In progress Purpose in Business: On how to embed'purpose' in organizational and entrepreneurial contexts



The aim of this PhD project is to build theory on the concept of ‘purpose’ in organizations. The theoretical claims will be empirically studied in organizational and entrepreneurial contexts. In the first essay I delineate notions of the focal concept in existing literatures and provide a conceptual definition, to ultimately arrive at a theoretical typology of ‘purpose’. In the second essay I focus on the cross-level dynamics and alignment of ‘purpose’ in a case study of a large incumbent organization. In the third essay I focus on how ‘purpose’ informs leaders how to deal with multiple aims in hybrid organizations in a case study of a social enterprise. By building theory about ‘purpose’ and empirically studying it in different business contexts, this project will add to organization theory in management literature and will offer managers insights how to embed a sense of ‘purpose’ in their organizations.


corporate purpose, alignment, social enterprise, hybridity

Time frame

2016 - 2020


Examples of topics for a Ph.D. project within this theme are the following:

Changing business to improve moral behavior

The past decades have revealed a range of corporate scandals that caused enormous damage and shocked society. In response, the study of moral and immoral behavior in organizational contexts has become very popular (Ambrose, Schminke, & Reynolds, 2014). Yet, there exists today no real understanding of how contextual factors in the external and internal environment of the organization (e.g., the level of market competition, the organization’s rewards systems, and leadership styles) in the long run shape (im)moral behaviors of its members. Probably as a result of his, there exists today no intervention that has been proven to make people act in more morally acceptable ways (Weaver, Reynolds, & Brown, 2014). The aim of this project is to test how contextual factors in the course of time shape the moral behaviors of organization members, and to develop an intervention that improves the moral conduct of organizational employees and managers. This intervention will build on a wealth of findings showing that moral behavior is driven by subtle emotional, intuitive, and (short-term) contextual factors. The intervention will be evaluated using the highest standards for evaluation research. In addition to its obvious practical relevance, this project also has theoretical relevance: Our understanding of the subtle processes that drive moral behavior rests largely on laboratory research. It is unclear how relevant these processes are in shaping moral behavior in work organizations.

For further information, contact Marius van Dijke,


Making sense of Sustainability Issues

Past research has demonstrated that managers find it difficult to conceptualize complex issues and wicked societal problems such as climate change and relate these to their organization. Furthermore, research has also pointed to the difficulty that managers face in communicating about such issues and problems in ways that help them gain support and legitimacy for their organizations. This project focuses on the twin challenge that managers face to conceptualize and communicate about complex societal issues of sustainability, in a context of much greater transparency and a quest for such information from their stakeholders. The proposed PhD research develops and elaborates theory on these challenges and the different framing tactics that managers use to compress complex issues into a digestible format for themselves and for the stakeholders of the organization. The PhD project may involve both qualitative case studies or experimental and survey methods, or a combination as part of a mixed-methods approach.

For further information contact Joep Cornelissen,


New Business-Society Strategies in a rapidly changing world

Society is nowadays changing in unprecedented, rapid ways. And not only very rapidly but also more unpredictably. As a result businesses are confronted with and surprised by new social norms, new social expectations, new social issues and new social stakeholders. Businesses are struggling with these changes as they do not know how to foresee them and, once faced, what to adopt and what to neglect. It seems that current concepts for business-society management are failing (cf. Van Tulder et al, 2013). The question therefore is what new concepts can be developed for businesses that help them to better deal with society. For example, there is no theory that explains why new ethical norms for businesses arise (Kaptein & Wempe, 2002). This PD research should lead to suggestions to businesses for new strategies and business models and for new types of leadership and business principles.

For further information, contact Muel Kaptein,


Aligning corporate value propositions and societal issues

It is fashionable to talk about ‘shared value creation’, but what does that actually mean? From the corporate perspective it implies that companies fundamentally think about their ‘value proposition’, their corporate vision and mission, and what they actually would like to produce in what manner. From a societal point of view it could imply that companies contribute to solving a number of society’s problems. For instance the “Millennium Development Goals” include eight of the world’s most difficult problems (poverty, health, climate change). Under what conditions can companies contribute to effectively addressing these issues: alone or together with others? Partnerships can be used to create conditions to implement effective strategies. But how to form, implement and sustain such partnerships, which are often struck between parties from different sectors (corporate, civil society, government)? Partnerships create new institutions that could facilitate the transition towards higher levels of sustainability and societal value creation. Partnerships also require new forms of leadership. This project operates on the interface between business and society, and considers in particular the international context since most of the problems cross boundaries and are often global in nature.

For further information, visit:; or contact: Rob van Tulder,


Finding organizational forms for unprecedented change : the rise of  social enterprise

The challenges of (western) societies are manifold, including unemployment, increasing costs for healthcare, social exclusion and issues such as loneliness and obesity. These challenges cannot be addressed by traditional solutions and actors. In response, a new organizational form is on the raise: The social enterprise. This term creates confusion as a strict definition claims that a true social enterprise must have a double bottom line combining profit and social objectives. Others apply the term to (traditional) nonprofit organizations that combine commercial strategies with their mission, while businesses also claim they have CSR and social objectives. And to make it even more interesting, USA and European ideas are not aligned.  Meanwhile, debates are going on about whether there is a need for a new organizational legal entity and if new financial combinations are needed between commercial social impact investing, philanthropic donations, and fees for service from customers. The social enterprise seems to offer unprecedented new organizational solutions. The PhD project will delve into this phenomenon taking a critical approach to question its efficiency and efficacy.

For further information, contact Lucas Meijs

Supervisory Team

Joep Cornelissen
Professor of Corporate Communication and Management
  • Promotor
Rob van Tulder
Professor of International Business-Society Management
  • Promotor