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

Katherine Leanne Christ*, Roger L. Burritt, James Guthrie, Elaine Evans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: 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.

Design/methodology/approach: 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: 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.

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

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)552-568
Number of pages17
JournalSustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal
Issue number4
Early online date2018
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sept 2018


  • Boundary organisation
  • Boundary organisation theory
  • Boundary-spanner
  • Research-practice gap
  • Sustainability accounting


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