No, this is not to add to the theories debate, though the doctoral course we are running right now in Turku may do that. There is an astonishing variety of topics among the participants, anything from public procurement to lean manufacturing to assessing logistics costs on the national level to environmental issues in food supply chains… And yet they all face the same challenges:
- What is theory?
- Which one to select for my thesis?
- How to contribute to it?
With the help of Árni Halldórsson (from this blog) and Craig Carter, the course may shed light on some of these questions – though I ask myself if wondering about them isn’t a perpetual quest in (SCM) research.
LRN 2010 was a nice example of a bunch of very practice-driven papers and went to show that insisting on empirical evidence raises the level of a conference. No matter which comes first (theory or practice, hen or egg, truck or snake*), the sophistication of the field requires yet another beast to be tackled as well: solid theoretical underpinnings of SCM research. Upon some earlier posts and a series of theory-driven special issues (particularly many of which were published in the Journal of Supply Chain Management), it is finally time for this trend to hit articles submitted to journals. References to the better JSCM articles certainly help, looking beyond the boundaries of our discipline to the origins of some theories is the next step. Here is a link to a recent debate in marketing on what is theory – and some useful slides to that.
*Referring to the infamous “truck or snake-dilemma” on whether one prefers to be hit by a non-lit truck or bitten by a snake when walking at night on a street in West Africa. Choose your sleeping place wisely.
Those who are interested in the development of research in Operations Management will find this paper by Andrew Taylor and Margaret Taylor (editors of IJOPM* during the last 5 years) relevant to their collection:
Operations management research: contemporary themes, trends and potential future directions
The paper identifies main research themes, use of research methods, and reasons for rejecting manuscripts.
The analysis of 310 articles published in IJOPM from 2004-2009 identified these as amongst the top-five themes in the journal:
1. Supply Chain Management
2. Operations Strategy
3. Performance Management
4. Service Operations
5. Lean Methods
What is in particular of interest in this paper is the insight the editors provide into the publication process; main reasons for rejection of manuscripts are presented and discussed. In addition, the paper provides overview on the use of various research methods, which indicates a relative balanced use of surveys and the case study method.
*International Journal of Operations & Production Management
Remember when Árni suggested to debate articles in public, as a sort of open source review? The Journal of Operations Management has indeed taken on the idea and publishes articles, and ideas for articles, in their operations and supply management forum. Some of the articles did already generate quite a number of (high quality) comments. Today’s topic is “too much theory, not enough understanding”. Time to log on and contribute to the debate!
The latest issue of IJPDLM contains a paper by Jesper Aastrup, Copenhagen Business School, and Arni Halldorsson, University of Southampton. This is a Special Issue from the Nofoma 2008 conference, edited by Gyöngyi Kovács and Karen Spens, Hanken, Finland.
We presented this paper at the 2008 Nofoma conference in Helsinki Finland (and received the Schenker Best Paper award). We have been struggling with some issues of justification of our research approaches and types of scientific explanations, and decided to mix our thoughts about this. Although the paper is written in the context of logistics, the implications may also apply for other disciplines such as marketing, purchasing and operations management. We will hopefully come back to this context later.
From the abstract:
The purpose of this paper is to develop the paradigmatic justification for the use of case studies in logistics research. The argument is based on a critical realist (CR) ontology and epistemology. The current logistics paradigm’s flat ontology – based on regularity – is replaced by an ontology emphasising structures and mechanisms underlying actual events in the form of logistics practice and performance.
…Based on this CR view of the logistics domain it is argued that the justifications for conducting case studies lie in their ability: to reach the causal depth required for revealing the real domain of logistics activities and performance: to reveal the working of mechanisms in loosely coupled structures showing open systems characteristics through a constant alternation between abstract and concrete reasoning and; to include the causal powers and effects of agents’ ascribed meanings. Also, it is argued, in contrast with Yin’s work which refers to the possibility of generalising case studies, that the justification of case studies not only must refer to their complementary role in research but also must build on groundings that allow this form of research to take a primary role in knowledge creation.
…The arguments have direct implications primarily for the scientific justification for case studies in logistics.
Aastrup, Jepser and Halldorsson, Arni (2008): “Epistemological role of case studies in logistics: A critical realist perspective”, International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Volume 38, Issue 10, pp. 746-763.
Few thoughts about the dominant position of causal explanations in logistics (and supply chain management) research.
Do causal explanations have their origin in the chain metaphor?
What is the origin of the supply chain metaphor? We probably don’t know.
Ramsay and Caldwell (2004:81)* suggest that the origins of the supply chain as metaphor is by no means clear and that “…any appearance of clarity and stability is imaginary”. The origins are lost, but conceptually, it may refer to human bucket chain (buckets of water moving along from hand to hand to put out fire) becoming a literal reference to a process.
To this observation I want to add Henry Ford’s assembly line – it has been a key reference in textbooks and journals. What is of interest for me is to consider how the ideas of sequence and the quest for regularity and stability as basis for efficient and effective flow (of materials…). Have these traits, that can be associated with the assembly line, had influence on the methodologies of research within logistics (and perhaps also related disciplines such as operations management)?
Is the quest for stability of the assembly line informing the quest for law like regularity as explanation in logistics research?
If that is the case, will we ever be able to address other types of scientific explanation but the causal one in logistics without disregarding (or perhaps rejecting) the “supply chain” as metaphor?
*Ramsay, John and Caldwell, Nigel (2004): If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail: the risks of casual trope usage in purchasing discourse, Journal of Purchasing & Supply Management 10 (2004) 79–87.