to ensure boundary objects are specific and therefore more useful through terms of reference that ensure sustainability is not fighting for space with other issues such as taxation, financial reporting and auditing. As an independent body, this organisation could then feed information back to the individual professions via associations and professional bodies who then act as boundary-spanning organisations themselves about their members. Thus, an outside-in and an inside-out approach (Schaltegger and Burritt, 2010) could be developed for furthering knowledge and development of pragmatic solutions in this area.

Much is made of the incentive system for parties in discussions of the research–practice gap and how to reduce it, such as the short run focus of practitioners and long-run concerns of academics. The boundary-spanning organisation should provide an institutional field in which the gap between actual and expectation about management and accounting for corporate sustainability will facilitate open discussion about the different perspectives of academics and practitioners. It will also show how these might be accommodated, as it is crucial that both academics and practitioners benefit from the “gap” being bridged. A typical benefit would be improved understanding of the differing perspectives and removal of tensions in viewpoints over the need in sustainability accounting for long-run perspectives about environmental, social and economic issues and the need for short-run action to achieve these. Standing in the way of this role at present is the potential for a crossover role of boundary organisations reducing the strength of the theoretical agency relationship if professional associations also offer courses offered by higher education institutions. Direct competition between the professional association and academic institutions reduces the boundary spanning possibilities of such associations acting as agents in the context of movements towards mediating differences between academia and practitioners over the importance of and need for implementation of sustainability accounting.

Key to the reconciliation of differences between the underlying incentives of academics and practitioners for pursuing sustainability accounting as the boundary object is the need for professional associations to be committed to the enhancement of convening, translation, collaboration and mediation between the parties. In essence, to be a successful boundary-spanner, the professional associations, apart from knowing the scope of sustainability, have to know the scope of its discipline. Practitioner firms which act as professional service providers have the scope to bring relevant disciplines together to address sustainability issues. For instance, the case of water, bringing together engineers, meteorologists, climate change experts, water accountants and the professional association as a boundary-spanning organisation need to address such broad spanning knowledge bases as well. Rivalry from other discipline-specific professional organisations provides a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of a boundary-spanning organisation seeking change towards sustainable management and accounting. The forces of competition for membership and flexibility of purpose act against the need for focus. IFAC with its members being professional accounting associations needs to integrate with others such as professional bodies of engineers if boundary-spanning is to bring the necessary organisational change to boundary-spanning for sustainability accounting to diffuse more widely. In such circumstances about a transdisciplinary-based sustainability, accounting practitioners and academics might “enter into each other’s worlds without needing to cast their own worlds aside” (Bartunek, 2007, p. 1330).

Another issue of concern in boundary organisations is the notion of the public interest in sustainability issues including sustainability accounting (Burritt et al., 2017). While academics operate with independence and the public interest rather than practice in mind, a concern of professional associations is about beneficial activities for members and their clients with the public interest as a secondary consideration (Gendron, 2015). If professional association members and clients face unsustainability, then professional accounting associations could act to encourage dialogue about sustainability accounting as a means of awakening them to opportunities and challenges, something also in the public interest, but action following dialogue is not easily won and can become a talkfest unless regular dissemination activities take place.

CAANZ, through its Academic Leadership Series between 2010 and 2017, synthesises and disseminates the critical messages from the annual thought leadership forum and extends the discussions at the forum by providing a platform for contributors to explore the concepts in greater depth, as well as rolling-out its messages throughout its state member organisations. Nevertheless, the dialogue is short-lived and not reinforced. IFAC likewise promotes activities such as sustainability accounting and its derivatives such as water accounting and material flow cost accounting through its Global Knowledge Gateway, but there is no push-marketing of the sustainability accounting concept and agenda. On the other hand, the WBCSD has a long-term vision to drive the changes needed for sustainable development in its members and their supply chains based on long-term strategy and protocols in, for instance, natural and social capital, to ensure continuous activity. Vision 2050 (WBCSD, 2016) outlines best-case scenarios for sustainability and sustainable development pathways including sustainability accounting, a tool for thought leadership and a platform for beginning the ongoing dialogue between academics and practitioners in the years ahead.

Commitment and action are required from members to focus on several boundary objects such as the costs of externalities, starting with carbon, ecosystem services and water, into the structure of the marketplace; to doubling agricultural output without increasing the amount of land or water used; to halting deforestation and increasing yields from planted forests; to halving carbon emissions worldwide (based on 2005 levels) by 2050 through a shift to low-carbon energy systems; and to improving demand-side energy efficiency; and to providing universal access to low-carbon mobility.

Because of its specific sustainability and transdisciplinary focus for business, the potential from such a boundary-spanning organisation as the WBCSD to act as agent across the divide between academia and practice may be more sustainable when compared with the “accounting” only organisations.


In the context of moving society towards sustainability, the evidence indicates that sustainability accounting has been developed and supported by boundary-spanning organisations. However, the gap between academia and practice still exists and maybe getting more significant leading to the logical research question:


How can boundary-spanning organisations be used to reduce the gap between academic researchers and practitioners in the field of sustainability accounting?

From a review of literature, boundary organisation theory suggests boundary-spanning organisations mediate, facilitate, negotiate, support and convene with academics and practitioners through the development of boundary objects, or tools, and packages. The theory can be applied to understand the potential role of boundary organisations in reducing the gap between academia and practice in sustainability accounting. Boundary organisation theory based on principal–agency relationships suggests that boundary organisations act as dual agents, first, for academics who research sustainability accounting and, second, for practitioners while academic researchers act as agents of practitioners as principals.

The paper considers this agency–principal relationship for three potential boundary-spanning organisations with interest in sustainability accounting: CAANZ, the WBCSD and the IFAC. Findings from the case studies indicate that four main issues challenge the potential for successful boundary-spanning by these organisations to reduce the gap between academic researchers and practitioners:

  • The scope and nature of the sustainability concept is complex and require finer granularity about boundary objects and problem-solving.

  • Given the need for granularity, there is uncertainty about the range of parties to be involved as boundary-spanning organisations.

  • The boundary-spanning organisations need to build an understanding of the different incentives for academics and practitioners in the sustainability accounting space.

  • Boundary-spanning organisations need to collaborate with other boundary-spanning organisations to address the transdisciplinary nature of sustainability accounting.

Recognition of the impact of these problems on successful sustainability accounting boundary-spanning in the context of professional accounting associations leads to the conclusion that comprehensive sustainability accounting is too broad. Granularity is required if academics are to see the application of their research strands implemented by practitioners. The boundary-spanning professional associations could act to bring suitable parties together at appropriate levels of granularity to build, disseminate and encourage the application of sustainability accounting elements. Furthermore, these boundary-spanning organisations would need to involve academics with different disciplinary backgrounds as well as practitioners with different types of professional expertise in sustainability if the challenge for diverse input skills is to be met. Indeed, new sustainability accounting boundary institutions might be needed if they are to assume the mantle of successful agents for sustainability accounting in a transdisciplinary setting. These organisations would be able to address the issue of building dialogue and obtaining agreement about incentives and rewards favoured by the different parties be they operating with market forces or the public interest in mind. Furthermore, research would be welcomed into the importance of transdisciplinary solutions whereby the process of how actors “from both sides” present and exchange ideas through boundary organisations. Also, to work towards better understanding and potential common perspectives including, how they wrestle for meaning and acceptance in the transdisciplinary team process which engages disparate applied academics in inter-disciplinary collaboration, as well as a research collaboration between practitioners and applied academics.

The authors recognise possible limitations associated with the argument developed. First, it is possible to challenge the observation that agency theory as developed by Guston (1999) provides an excellent foundation for boundary organisation theory. For illustration, a simple agency model where the boundary organisations serve only two constituents has been used. Mathematical modelling of multiple agents could be used but while possible it would add to the complexity of the situation but not to the logic of the argument presented. Second, the authors assume that academics are the agents of practitioners and, again, this could be challenged. It could be argued that one primary assumption of boundary organisation theory be the existence of equivalent accountabilities between the organisation and each stakeholder. This theoretical parity of assumed accountabilities may not be the case for professional accounting bodies or business associations, as boundary organisations operating between universities and industry will likely find their accountabilities skewed, with some stakeholders more influential in some situations than in others. These are productive areas for further research towards the development of boundary organisation theory and relationship between parties. Two final considerations are that the position of boundary-spanning organisations could be viewed and analysed as a complex network of interacting practices. In such circumstances, dynamic analysis and potential institutional isomorphism’s could be examined rather than the static notions put forward in this first exploratory research designed to awaken academics and practitioners to the possibility of making progress in reducing the gap between them in the sustainability accounting context.


Boundary organisation theory: roles in reducing the research - practice gap

Figure 1.

Boundary organisation theory: roles in reducing the research - practice gap



EMAN, the Environmental and Sustainability Management Accounting Network, is a thought-leading network of academics and practitioners interested in the exchange and further development of accounting and reporting approaches to support companies in pursuing sustainable development (available at:


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Corresponding author

Katherine Leanne Christ can be contacted at: