How should researchers construct research questions for their academic work? One intuitive answer is by spotting a gap in the existing academic literature. This is certainly an effective approach that follows the Popperian scientific method. In addition to gap-spotting, there is a second approach that deserves a little more attention: problematization. Alvesson and Sandberg (2011) describe this approach in their famous article Generating Research Questions Through Problematization (a must read!). They write that “[t]he dominance of gap-spotting is surprising, given it is increasingly recognized that theory is made interesting and influential when it challenges assumptions that underlie existing literature.” This is what problematization does: it is about identifying and challenging assumptions that underlie existing theories and generating research questions that lead to the development of more interesting and influential theories. Of course, we will still need gap-spotting in the future. But I do believe that SCM research could benefit from more problematization.
Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). Generating Research Questions Through Problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 247–271. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2009.0188
Academics and students often have very different ideas in mind when they talk about case study research. Indeed, case studies in SCM research are not alike and several different case study research designs can be distinguished. A recent article by Ridder (2017), titled The Theory Contribution of Case Study Research Designs, provides an overview of four common approaches. First, there is the “no theory first” type of case study design, which is closely connected to Eisenhardt’s methodological work. The second type of research design is about “gaps and holes”, following Yin’s guidelines. This type of case study design is what can be seen in SCM journals maybe most often. A third design deals with a “social construction of reality”, which is represented by Stake. Finally, the reason for case study research can also be to identify “anomalies”. A representative scholar of this approach is Burawoy. Each of these four approaches has its areas of application, but it is important to understand their unique ontological and epistomological assumptions. A very similar overview is provided by Welch et al. (2011).
Ridder, H.G. (2017). The Theory Contribution of Case Study Research Designs. Business Research, 10 (2), 281-305. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40685-017-0045-z
There has been a recent trend in several management disciplines, including supply chain management, to create knowledge by systematically reviewing available literature. So far, however, our discipline lacked a “gold standard” that guides researchers in this endeavor. The Journal of Supply Chain Management has now published our new article, Durach, Kembro & Wieland (2017): A New Paradigm for Systematic Literature Reviews in Supply Chain Management. Our systematic literature review process follows six steps: (1) develop an initial theoretical framework; (2) develop criteria for determining whether a publication can provide information regarding this framework; (3) identify literature through structured and rigorous searches; (4) conduct theoretically driven selection of literature and a relevance test; (5) develop two data extraction structures, integrate data to refine the theoretical framework, and develop narrative propositions; and (6) explain the refined framework and compare it to the initial assumptions. We believe that these best-practice guidelines, although developed for the SCM discipline, can be used as a blueprint also for adjacent management disciplines.
Durach, C.F., Kembro, J. & Wieland, A. (2017). A New Paradigm for Systematic Literature Reviews in Supply Chain Management. Journal of Supply Chain Management, 53 (4), 67-85. DOI: 10.1111/jscm.12145
Trust plays an important role in supplier–buyer relationships. One way to approach this important concept is game theory. If you have ever wondered how game theory could be taught in a supply chain management course, I can recommend Nick Case’s The Evolution of Trust – an interactive guide to the game theory of why and how we trust each other. The guide starts by explaining the game of trust (= the prisoner’s dilemma). Then it illustrates what happens if multiple games and multiple tournaments are played with different players. We can learn from this guide that “the game defines the players” but also that “the players define the game”. We can learn that, in order for trust to evolve, we need the knowledge of possible future repeat interactions, we need a win–win situation, and we need a low level of miscommunication. I will definitely use The Evolution of Trust in my future supply chain management courses.
I have been using Fisher’s (1997) supply chain–product match/mismatch framework (What Is the Right Supply Chain for Your Product?) in my teaching for years! Herein, the author argues that functional products require a physically efficient supply chain strategy, whereas innovative products require a market-responsive supply chain strategy. Fisher’s framework finds empirical support: Wagner et al. (2012) demonstrate that “the higher the supply chain fit, the higher the Return on Assets (ROA) of the firm”. Interestingly, a majority of the firms from their sample achieve a negative misfit, i.e. they target high responsiveness for their supply chain although their products are functional. Extensions of the framework exist, for example by Lee (2002), who adds a “supply” dimension, and more recently Gligor (2017), who argues that “benefits generated by perfect supply chain fit might be offset by the resources deployed to achieve that fit”. Research presented by Perez-Franco et al. (2016) helps to “capture, evaluate and re-formulate the supply chain strategy of a business unit”.
Fisher, M.L. (1997). What Is the Right Supply Chain for Your Product? Harvard Business Review, 75 (2), 105-116.
A colleague recently recommended the following article to me: Mansfield (2003): Spatializing Globalization: A “Geography of Quality” in the Seafood Industry. Herein, the author takes a look at the quality of products in that industry. She challenges “recent perspectives that define quality as an alternative to global, industrial forms of production” and “finds that quality is also important for industrial food production and for the global geography of the surimi [a fish paste] seafood industry”. In general, the author takes an interpretive approach – an approach that is almost absent in SCM research, and that might be inspirational for our otherwise empiricist discipline. Particularly, she employs actor–network theory, which proposes that reality does not exist by nature but is rather constructed through socio-material networks. SCM researchers could learn from such a type of research that (1) theory could be mobilized in many different creative ways; (2) technical supply chain issues are embedded in larger social-political arrangements; (3) geography might inform SCM (theoretically as well as materially); and (4) “quality”, or other concepts, do not exist by nature but are stabilized through networks.
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).
It is among the common research practices in our field to build a statistical model with a limited set of variables in order to take the lens of a theory – often being alien to our field – on a supply chain phenomenon, and to test this model based on maybe 200 datasets. Other researchers collect data from three or four case companies to build or extend a research model that comprises a small set of propositions. So far so good. “So far so outdated”, I should say if I were to be malicious. Why? Researchers in fields like supply chain management might soon (or already?) be competing with “companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, [that] don’t have to settle for wrong models”, as the editor in chief of Wired put it already back in 2008, proclaiming The End of Theory. So, is the data deluge about to make our research obsolete? If so, how should our community adapt to this new reality?
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
I recently discovered an interesting overview, Supply Chain Perspectives and Issues: A Literature Review by Park, Nayyar & Low (2013), which has been published by the World Trade Organization. It explicitly distinguishes between the economic and business perspectives on supply chains. Indeed, many supply chain phenomena take place somewhere between these two worlds, as the “supply chain” system is broader than the “organization” system and also different from the “market” and “economy” systems. As the authors write, “[t]he economics perspective attempts to understand [supply chains] through trade theory, along with the motivations for specialisation and production location decisions. […] The focus in the business literature is more concerned with a firm-level perspective.” My impression is that SCM research has often covered the latter perspective but neglected the former one. The authors also link the supply chain management and global value chain literatures, which is a promising path to go, as I have also highlighted in a previous post.