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Business Model innovation – Promoting spirituality and well-being in in a secular context

biographical insights from L’Abbaye de St Jacut-de-la-Mer

Published onJun 20, 2023
Business Model innovation – Promoting spirituality and well-being in in a secular context
Rita Klapper1* + Paul Upham2
1 Idrac Business School, France & Manchester Metropolitan University, UK; 2 IREES (Integrated Research on Energy, Environment and Society), University of Groningen, NL
*[email protected]


This paper connects to conference track 3.2 relating to the human side of business model innovation. It focuses specifically on the role of values, roles and identity as elements of cognition, and the relationship of these to organisational structures and processes. Literature on the cognitive dimension of business models is longstanding but small, and mostly centres on the concept of cognitive models that provide descriptions and classifications of business model types, and that operate as recipes or templates for managers to follow. This study takes a more processual view, seeking to understand the origins of such cognitive templates. For this purpose, we adopt a phenomenological perspective and a biographical method: we take the case of one individual and trace the connections between their upbringing, experience and earlier life, including their values, roles and identities, and the model that they create and sustain for the business that they are responsible for. In this way, we seek to bring a dimension of lived experience to the concept of business models. As we are interested in furthering lower impact, more socially and environmentally sustainable business models, we take the case of a converted French Abbey that offers leisure accommodation and a degree of communal living that retains some of the structures of religious life. We highlight the way in which the Abbey’s manager managed multiple identities for herself, as she created a financially viable way for the Abbey to operate.


Business model, sustainability, cognition, values, identity


Bertella (2019) observes that despite a growing literature on sustainable business models, explicit reference to the types of values and ethics that are marginalized in a secular world – notably spiritual values – remains scant. Yet the compassionate underpinnings of ecological care have direct or indirect roots in diverse spiritual or religious traditions, including those focused on reverence for nature. This paper uses a biographical approach to explore the cognitive dimension of business models through a case study approach. The study asks several related, contemporary questions in the entrepreneurship and sustainable entrepreneurship literatures: a) How do entrepreneurial individuals with spiritual or religious commitments experience the practice of enacting their values in the business world (Klapper, Berg & Upham 2020; Martin et al, 2017)? How does their individual experience and thinking shape business models? How do they accommodate multiple identities and roles (Jones et al, 2018), and how do they manage value tensions (Klapper et al, 2020)? What are the cognitive dimensions of a spirituality informed business model?

Cognition in the business model literature

Since the 2000s, the business model concept has become increasingly popular and in recent years, attention has been given to business model innovation specifically in relation to sustainability norms. The latter work highlights the changes in value creation logic at a larger societal level and with associated organisational processes. This development potentially allows (and calls) for new governance forms such as cooperatives, public private partnerships, or social businesses, helping to transcend narrower for-profit and profit-maximizing models. This reflects the growing concern with the conventional modus operandi of capitalist societies and economies (Klapper, Upham & Blundell 2021; Porter & Kramer 2011).

This particular study is concerned with the cognitive dimension of business models and aims to contribute to the emerging body of literature on this theme that relates to values. This literature is actually longstanding. Penrose (1959, read in Demil and Lecoq 2010) emphasised that the firm’s environment is ‘an ‘‘image’’ in the entrepreneur’s mind’ and that entrpreneurs interpret their environment based on their internal resources. More recent authors such as Maucuer & Renaud (2019) identified 2 clusters (12 articles) that share a cognitive perspective on business models, much in line with the legacy of Baden-Fuller and Morgan (2010). Their approach views business models as models that provide descriptions and classifications, or that operate as recipes or templates for managers. Given the paucity of research that considers the cognitive dimension of business models, van den Oever & Martin (2015) put forward the development of a new research agenda dedicated to the cognitive perspective to investigate business model dynamics. Against this background, this study seeks to fill a gap in the literature on business models with particular focus on the cognitive dimension, more specifically, the role and relationship of values to business structures, and even more specifically to provide a processual, individual account of how such models emerge.


Using a single case of a single individual, we explore the cognitive dimension of business models. Our approach to knowledge is phenomenological, underpinned by Shotter’s (2006) argument for understanding business practitioners ‘from within’, through dialogue. The empirics are thus set in the interpretivist tradition, drawing on the fundamental idea of phenomenology, namely that the person and the world are inextricable related through lived experience (Sandberg 2005, p. 43). Lived experience is viewed as the basis of human action and activity, and both social constructivist and phenomenological approaches (Sandberg 2005) have previously been viewed as appropriate for exploring the ‘lebenswelt’ (life-world) of the entrepreneur (Cope 2005).

In using a single case, we follow Siggelkow’s (2007) argument that illustrative cases assist conceptual contributions by allowing us to ‘get closer to constructs and be able to illustrate causal relationships more directly and to unravel the underlying dynamics of phenomena that play out over time’. The case of the Abbey at St Jacut de la Mer, Brittany, France, based on semi-structured interviews, document analysis and one of the researchers’ lived experience at the Abbaye, allows us to get allow closer to the cognitive dimension of a BM that combines both spiritual, social and economic dimensions, and that enables us to understand the origins and development of the business model.

The case study thus focuses on L’Abbaye de St Jacut-de-la-Mer on the Brittany coast (Figure 1), and its manager, late Sister Marie Therese (MT), who was active in establishing and managing the business side of the Abbaye. L’Abbaye was originally a Benedictine monastery founded by Saint Jacut in the 5th century, and has been, for a very long time, home to the Sisters of the Immaculate and a form of hotel with cultural and spiritual programmes. The Abbey was, for Brittany and for centuries, a political and spiritual high place. At the time of research the Abbaye had 80 staff, managed by the “Association la Providence” governed by the 1901 law. The Association, which consists of both lay and spiritual members, looks after the management of the establishment founded by the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of Saint-Méen-le-Grand des (Sœurs de l'Immaculée de St-Méen-le-Grand). The Abbey receives individuals and groups, promoting their cultural, spiritual and personal development. The non-profit Providence Association pays taxes and thus fulfils its civic duty as an economic agent immersed in the general socio-economic and spiritual development and well-being of the region. Profits are reinvested in the upkeep of the abbey and its various social missions.

The study is based on a series of in-depth interviews with Sister MT before her death, in which she described how she came from a business-oriented family and then took on a professional role in the religious order, the Sisters of the Immaculate. Interviews were transcribed and content analysed for emergent themes, sensitized by high level, a priori research questions that focus on the relationships between the individual, their history, and the organisational processes and structures that were developed.

Figure 1 The Abbaye St Jacut sur Mer on the Brittany coast near St Malo

Results and discussion

As stated, this research focuses on MT’s individual biography – her life-story - as illustrative of some of the key questions and challenges raised by the emerging body of literature that integrates spirituality and social (sustainability) issues in BMs. MT grew up in an entrepreneurial family and from an early age onwards was involved in the family business. She later trained to become a teacher and gathered professional experience. She was soon asked to take over the management of an establishment for what were then referred to as ‘handicapped’ children, which she ran for about 10 years. Looking for further personal development she then decided to study Theology in a well-known Parisian institute, in preparation for a new managerial role, i.e. to manage the Abbaye St Jacut sur Mer, a position she held for more than 20 years. She decided to retire around the age of 70 handing over the running of the Abbaye to a secular person, she soon died thereafter before she could fulfil her long standing dream of walking the Chemin de Santiago de Compostela.

Analytically, we identified a key theme as that of tensions between different values held by MT: firstly those that are core to conventional business practice, relating to financial and economic value creation; and secondly, those underpinning the view that these should be subordinate to higher values of social welfare and spirituality. We argue that MT managed these tensions through psychological compartmentalization of her roles and identities, and through a commitment to discussion and consensus-seeking among the Sisters, assisted by the conducive economic circumstances of latent touristic and cultural demand for the hotel and hosting services that L’Abbeye came to offer. For almost 20 years, MT continuously sought to develop a business model that balanced the inherent tensions and conflicts between the different objectives and needs of the organization.

The study concludes by commenting on the wider applicability of MT’s practices of combining both entrepreneurial thinking and behaving with her spiritual background as a sister, which she primarily managed through psychological compartmentalization, consensus-seeking and mobilizing of latent touristic demand. We see this as a form of entrepreneurship that deviates from profit-seeking as a motivation, and that emphasizes social and spiritual objectives. In her non-traditional approach, she created a business model that combined different logics, and in which allowed different logics to dominate in different aspects of the business.

MT emphasized the social, the human, while aiming to achieve and remain economically sustainable. She aimed for visitors to St Jacut to develop themselves personally through social, individual and collective as well as spiritual and non-spiritual activities. She maintained and retained a home for a declining religious congregation, aiming to create an ‘esprit de la maison’ (spirit of the house/Abbaye). She was concerned to smooth tensions that could arise between e.g. the administrative council in charge of the Abbaye looking for economic sustainability, and the congregation that pursued social and humanistic objectives, grounded in a service to ‘the other’, expressing a social dedication to humanity. MT created a business model that was successful in withstanding these tensions over a 20 year period. She made tradeoffs in the sense that she was the manager of the Abbaye but not the spiritual leader. She had a very strong sense of economic mission.


This study follows in the footsteps of Lasch (2018), who emphasized that business model logics can and need to go beyond economic value creation emphasizing social welfare, community, family and faith (though the Abbey offers the individual visitor freedom and independence to pursue their own personal development without religious doctrine). We have sought to fill a gap in terms of the cognitive dimensions of business models, using a biographical case and a phenomenological perspective. The case is that of the Abbaye St Jacut and its late long-term manager Marie Therese, who created a model for the Abbey that aimed to combine spirituality, entrepreneurship, community, social welfare and family. Her managerial style was a response to the challenges she faced in a context characterized by spirituality, collectivity/community and humanistic values, but of also having to respond to secular, financial imperatives.

This study is a starting point for micro-level work that explores how individuals and their organisations cope, and learn to cope, with the challenges of societal changes that require the creation of hybrid business models that are flexible enough to accommodate different value logics. While detail is not possible in this short paper form, the study also exemplifies the value of biographical and processual work on business models, that highlight the development of human characteristics and capacity.


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