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Research frameworks in logistics: three models, seven dinners and a survey.

Introduction

This article is about research and its problems. It considers one area of management research and explores its particular difficulties. The article begins with the special character of logistics, and highlights the tension between technical and strategic, and the problem of finding appropriate causal models. This leads to a discussion of a particular investigation which deployed an unusual mix of methods. The article concludes with a summary of lessons for future research.

Logistics: why research is so difficult

Logistics. one of the sub-fields of management which likes to wallow in its own obscurity. Conferences and trade journals tend to reiterate the commonly held view that logistics is a vital business area which has been too long neglected, and that the wider world is just now beginning to appreciate the importance of the field. This rallying cry becomes less persuasive when it is pointed out that the same rhetoric crops up in other managerial disciplines. It seems a common strategy is to re-designate a field and then expand its horizons: thus personnel has become the "more trendy" human resource management[1]; quality and inspection becomes total quality; maintenance becomes total preventive maintenance, and so on. Logistics follows this pattern by evolving into integrated logistics or strategic supply chain management, or any other label which can be generated by combining managerial buzzwords.

This continual relabelling (or strategic discipline title re-engineering, as we now call it) seems harmless enough, but it does reveal a more serious problem. We have argued elsewhere[2] that the use of supply chain terminology may in some cases be unhelpful, in that a useful metaphor may be stretched beyond the evidence and become established as an accepted wisdom. Furthermore, the problem is that as the scope of the domain is stretched to include more business functions and strategic decisions, it becomes less clear what differentiates the subject as a distinctive field, and what constitutes valid re&arch questions and investigative strategies.

To explore these issues, we propose two simple frameworks which help to illustrate the problems of research in logistics. Here we take logistics in the broadest sense, concerning the holistic or integrative system along the supply chain (e.g. [31). The first highlights a fundamental problem which reflects the fact that the process of research is itself socially constituted. This is a feature which is shared by other areas of management inquiry but which is reflected particularly sharply in logistics. The second framework concerns the problem of assumed causality.

Rigour or relevance?

Managerial research relies on a complex web of conventions and rules which determine what counts as research and what does not. In practice this means that unless certain patterns are followed, research contributions are considered to be inadequate. This helps explain why intellectual "disciplines" are called such. Logically, fulfilling the conventional criteria should be a necessary but not sufficient step in determining the value of a piece of research. However, research is often complicated and difficult to understand, and it could be argued that in many cases the "adherence to a set of rules is assumed to be itself the guarantor of a piece of research. In other words, an editor or referee might not really know (or know enough to have an opinion) about the value of a piece of work in terms of its usefulness or the soundness of its assumptions, but might accept it nevertheless because it has lots of references, contains difficult mathematics, has used a statistical test to a 5 per cent degree of significance, and follows a logical structure. All these things may be useful suggestions of "good research", but they may not a wholly reliable guide. However, in the socially constructed domain of management science, they are often the only indicators available. "Progress" is technical, incremental, and corresponds to the gradual extension of models: a pattern which corresponds to Kuhnian[4] "normal science".

The result is that it is possible to have academic research which scores high on "rigour" and "cleverness" but low on connection to "real" problems[5,6]. However, in management more than-,any other discipline (and operations management at that) there is fundamental commitment to an encounter with that which managers and workers do. If this" is not the case, then research could perhaps be more accurately labelled under a different heading. This problem has caused considerable debate in the operations research/management science community, where many authors have argued that the accepted paradigm of mathematical model building and technique-driven research has resulted in a terminal sclerosis of the discipline. Rosenhead[7], following Schon[8], has argued that management scientists should retreat from the lofty hills of the artificial but tractable and descend into the "swamp" of real-life complexity and real-life problems. For Rosenhead and others this means a reformulation of operations research into a portfolio of participative and "soft" problem-solving techniques[9-11]. The difficulty is that these approaches are less easy to cast into the research conventions which dominate the field, and so it is less easy to get recognition in some quarters of the academic community.

This problem appears to be endemic in management research, and is illustrated crudely in Figure 1. The mechanisms of academia offer a trade-off: one can pursue artificial and abstract problems with the rigour necessary to play the research game, or one can pursue more interesting and real issues and be lost in the extraordinary complexity and ambiguity of the real world. The broader the question and the issues involved (e.g. the emergence of "value-adding partnerships"[12]), the more difficult rigorous research becomes. This choice appears to be particularly salient for research in logistics, in which the real world is very complicated indeed. Indeed, the very label "supply chain" is a rather heroic attempt to simplify reality to a level which enables some sort of analysis.

Some examples illustrate this problem. For example, there is now a substantial body of work on the effects on inter-organizational operations and the effect of electronic data interchange. Much of this is based on theoretical inventory models based on developments from the economic order quantity (EOQ), and is based on some principle of joint optimality. Articles are written and research conducted to the highest standards of mathematical rigour and often tested with fiendishly clever simulations. Yet this work is founded on assumptions that make it unlikely that the models could ever describe a real situation or inform practical decision making. For example, assumptions may include:

* single product manufacturing systems;

* accurate accounting systems;

* constant demand and fixed cycle replenishment of inventory;

* suppliers who only make for one customer;

* firms which can agree to synchronize production cycles.

On the other hand, the following are usually omitted from these types of analysis:

* intercorporate power;

* multiple and interfering products which follow different and unpredictable (i.e. non-stationary) demand patterns;

* inventory and delivery policies operated for computational or administrative convenience;

* end-of-month accounting;

* complex supply structures.

Perhaps even more relevant is the famous (yet usually unheeded) observation of Churchman[13,14] that the notion of a simple inventory holding cost (fundamental to the EOQ) is fundamentally flawed.

These criticisms should not be interpreted to mean that abstract model building and exploration have no place or no long-term value; the point here is that it is very difficult to do work which conforms to the academically accepted pattern of model building/optimization/simulation which also engages with the complexity of the real world. (Voss[15] has argued that this approach is characteristic of US-based research in operations management in contrast to the greater case study orientation in the UK.) A review of 221 operations management articles by Swamidass[16] placed 85 per cent in this category. The recent article by Nahmias and Smith[17] is a first class example of an excellent article - written with clarity and flair - which operates under the dominant paradigm of technical logistics research. The authors develop a theoretical approach to a two-echelon retailer system with partial lost sales, involving some bold assumptions to make the mathematics tractable. The stated goal is to bring more realism into inventory models appropriate for retailing, and this is achieved to some degree. However, the article has still to assume simple measures of holding costs, fixed frequency replenishment, and zero lead times between distribution centre and stores. While this type of research may be viewed as part of a long-term project in which limiting assumptions will be progressively removed, the problem remains that the final model may be too complicated for managers to use or organizations to maintain.

Within operations management at large, this has led many authors (such as [16,18,19]) to call for more empirically-based work in operations management. However, this presents significant problems for work in logistics, an issue which we address in the next section.

The problem of causality

A major problem in empirical logistics research is the formulation of presumed causal links. These are important because they determine the underlying justification of research questions. Three possible approaches are discussed here (Figures 2-4 and Table 1), but there are others. Each of these involves the a prior assumptions about practice, performance and the environment. Here, practice should be interpreted as those things which an organization may do; in our case, logistics practices. Performance is the outcome and could include profitability, volume of sales, share price and so on. The environment here means the context in which a business operates: economic conditions, or industrial structure in a particular sector, or the geographic or the political features of a given region.

[TABULAR DATA 1 OMITTED] An important if obvious point is that it is often very hard to apply any of these three headings systematically. There is no unambiguous definition, for example, of what "delivery to point of use" means; firms may report quite different systems under this heading. Equally, there is no simple single measure of success which can adequately describe an organization; low reported profits, for example, may reflect high investment in a particular project. The environmental label here covers a vast range of factors, many of which (such as business confidence) may be difficult to measure.

Figure 2 illustrates what is perhaps the dominant model; logistics practice affects an organization's performance, but how it does so is mediated by environmental factors (see [20]). The formation of this approach is that good or interesting practices may be identified by those which give good or interesting results. it might be, for example, that firms that adopt consignment inventory systems, or ship-to-point-of-use, or third-party distribution, or any other

The authors gratefully wish to acknowledge the collaboration of A.T. Kearney Ltd in the research described in this article, and the support of the Institute of Logistics. Thanks are also due to Mark Rhodes, Claire Faichnie and Paul Whittle. An earlier version of this article was presented to the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Production and Operations Management Society, Washington DC, October 1994. systems, or ship-to-point-of-use, or third-party distribution, or any other particular logistics practice, will achieve a competitive advantage and so thrive

These techniques may need to be adapted to suit particular situations wit particular environmental characteristics. The driving logic of this paradigm is that one might identify the "best practices" X which deliver improved performance. The research questions that arise from this process are: determining what are the best practices or methods; and how these need to be operationalized in particular contexts to give optimum performance. Each stage presents considerable challenges. The starting point, though, is identifying and measuring performance and practice.

This view is embodied in a variety of movements within management thought; it is the principle that underlies benchmarking, and the logic which drives the quality movement in its frequent citation of Japanese approaches. "Japanese industrialists listened to Drs Deming and Juran and learned from their teaching. The result was that they captured markets all over the world"[21]. (See also [22]. The proclamation of any sort of managerial gospel (for example, lean production[23,24]) depends on this underlying logic.

The second paradigm (Figure 3) sees performance as being the consequence of both practice and environment; "good" or "bad" practices may make a firm more or less successful, but then so can particular environmental factors. In this idealized view, the two factors do not interact but independently combine to determine the organization's performance. The problem for empirical research is to try to trace a causal line backwards, to identify what element of performance is related to what element in practice.

An alternative is represented in Figure 4, which takes a more sanguine view of the scope for managerial choice. Here logistics systems arise from the environmental conditions; for example, Japanese supply systems have arisen because of particular geographic, social and economic conditions. These approaches arise from a given context through a process of industrial evolution, and less successful practices are steadily eliminated by a process of Darwinian natural selection. Here the research question focuses on understanding the dynamics of how practices fit with the environmental situation. In this view, understanding this fit is logically prior to speculating about the possibility or merits of lifting a practice from one situation and using it in another. For example, there are some fascinating aspects of the logistical and commercial arrangements for subcontracting in manufacturing, and some research (e.g. [25]) which has focused on the historical and economic questions which seek to explain practices rather than pick out "winning" methods and translate them for other domains. A good example of this approach is provided by transaction cost economics (TCE -- see [26,27]), which draws on the traditions of neoclassical economics to provide explanations of behaviour; the idea is normally that "performance" comes into play by forcing organizations to adopt cost-minimization strategies which in turn determine governance structures. Applications of TCE to logistics include the work of Aertsen[28] and Noorderhaven and Berger[29].

The delineation of these three alternatives is useful in that it shows that the process of empirical research is not straightforward. Swamidass[16] enthusiastically endorses empiricism as a way of breaking out of the traditional frameworks of research in operations management, but there are serious problems in the formulation of research questions. The three approaches outlined will each justify different types of research questions, and result in different types of knowledge. Even if the elements to be considered can be adequately defined and measured, the research is likely to be based on an often implicit and unarticulated relationship between these factors.

For logistics, these problems are particularly acute. This is first because (unlike many other fields within management) it has normally to address the issue of operational systems which span organizational boundaries. This makes the identification and measurement of practice and performance difficult. The "supply chain" perspective implies that an organization's success is due not only to its own internal practices, but also those of its suppliers and downstream customers. This means that the unit of analysis for considering practice is an inter-firm operation, where valid measures of success may be difficult to untangle. For example, a buyer and supplier may collaborate on a delivery/goods receiving innovation, with one party bearing the bulk of the immediate costs and the other reaping the immediate benefits. Working out the net benefit is complex. New[30] has argued elsewhere that much of the case material in the field of supply chain improvement tends to cloud the issue of who is benefiting and who is paying. Furthermore, whenever analysis spans the inter-firm boundary, researchers need to be cognizant that firms are often sensitive to revealing key data to their trading partners. Second, the "big picture", holistic interpretation of logistics -- in which the management of the supply chain is the focus -- presents a set of commercial and managerial issues which goes beyond the technical issues of material and information flow. If empirical work in this field is to be informed by this wider perspective, a key difficulty in empirical research is knowing what to leave out.

To summarize this argument, two key questions may be presented:

(1) To what extent is the field of logistics amenable to a relevant empiricism?

(2) What are the appropriate or viable causal paradigms for logistics research

The following section describes an unusual research project which is instructive in regard to these questions. In many respects it was successful, but careful analysis of the methodology reveals a number of significant problems.

A mixed-methodology investigation

This project was undertaken during the first half of 1994 as a collaboration between one of the present authors (New) at UMIST and a firm of management consultants, A.T. Kearney, in conjunction with the UK Institute of Logistics (IOL). The outcomes and results of the work have been summarized in a practitioner-oriented report (A.T. Kearney, 1994) and also New and Burnes[31]. Payne[32] presents a detailed critique of the methodology.

The work was stimulated by a desire by all participating parties to gather data on current practice in the UK and explore some ideas about supply chain "partners" working together. The concept of partnership has achieved the status of orthodoxy in many circles, and in the UK receives official endorsement from professional and government bodies. Through consulting experience and other work with industry, the researchers had some anecdotal evidence, however, that some of the widely quoted examples did not actually operate in as smooth a fashion as some of the organizations claimed. In particular, there was a suspicion that smaller firms could be being squeezed by larger firms despite the language of partnership.

It was, however, difficult to approach the research in a formal hypothesis-testing way. A major problem was picking terminology which conveyed the ideas with clarity. New[2] describes the confused state of labels in this area, and so the research used a number of terms -- "supply chain integration", "supply chain management" and "logistics" to convey the holistic view of organizations working together to achieve the flow of goods. Within these broad headings, the investigation was largely exploratory and considered a number of different subtopics. The research used two methods: a questionnaire and a series of expert panel meetings. These proved to be a useful complement to each other.

The questionnaire

A six-page questionnaire was designed jointly by New and A.T. Kearney, and this was distributed via the IOL professional magazine Logistics Focus. The first part of the questionnaire sought a description of the respondent firm (turnover, number of employees, industrial sector), and of the respondent (job title, number of direct subordinates). This was followed by an analysis of the position of firms within the supply chain, accomplished by presenting a schematic diagram and asking respondents to tick the boxes that corresponded to that firm's activities (see Figure 5). This was followed by a statement ("It is impossible to introduce new innovations in logistics without the co-operation of a few powerful firms") to which respondents were asked to rate their level of agreement. Those who agreed with this statement were then asked to identify the position of these powerful firms in the supply chain diagram.

Questions were also included which looked at the degree of competition in respondents' markets; the amount of choice they had for suppliers of their main purchased items; their dependency on main customers; and their own dominance of suppliers. This was followed by questions which examined main business strategies and the status of various initiatives (e.g. partnerships with customers and suppliers) in the respondent firms. The final two sections of the survey considered the respondents' degree of agreement (on a strongly disagree -- strongly agree scale) in regard to various statements about co-operation with customers and suppliers (e.g. "The firm uses the threat of withdrawing business to secure low prices from its suppliers" , and the effect of potential barriers and stimuli to effective co-operation.

Approximately 11,000 copies of the questionnaire were distributed, with 273 usable copies returned. This low response rate (2.5 per cent) may be explained by the length and complexity of the questionnaire and also by the fact that approximately 19 other separate pieces of literature (handbills, etc. were included in the pages of the magazine. Even though the magazine contained a brief article discussing the investigation, and an endorsement from the IOL director-general, it is likely that the vast main to of recipients did not even see the form, and that it and the rest of the enclosed material went from envelope to waste bin. Because of the means of distribution, it was impossible to chase up individual non-respondents, but subsequent editions of the magazine included general reminders. Informal investigation of non-respondents revealed that reasons for non-response included "too busy" or complete ignorance of the survey. Normally the danger of a low response rate is that it introduces a self-selection bias, but in this case it is important to remember that the mailing did not go to a neutral cross-section of managers or firms in general; the membership of the IOL is already biased to those individuals with an interest in supply chain issues and those firms in which supply chain issues have already achieved some profile. Therefore, the interpretation of the results of the survey requires some care; it cannot be argued that the exercise is based on a sample of "firms in general".

There is a possible argument, indeed, that a survey biased in this way may provide a better measure of industrial practice than one which did seek a balanced representation. As the subject matter was rather specialized, the response bias may have acted as a filter to keep out the uninformed. This may be particularly important in a field in which there is so much rhetoric and hyperbole; the managing director may believe that a firm is working effectively with suppliers, but the purchasing manager may know otherwise. There seems to be no simple way to overcome this problem.

The questionnaire data nevertheless provided some interesting insights which have been described elsewhere [31-33]. In particular, they revealed a fascinating divergence between the rhetoric and reality of partnerships with customers and suppliers, which we discuss briefly below. The advantages and disadvantages of the survey instrument are summarized in Table II.

[TABULAR DATA II OMITTED]

Two elements of the questionnaire are particularly worthy of note. These are:

(1) Who is the customer? Analysis of some of the responses suggests that for

some organizations (for example, third-party distribution firms) this is

not a simple question, particularly when taken in the context of the

supply chain model. In particular, the flow of goods may not correspond

to the flow of commercial relations; a distribution firm may take goods

from its customer and deliver them to somebody else. The diagram and

language used in the survey implies that the customer is downstream in

terms of material flow, and this is not always the case.

(2) The assumption of knowledge. Two questionnaires were returned from

the same organization by managers in different functional areas. These

showed some divergence in the answers to both the subjective and

objective aspects of the questionnaire. It is clear that it cannot be taken

for granted that a respondent's answers are true. This is an important

issue to which we return below.

The "expert" panel meetings

The second strand of the research was a series of seven panel meetings held across the UK (London, Coventry, Derby, Huddersfield and Newcastle). These involved a total of 51 managers in meetings which ranged from three to 13 (plus typically two or three researchers from UMIST and A.T. Kearney). Two of the meetings involved only firms in the automotive sector, and another was dominated by those from manufacturers or retailers of consumer goods; the rest represented a mixture. A wide range of industries was represented, including pharmaceuticals, distribution, aerospace and domestic appliances. The invitees were drawn from two main sources: personal contacts of the researchers (both A.T. Kearney and UMIST) who were known to be active in the supply chain management arena, and early respondents to the questionnaire who had expressed an interest in participation. A smaller number were people who had contacted UMIST after reading about the research in the trade press. All participants but one were middle managers or above, and many held senior posts.

The format of the meetings was a dinner party at a hotel. Pre-dinner drinks and the main meal were used to introduce the guests to one another and establish a rapport. Discussion of professional matters was not censored but was not encouraged either. With the arrival of the dessert, a consultant from A.T. Kearney gave a brief (approximately five minutes) presentation as the guests ate. This raised the issues of how firms worked together, and drew on some previous A.T. Kearney research in the USA and elsewhere. The "message" conveyed in the presentation was: "This is an interesting area but we don't fully understand what is going on". Three statements/questions were then put up on a flip chart. The wording varied slightly in each case, but focused on; is partnership about exploitation? Do customers talk value but act price? Is the only barrier to integration your own organizational structure? These were intended to stimulate debate and keep the discussion within the general subject area. It was at this point in each meeting that a video camera and tape recorders were switched on. The presence of these was explained at the beginning of the meal, and the invitees had been forewarned that the after-dinner discussion was to be recorded. Because of concerns about reliability of equipment and the risk of missing contributions, several audio tape recorders were used, and this meant the dinner table was strewn with leads and cables. Perversely, this appeared to make the invitees more relaxed about being recorded than would be the case if the arrangements had been more discreet; it could be that it removed any connotation of the sessions being covertly "bugged". Delegates were assured that confidentiality would be maintained, and the recordings would be destroyed once the (anonymized) analysis was complete. The video was used so that participants with similar voices could be identified from the audio recordings.

The UMIST and A.T. Kearney personnel at the discussion participated in a natural way, but generally intervened only to clarify points, raise issues from previous meetings and the questionnaire (of which about 40 per cent of the final number had been returned when the meetings began), and to keep the discussion on track. However, the discussions seemed to be self-sustaining and created a great deal of lively debate. It was common for a participant to make a general assertion (about, say, selecting suppliers) which would be met by a comment along the lines of "well, in our industry it is simply not like that". Typically, the after-dinner parts of the meetings lasted approximately one- and a-half hours, although in some cases much longer. Participants seemed to enjoy themselves and several wrote afterwards that they had found the sessions stimulating and informative.

These sessions were a rich source of insight and were very instructive; the researchers found them interesting and each meeting produced a modification or "filling out" of our collective understanding; particularly in terms of the notion of partnership[31,33]. However, there are also methodological problems with this approach which need to be acknowledged.

First, there is the question of the sample. Even more than with the questionnaire, the people who attended these meetings represented a biased sample. Furthermore, our efforts to engineer the attendance of the meetings to reflect particular industries were only partially successful. For one meeting, only three participants showed up, out of ten who had confirmed acceptance during the preceding week.

Second, there is the problem that in any group setting the participants will subliminally encourage one another to reinforce collective views[34]. Once a consensus emerges, it becomes progressively more difficult for a participant with divergent views to express them openly. There appears to be no way to correct this, other than by imposing a more formal structure to the group discussion, which in this case would probably be self-defeating.

A third problem is that of interpreting the data gathered in this way. There are fewer methodological "routines" which can be followed than in traditional operations management research (see above), and ultimately the selection of what is important remains subjective. In the work, we attempted to correct this by involving people not directly involved with the research (one an "expert" on supply chain issues, the other an economist with no background in the field) to go through some of the tapes and pick out significant comments. The technique of analysis centred on the repeated replaying of the tapes, incrementally building an impression of the vital themes. It turned out to be particularly useful to vary the sequence in which the tapes were played. In some ways, this was comparable with the repeated exploration of data espoused by the "grounded theory" approach of Glaser and Strauss[35], although we would not presume that the method guarantees objectivity.

A final problem is that although the results from the questionnaire informed the discussions at the meetings, and the analysis of the tapes informed the further analysis of the questionnaire data, it is debatable whether qualitative and quantitative results can ever be fully "triangulated" against one another[36]; a convincing argument can be made that the two approaches are fundamentally incommensurate. Unfortunately space does not allow a full discussion of this rather philosophical point here, although our experience suggests the approach is valuable.

Although the use of expert panels is well established in other areas of research, we believe the use of a series of such meetings in conjunction with a survey is novel in the field of logistics.

Discussion

A relevant empiricism?

The interplay of the survey and panel meetings allowed both sources of data to be used more effectively. The meetings filled in "texture" to the picture presented in the survey analysis, and pointed to avenues of interpretation which otherwise would have been missed.

In terms of "practice", both strands of research indicated the difficulty of interpreting the concept of partnership. In the questionnaires, firms provided a harsh picture of their customers, and even those who claimed downstream partnerships reported that customers were relatively unlikely to be involved in actually helping to reduce costs or inventory in the supply chain. In contrast, firms gave a much rosier picture of their disposition to their own suppliers. As the respondents included a good mix from a wide range of organizations and industries, it can be best explained in terms of the asymmetrical perceptions of commercial relationships. Furthermore, the research indicated that the difference in terms of actual actions between organizations with and without formal partnerships was relatively small on average, and swamped by wide divergence in both groups. These findings were supported and deepened by the panel meetings, which revealed that the issues of "power" -- and, perhaps more importantly, the expectation of the abuse of power -- were serious issues even when partnerships were in place. These findings clearly indicated that "partnership" as a construct was open to a wide range of interpretations and meanings. Even trying to decompose the idea into its constituent elements was an exercise dogged by semantics and conflicting perceptions. When managers talked about "working with suppliers to reduce costs", discussion showed this sometimes to mean "telling the suppliers to cut prices". The lesson emerged that descriptions of practice are not just problematic because firms' operations are different, but because managers' own descriptions of what they do cannot be taken at face value.

The issue of "performance" also proved to be problematic. The questionnaire asked for average measures of various logistics measures, including service levels, order cycles and inventory levels. These provided a useful guide to overall trends, but analysis suggested that interpretation of the figures was not straightforward. Again, the issue of semantics arose as an important factor, but even more serious was the fact that even averaged and aggregated data were not often available, even to the self-selected sample of specialists who participated in the research.

The "environment" was tackled in a simple way in the investigation, principally focusing on organizations' positions in the supply chain and their relative size and power relative to connected firms in the chain. Discussions at the panel meetings suggested that this was too focused an approach, and that for the questions under discussion the relevant "environment" should also include the climate of expectations and norms of commercial practice within different industries. It became clear that using some combination of "hard" variables as a predictive measure of practice was probably an impossible task; perceptions and traditions appeared to be at least as important.

Conclusions

The project described here sheds some light on the key questions raised earlier in this article. The most striking conclusion is that while logistics is a difficult area for relevant empirical research, progress may be possible if the range of methodologies employed expands to match the greater scope of the holistic interpretations of logistics. "Soft" data -- such as managers' expectations or fears concerning the behaviour of suppliers and customers -- is as important as data on stock turns or delivery patterns. This presents a considerable challenge to a predominantly technical field.

Second, the lessons learned from this particular investigation cast some doubt on the viability of naive causal connections between performance, practice and the environment. The two models described in Figures 2 and 3 -- embodied in the notion of "best practice" -- may be limited in their ability to generate relevant and applicable research. It may be that the third model -- which seeks to explore the more subtle relationship between the environment and practice -- may be a more useful approach. "Telling the story" may be a more productive research goal than trying to glean critical success factors.

The piece of research described here did not follow the traditional model-oriented research paradigm of logistics, nor a strict hypothesis-testing approach advocated by many as the correct basis of empirical work. It was, however, a flawed but honest attempt to try to understand the mechanisms and perceptions at work when organizations co-operate with suppliers and customers. In terms of methodology, there are several specific lessons which can be drawn:

* Getting reliable data about what actually happens in terms of practice and performance is much harder than simply asking. There is a real problem of whether the information provided to researchers by organizations is accurate, even if it is given anonymously and in good faith. Simple attempts to benchmark, for example, inventory behaviour may be undermined in that there may be no one in an organization who has the time to help, or has the data to hand. If informants are providing guessed data, this may be highly misleading. This is a salutary warning for those seeking to use secondary data in research. One way to overcome this problem is for information to be signed off by an appropriate manager. But organizations are unlikely to invest in this type of co-operation without the assurance of direct benefits.

* The most interesting questions are the most difficult. This work has reinforced the researchers' personal view that research is most intellectually rewarding when concerned with complicated, messy and ambiguous questions (for example, questions which relate to power and structure in the supply chain), rather than tightly defined puzzle-solving exercises of limited practical value.

* Useful and mutually rewarding research collaborations may be made with management consultants. Traditional sources of research funding in the UK would have been unlikely to find a project as exploratory as this. Furthermore, the academics involved in the work have found the consulting colleagues a source of interesting ideas. It is common in some academic circles to disparage consultants as being pedlars of platitudes; this has not been our experience, and there has been little conflict of direction in terms of maintaining the integrity of the research. On a practical note, the only difficulty the academic side experienced was that of meeting the tight timescales desired by the other party.

* The experience of the methodological problems of this work suggests that paradigm three (Figure 4) is both a feasible and valid approach for research in operations management. This is because the research has highlighted serious problems in getting a sufficiently reliable grasp on measures of performance or practice to sustain research in the other two paradigms. A more viable model may be the careful and detailed construction of explanatory stories which describe the behaviour in particular cases[37], although single cases are limited in generalizability. The use of combined survey and panel methodologies is a valuable way of extending the explanatory spirit of the case study approach to a wider range of organizations.

[Figures 1 to 5 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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Author:New, Stephen J.; Payne, Philip
Publication:International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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