Striving for appropriate forms of relevance through problem-driven research

Christian Busse (Department of Management, Technology, and Economics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland)

International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management

ISSN: 0960-0035

Article publication date: 3 November 2014



Busse, C. (2014), "Striving for appropriate forms of relevance through problem-driven research", International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Vol. 44 No. 10.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Striving for appropriate forms of relevance through problem-driven research

Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Volume 44, Issue 10

One of the things that I like most about IJPDLM is that many of the articles published in the journal are particularly relevant. This emphasis on relevance is the product of a deliberate positioning of the journal by the editorial team as evidenced by the stream of recent editorials highlighted in Table I. This editorial builds on my colleagues’ thoughts about relevance. The aim is to consider in more depth, what relevance actually entails, and how choosing the right form of relevance may help academic researchers to achieve higher levels of relevance and better practical implications.

Table I Common view on relevance amongst IJPDLM senior associate editors

Forms and components of relevance

The need for relevance is a consistent and pervasive theme in academic research. Yet, in the quest for relevance, managerial implications sections are often rife with overgeneralizations, as well as overly prescriptive recommendations that cannot, and therefore should not, be assumed based on the reported study findings. In other words, authors feel compelled to depict strong managerial implications – everyone expects this – but often don’t really know how to conclude them and are therefore prone to making unwarranted contentions. Contentions that cannot be inferred from reported study findings are not relevant (Mollenkopf, 2014, Vol. 44 No. 3). Rather, such unjustified extrapolations can be misleading and incorrect. Better understanding the different forms of relevance, and ensuring an appropriate fit between type of relevance and actual research findings may help authors to more effectively highlight the actual significance of their research findings by crafting more authentically relevant managerial implications.

The academic relevance debate circles around the connection between scientific results published in the form of journal articles and the need to inform management practice. For example, Thomas and Tymon (1982) use the term “practical relevance” synonymously with the “usefulness” of the research results to managers. Nicolai and Seidl (2010, p. 1263) further characterize the concept as “any kind of knowledge […] that […] makes some kind of difference to decision making” for managers. Drawing on these descriptions, various components of relevance can contribute to the formation and execution of appropriately relevant research.

According to Thomas and Tymon (1982), goal relevance, operational validity, non-obviousness, timeliness, and descriptive relevance are components of a relevance ideal that corresponds directly to practitioner needs. Considering these components in the research design phase and during the writing of a managerial implications section can greatly increase the relevance of a manuscript.

Goal relevance is the correspondence between dependent variables and outcomes that practitioners wish to influence, such as performance. The more applied research topics are, the more likely they feature this criterion, whereas an orientation toward fundamental research may decrease goal relevance (Thomas and Tymon, 1982). Operational validity denotes the ability of managers to take instrumental action based on the implications of an empirical study and through appropriate manipulation of independent variables. Hence, operational validity is influenced by the choice of independent variables as well as by their operationalization. If practitioners are unable to make sense of the studied variables due to the utilization of overly complex academic language, then operational validity is jeopardized. Non-obviousness relates to the degree that research results extend beyond practitioners’ common sense. As is often still the case today, at the time Thomas and Tymon (1982) wrote their article, much of the extant academic research reported rather obvious results. Their literature review suggests that this problem may be partly related to an overemphasis on deductively oriented research methods, as well as to an oversimplification of research contexts in pursuit of high levels of abstraction. Timeliness refers to making scientific insights available to practitioners when they need them the most. Timeliness can be difficult to adhere to due to inherently different time horizons of practitioners (short) and scholars (long). Finally, descriptive relevance is the applicability of research findings within practitioners’ organizational settings. For example, descriptive relevance is absent if an experiment is conducted with students that lacks empirical realism to such an extent that the causal relationships between independent and dependent variables in the experiment fail to adequately represent the ones in practitioners’ organizational contexts. In summary, the five components of the relevance ideal depicted in Thomas and Tymon’s (1982) research assume direct transferability of research results into corporate action.

Three decades later, Nicolai and Seidl (2010) draw on the sociology of science literature to broaden the horizon by differentiating between various forms of relevance. The research study reviews the managerial implications sections of 450 articles published in leading academic business journals (Management Science, Journal of Marketing, and Strategic Management Journal) to assess which forms of relevance appear and how often. Two forms of relevance are most frequently employed in the managerial implications section: instrumental and conceptual relevance. Instrumental relevance exists when scientific results inform managerial decision making about the selection of decision-making alternatives while conceptual relevance facilitates practitioners’ understandings of the decision situations they are facing. This distinction facilitates the writing of managerial implications sections substantially.

Nicolai and Seidl’s (2010) investigation also highlights two sub-categories of instrumental relevance that are frequently employed: technological rules or recipes and schemes. Technological rules or recipes directly guide the process of choosing a decision-making alternative, following an overall pattern such as “to achieve Y given contextual condition Z, perform (something akin to) X.” Almost 40 percent of the articles reviewed express their managerial implications in this manner. In contrast, schemes provide systematics that help to structure decision situations by defining the courses of action that are available without predetermining any specific one. This form of relevance is observed in about 9 percent of the articles reviewed. With regards to conceptual relevance, multiple sub-categories were theoretically distinguished. However, the uncovering causal relationships category is the only one that is observed frequently (in about 49 percent of the reviewed articles). This form of conceptual relevance identifies and explores causal relationships about which practitioners may previously have been unaware.

The distinction between the most important forms and sub-categories of managerial relevance can help scholars to shape their managerial implications sections such that they state all the implications which can be inferred, but refrain from overgeneralizing across different contexts, and overreaching by providing false prescriptive recommendations. Differences between contexts also matter to practitioners and should not be ignored. Thus, Christensen and Raynor (2003) argue that it is often just as relevant to managers to understand the circumstances where a theory or best practice does not work. Relatedly, Nicolai and Seidl (2010) caution authors that technological rules or recipes frequently ignore important contextual differences. Unfortunately, however, overgeneralizing is a very common problem that can frequently be observed in manuscripts.

An example of overgeneralizing would be the following: consider a research study conducted in the automotive industry with original equipment manufacturers and their highly reliable preferred suppliers. The study investigates the effects of just-in-time supply on overall inventory levels in the supply chain, finding that inventory decreases. Clearly, managers cannot possibly conclude from this study that to obtain lower levels of inventory, all firms should implement just-in-time supply. Such a claim would be tantamount to overgeneralizing, because only one context was investigated. An example of overreaching would be a follow-up study that tests the validity of the findings across contexts, leading to the managerial implication that firms operating in contexts that actually feature the inventory-decreasing effects should implement just-in-time supply. Again, there is a problem inherent to these prescriptive instrumental implications, which is that they overreach. Implicitly, assumptions are made about various unobserved variables that also matter to the firm’s decision making. Both the overgeneralizing and the overreaching problem can frequently be observed in managerial implications sections. These sections are often full of “promises of a better world,” thereby becoming overly prescriptive. Such problems jeopardize the validity and thus the rigor of a study severely even if the research is otherwise conducted thoroughly. Thus, trivial as it may sound, a good managerial implications section chooses only the form of relevance that can be supported by the study findings and does not make any claims that cannot be concluded.

Relevance for whom?

Thus far, attention has been directed to managerial implications as the dominant form of practical implications. However, following Davis’ (2014, Vol. 44 No. 5, p. 351) advice to always answer the “who cares” question, we should remind ourselves that our research can (or rather: should) inform other audiences in addition to practicing managers. In accordance with Johnson’s (2013, Vol. 43 No. 8) observation that many of us work for publicly funded universities where our stakeholders are taxpayers and society at large, McKinnon (2013, Vol. 43 No. 1) points out that social or policy-related implications are other forms of practical, yet non-managerial, implications. In fact, IJPDLM’s structured abstract template even contains a field called “social implications” that is hardly ever used (although the first paper in this issue represents a noteworthy exception).

There are also many occasions where practical relevance exists only indirectly at a meta-level. For example, consider Winter and Knemeyer’s (2013, Vol. 43 No. 1) research study that is the recipient of IJPDLM’s Best Paper for 2013: “Exploring the integration of sustainability and supply chain management: current state and opportunities for future inquiry.” The paper identifies an agenda for future research on sustainable supply chain management. While the agenda identified is not directly relevant for practice, it augments relevance indirectly by stimulating relevant future research. Similarly, IJPDLM’s Best Paper in 2012, authored by da Mota Pedrosa et al. (2012, Vol. 42 No. 3): “Logistics case study based research: toward higher quality” shares ideas for making future research more rigorous, thereby indirectly strengthening the validity and relevance of future managerial implications. These examples underline the point that, in the quest for relevance, every paper need not contribute to managerial relevance in a direct and explicit manner.

Achieving relevance

Ample consensus exists that relevance and rigor are both necessary characteristics of theoretically sound research (Davis, 2014, Vol. 44 No. 5; Mollenkopf, 2014, Vol. 44 No. 3). Yet which should come first? Prior considerations suggest that this question is not a hen-and-egg-type problem. Rather, adding relevance as an afterthought to the managerial implications section of a paper does often not work out too well. Moreover, choosing topics based on the ability to conduct rigorous research may create a bias toward “publishable” topics which are de-limitable, low-in-complexity, and easily observable, thereby not choosing the truly difficult, complex, and messy problems that may be most relevant (Alvesson and Sandberg, 2013). In light of the above, an alternative approach for choosing research topics would be to begin with relevance, in conformance with Johnson’s (2013, Vol. 43 No. 8) advice depicted in Table I. The overall point behind this editorial is to facilitate this orientation toward relevance by fostering awareness for the various forms of relevance that can be achieved, and for their respective features and prerequisites. More specifically, a problem orientation that has its origin in the real world looks more promising for achieving relevance than an orientation toward gaps in the literature (Alvesson and Sandberg, 2013). Drawing on the distinction between the most important forms of variance, as well as on the juxtaposition of addressees of practical implications, the scheme depicted in Figure 1 suggests four variants of this problem-driven approach. Hopefully, this scheme can stimulate academic researchers’ relevance-related thinking.

Figure 1 Scheme of possible variants of practical relevance

First, scholars can aspire to classical instrumental relevance for managers (i.e. technological rules or recipes and schemes) by tackling apparent problems that are unresolved in management practice (bottom-left quadrant). Yet, not all management problems are immediately obvious. Some may only be hinted at through perplexities or even paradoxes that the researcher notices and subsequently studies. Thus, another variant of problem-driven research seeks to identify and explore novel problems. Such an approach would be more likely to uncover previously undetected causal relationships (i.e. to conceptual managerial relevance, bottom-right quadrant). Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, managers are not academic researchers’ only stakeholders. Society at large can also be informed by our research – and should probably be informed more often. Applying the instrumental vs conceptual distinction to society as the addressee of our research, we can differentiate between policy implications as research implications that (more or less directly) facilitate policymaking (upper-left quadrant) and social implications that trigger public debates on topics that are important to our societies (upper-right quadrant). For example, the relevance of sustainable supply chain management is not restricted to managerial relevance but is also very relevant to society in general. Research that investigates why, how, and how strongly stakeholder pressures translate into corporate action is primarily directed at identifying social implications and only secondarily at managerial implications. At present, research studies in the field of strategic supply chain management/logistics that focus on articulating social or public policy implications are relatively rare. Yet, from the perspective of this editorial, that is a pity as we miss out on opportunities to create and disseminate a different, but nevertheless very important, aspect of relevance.

Manuscripts in this issue

The latest IJPDLM issue features four manuscripts that relate to emerging hot topics and partly fill long-lasting gaps in the literature. Several of these papers address multidisciplinary topics while others are executed using comprehensive multi-method research designs. All four papers are relevant and rigorous studies that IJPDLM constituents will hopefully benefit from reading.

The first paper, entitled “Modal shift for greener logistics-exploring the role of the contract,” authored by Eng-Larsson and Norrman, addresses green logistics – one of the most pressing issues in current strategic logistics and SCM research. Policymakers’ interest in creating a modal shift from road to intermodal road-rail transportation has considerable societal implications. To assess this issue, a multi-method design comprised of two case studies and quantitative modeling is utilized to evaluate the influence on desired modal shift of typical contract structures offered by railroad operators to forwarding logistics service providers. Three types of contracts are compared: one where the capacity risk resides with the operator, another where the logistics service provider carries the risk, and a third where the risk is shared. The research finds that the risk-sharing option creates a financial incentive structure that leads to a stronger modal shift, thereby decreasing the overall environmental burden. Moreover, with this type of contract, each party can operate closer to the comfort zone reflected in its business model. The paper is particularly noteworthy in its implications for policymakers. The authors advise policymakers to re-consider the fees that railroad operators have to pay for using the infrastructure, and caution policymakers not to request customer orientation from operators, but rather to foster cooperation between the operators and logistics service providers.

The second paper, entitled “Logistics principles vs legal principles: frictions and challenges,” analyzes the interface between logistics and the legal system. Editorials and keynote speeches frequently call for multidisciplinary research, yet relatively few papers that address multidisciplinary topics are published in academic journals. In an inherently boundary-spanning discipline such as logistics, this is particularly bothersome. Norrman and Henkow’s paper represents a noteworthy exception, extending a fledgling stream of research on the logistics-legal interface that IJPDLM takes pride in having fostered over the last few years (Henkow and Norrman, 2011, Vol. 41 No. 9; Olander and Norrman, 2012, Vol. 42 No. 7). The authors investigate respective action and underlying abstract belief systems to explore and illustrate extant challenges and frictions that exist between logisticians and legal professionals. For example, belief system challenges stem from different perspectives on desirable speed of change (conservative vs innovative), state of relationships (disputes vs cooperation), main system to act within (national vs global), and perspective on organization (firm vs process). This paper therefore extends current understanding of the logistics-legal interface to better facilitate effective interaction across these important and somewhat interdependent functional areas.

The third paper, entitled “Strategic sourcing management’s mindset: strategic sourcing orientation and its implications,” utilizes a mixed-method approach to examine the consequences of embracing strategic sourcing orientation as a strategic management philosophy. Strategic orientations have been posited for supply chain management (e.g. “supply chain orientation”) and marketing (e.g. “market orientation”). Yet although the sourcing function has become increasingly strategic over the last 30 years, the strategic sourcing mindset has not received the same attention. Based on a series of focus groups with senior procurement managers, Eltantawy, Giunipero, and Handfield develop a conceptualization of strategic sourcing orientation that draws on the resource-based view and service-dominant logic. The authors test a model that proposes strategic sourcing orientation translates into reputation, influences supplier management, and ultimately impacts performance. Consistent with expectations, the findings reveal that strategic sourcing orientation acts as an enabler for strategic sourcing processes and subsequent performance improvement.

The fourth manuscript in this issue, entitled “Inventory record inaccuracy in supply chains: the role of workers’ behavior,” complements the increasingly important dialogue on behavioral issues in logistics and SCM by investigating the influence of workers’ stress caused by workload pressure, on inventory record inaccuracy. Behavioral factors such as attitudes, perceptions, or stress can cause bounded rationality and thereby exert substantial influence on supply chain operations. However, prior research has mostly tackled behavioral influences on managerial decision making. Accordingly, Bruccoleri, Cannella, and La Porta’s study increases managerial awareness of entry level supply chain personnel psychological stability and sensitivity to stress by focussing on the cognitive psychology of workers, as opposed to managerial decision makers.


The author would like to thank IJPDLM’s Editor-in-Chief, Professor Alexander E. Ellinger, for his immensely valuable suggestions that made this editorial more relevant to research practice. The author also owes a big thanks to Andrew P. Kach, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, for his constructive feedback.


Alvesson, M. and Sandberg, J. (2013), “Has management studies lost its way? Ideas for more imaginative and innovative research”, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 50 No. 1, pp. 128-152

Christensen, C.M. and Raynor, M.E. (2003), “Why hard-nosed executives should care about management theory”, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 81 No. 9, pp. 66-75

Nicolai, A. and Seidl, D. (2010), “That’s relevant! different forms of practical relevance in management science”, Organization Studies, Vol. 31 Nos 9/10, pp. 1257-1285

Thomas, K.W. and Tymon, W.G.J. (1982), “Necessary properties of relevant research: lessons from recent criticisms of the organizational sciences”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 345-352

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