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What is Theory?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what theory is. At least this is a recurring question I get from students. Let us first discuss what theory is not: Sutton & Staw (1995) show that “references, data, variables, diagrams, and hypotheses are not theory” and they “explain how each of these five elements can be confused with theory” (p. 371). But we should also be aware of the difference between facts and theory! In his essay, which is part of a collection of six essays, Pagell (in: Boer et al., 2015) paints the picture of an ideal research world where “most research will be building or testing facts, not theory”, while “theory building and testing [will be left] to a much smaller group of papers, where the theoretical argument would be critical” (p. 1244). So, what is theory? A definition I like comes from Suddaby (2015): “[T]heory is simply a way of imposing conceptual order on the empirical complexity of the phenomenal world” (p. 1).

Behavioral Supply Chain Management

I am pleased to announce that our new article, The Human Factor in SCM: Introducing a Meta-theory of Behavioral Supply Chain Management, which I co-authored with Timm Schorsch and Carl Marcus Wallenburg, has now been published by the International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management. Our article provides a comprehensive overview of the behavioral supply chain management (BSCM) research landscape. In addition, we present a meta-theory of BSCM that encompasses all central elements of the research field. We also formulate five promising future research opportunities: Research being conducted in this area could (1) integrate cognitive and social psychological research, (2) apply a holistic view to decision-making and problem solving, (3) strengthen the concept of emergence and apply meso-level theory approaches, (4) complement our meta-theory, and (5) broaden the scope of inventory and capacity decision-making. We are confident that the critical discussions in our article and the formulated research opportunities will help scholars in positioning their own research to enhance its contribution.

A copy of our article can be requested via ResearchGate.

Schorsch, T., Wallenburg, C.M., & Wieland, A. (2017). The Human Factor in SCM: Introducing a Meta-theory of Behavioral Supply Chain Management. International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, 47 (4), 238-262 DOI: 10.1108/IJPDLM-10-2015-0268

Implications from the Rana Plaza Disaster (Guest Post by Brian Jacobs and Vinod Singhal)

Today’s guest post comes from Brian Jacobs and Vinod Singhal, who present the results of their recent research on social issues in global textile supply chains.

Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in Bangladesh that housed garment factories employing approximately 5000 workers, collapsed on April 24, 2013. The resulting fatalities (over 1100) and injuries (over 2400) made it one of the worst industrial accidents in history. The scale of this tragedy increased awareness of the risks and costs of sourcing from low-cost countries. Such risks and costs are often assumed to be sufficient to motivate firms to source production in developed, high-cost countries rather than developing, low-cost countries. To examine this assumption, we studied the stock market reaction to 39 global apparel retailers with significant sourcing in Bangladesh. We found that although stock market reaction to retailers on the day of the Rana Plaza disaster was negative, its magnitude and significance dissipated by the following day. Our research shows that capital market forces alone are insufficient to prevent tragedies such as the Rana Plaza disaster, or to motivate large scale changes in sourcing patterns. In fact, garment exports from Bangladesh have increased since 2013 even though substandard working conditions persist. While managers should weigh ethics and their moral obligation in addition to financial considerations, it is doubtful that firms can affect the needed changes without participation by non-market forces such as NGOs and policymakers. For full details of our research, please see our article The Effect of the Rana Plaza Disaster on Shareholder Wealth of Retailers: Implications for Sourcing Strategies and Supply Chain Governance, forthcoming in Journal of Operations Management.

Vinod Singhal is a Professor of Operations Management and holds the Charles W. Brady Chair at the Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia. Brian Jacobs is an Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management at the Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

Jacobs, B., & Singhal, V. (2017). The Effect of the Rana Plaza Disaster on Shareholder Wealth of Retailers: Implications for Sourcing Strategies and Supply Chain Governance. Journal of Operations Management DOI: 10.1016/j.jom.2017.01.002

Value of Air Cargo: Air Transport and Global Value Chains

I recently found an interesting report: Value of Air Cargo: Air Transport and Global Value Chains, published by Developing Trade Consultants. The authors write: “Global Value Chains (GVCs) represent a new trade and development paradigm. They enable countries to specialize in narrowly defined tasks, such as component production, research and development, or assembly. Tasks originating in a variety of countries are then combined through a complex network of trade and investment links, to produce finished goods […].” The report analyzes data to investigate the linkages between GVC trade and air cargo. It shows that countries engage in more trade in value terms if they have better air cargo connectivity – which is measured by an “Air Connectivity Index”. A strong association is found between a higher ACI score (i.e. stronger air connections to more countries) and a higher total trade value: “[O]ne percent increase in air cargo connectivity is associated with a 6.3% increase in total exports and imports.”

Shifting from “Linear Thinking” towards “Circular Thinking”

Shifting from “company thinking” to “supply chain thinking” has successfully replaced the system, managers had in mind when making their decisions. This shift has put some of the parts of what has formerly been considered the company’s unmanageable environment into their unit of analysis. A supply chain, however, is per definition linear. In the age of sustainability, we might thus need to go one step further and shift from “linear thinking” towards “circular thinking”. The circular economy (or closed-loop supply chain) could replace the linear system by a circular system in the minds of decision makers. This is illustrated in a video released by the European Commission.

The Conceptual Leap in Qualitative Research

You should all read this interesting article: Approaching the Conceptual Leap in Qualitative Research by Klag & Langley (2013), which is useful for researchers who build theory from qualitative data. Its central message is “that the abductive process is constructed through the synthesis of opposites that [the authors] suggest will be manifested over time in a form of ‘bricolage’.” The authors use four dialectic tensions: deliberation—serendipity, engagement—detachment, knowing—not knowing, social connection—self-expression. One of the poles of each dialectic has a disciplining character, the other pole has a liberating influence: On the one hand, overemphasizing the disciplining poles “may result in becoming ‘bogged down’ in contrived frameworks (deliberation), obsessive coding (engagement), cognitive inertia (knowing) or collective orthodoxy (social connection)”. On the other hand, overemphasizing the liberating poles “can also be unproductive as researchers wait for lightning to strike (serendipity), forget the richness and nuances of their data (detachment), reinvent the wheel (not knowing) or drift off into groundless personal reflection (self-expression)”.

Klag, M., & Langley, A. (2013). Approaching the Conceptual Leap in Qualitative Research. International Journal of Management Reviews, 15 (2), 149-166 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2012.00349.x

Jay W. Forrester (1918–2016)

Jay Wright Forrester was “an electrical engineer whose insights into both computing and organizations more than 60 years ago gave rise to a field of computer modeling that examines the behavior of things as specific as a corporation and as broad as global growth”, as the New York Times writes in an obituary. Forrester was a pioneer of systems dynamics, which “deals with how things change through time, which includes most of what most people find important”, as he once wrote. Forrester’s (1961) book Industrial Dynamics had a huge impact on the development of supply chain management. Herein, he studied “the behavior of industrial systems to show how policies, decisions, structure, and delays are interrelated to influence growth and stability”. His analysis of what we call “supply chain” today revealed an effect now known as the bullwhip effect – undoubtedly the single most important theory in supply chain management. Forrester died last week at his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

Forrester, J.W. (1961). Industrial Dynamics. ISBN 0262060035

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