Special issue: building theory in supply chain management through “systematic reviews” of the literature

Supply Chain Management

ISSN: 1359-8546

Article publication date: 2 September 2014



Wagner, R.W.a.B. (2014), "Special issue: building theory in supply chain management through “systematic reviews” of the literature", Supply Chain Management, Vol. 19 No. 5/6. https://doi.org/10.1108/SCM-08-2014-0275



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Special issue: building theory in supply chain management through “systematic reviews” of the literature

Article Type: Editorial From: Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Volume 19, Issue 5/6

Systematic review and the need for evidence

Systematic reviews of management literature have only become common over the past decade, and it can be argued that the purpose of such reviews is to aid evidence-based decision-making. Roots of the systematic review approach are to be found in medical and health care research where appraising and synthesising evidence presented in multiple studies has been critical in limiting bias. The recognition by Smith in the early 1990s in his publication in the British Medical Journal (Smith, 1991) that 15 per cent of medical interventions are supported by solid scientific evidence provided an interesting insight into the extent of the problem within medicine and the need for evidence-based practice. This and similar insights provided the impetus for systematic review to be utilised more fully within medical research.

When presenting such works, evidence is critical and to generate it, a robust auditable methodology needs to be applied. If done well, a researcher repeating the study should come to the same conclusions as the original researcher.

This contrasts with many narrative reviews that tell a story from literature. Such weaker reviews take elements from literature that supports the author’s thesis and ignore any which are not seen to fit. This can result in biased conclusions not repeatable by other researchers and un-auditable and subjective claims.

We launched the call for papers on this special issue after experiencing success in applying systematic reviews in a variety of contexts within our business schools. Initially research students starting doctorial studies who applied systematic reviews within some of our universities (e.g. Cranfield School of Management) found the approach rigorous and empowering. Evidence provided by such techniques clearly identified “gaps in the body of knowledge” and enabled students to quickly and effectively focus on their desired dissertation topic. Systematic review dissertations were also submitted as a part requirement for Master of Research (MRes) degrees leading to doctorial research. On master's programmes, a modified systematic approach was also applied by students undertaking research-based thesis within the university. This approach allowed students to rigorously review literature in a “scientific” way, and methodological steps in the systematic review methodology proved useful by enabling most students to “hit the ground running”. The rigour required by systematic reviews also increased the number of MSc thesis research projects developed into refereed academic papers.

The value of systematic reviews in supply chain management was also recognised by commercial organisations. As part of research interventions, it was found that companies were willing to “pay” for systematic reviews enabling a strong evidence-based foundation for commercial leadership.

What makes a good systematic review?

An important question often asked is “what makes a good systematic review?” As will be seen from papers presented in these issues, key components need to ensure that work is evidence-based and robust. A variety of different approaches can be applied and papers presented in these special issues have aimed to all follow a systematic and auditable methodology.

When introducing the review context and assessing its quality, it is useful to ask the following:

Has the researcher identified an appropriate focus and scope?

This is particularly important, as, firstly, a systematic review requires focusing on a specific, tightly defined area. Before the review can be undertaken, the researcher will often need to undertake a more traditional review to identify the specific area to focus on in detail.

When the methodology for the review is being implemented, further questions need to be asked including:

Is the review transparent, repeatable and auditable? Have the procedures for searching, selecting, appraisal, data extracting and synthesising been made explicit and are they logical and defendable? Have journal and publication quality criteria been identified and applied? Has material excluded and included in the review been fully justified? Are the inclusion and exclusion criteria clear and defendable? Does the reviewer clearly demonstrate what is, and what is not, in the field of study?

For sound results and analysis, the following additional questions need to address the descriptive and theoretical analysis elements of the review:

  • Does the reviewer provide a comprehensive field map by using a balanced set of characteristics? Has the reviewer provided a descriptive analysis (e.g. geographical, analytical, sector, chronological, etc.) within the body of literature? Is the review complete with no obvious omissions (key authors, concepts, references, journals commonly utilised, etc.)?

  • Has the reviewer identified and demonstrated an understanding of the main theoretical and methodological debates in the field? Has the reviewer provided a thematic and relational analysis of the body of literature? Does the review make identify potential research gaps and make recommendations for future investigation?

We have been overwhelmed by the response to our call and received a significant number of high-quality papers. It is hoped this special issue will become a benchmark for systematic reviews in the area of supply chain management and will encourage others to undertake such work by further developing theory in the subject area.

An overview of the special issue papers

Ten articles are summarised as follows:

Digging deeper into supply risk: a systematic literature review on price risks, by Fischi, Maria, Christine; Scherrer-Rathje, Maike; Friedli, Thomas. The aim of this article is to assess risks related to the purchase prices of raw materials, semi-finished goods and operating materials. The article presents an overview of price risks in manufacturing companies from an operations management perspective. Findings suggest that there is only limited attention devoted to management of price risk and this may result in supply risk and impact competitive advantage. Main implications for risk management frameworks are that contextual factors and performance measurement relating to risk management require further investigation and testing.

Decision theory in sustainable supply chain management: a literature review, by Alexander, Anthony; Walker, Helen; Naim, Mohamed. The aim of this article is to aid theory building in sustainable supply chain management. Decision theory directly relates to concepts and challenges within sustainable supply chain management research, such as culture, strategy, risk management and transparency. The article reinforces the requirement to seek empirical models that help bridge the two concepts of social and environmental sustainability.

Analysing supply chain integration through a systematic literature review: a normative perspective, by Kamal, Muhammad, M; Irani Zahir. This article seeks to identify factors that drive or inhibit supply chain integration. Eight themes have been drawn from the systematic review, and the main driving factors include, but are not limited to, facilitating information sharing, effective coordination and communication, improving product quality and supply chain agility, flexibility and visibility.

Perspectives on food traceability: a systematic literature review, by Ringsberg, Henrik. The aim of this article is to improve understanding of food traceability based on four supply chain risk management approaches identified by analysing definitions of food traceability. These are logistics management, information management, production management and quality management. Main findings of the article highlight a requirement for more interdisciplinary research and developing strong relationships in the supply chain to facilitate transparency and mitigate risk.

The role of demand management in achieving supply chain agility, by Gligor, David. This article sets out to understand structures and processes within an organisation that facilitate supply chain agility. Based on an integrative literature review, findings suggest that firms aspiring to supply chain flexibility must be supply chain-orientated and develop strategy objectives for competing through agile response. The importance of integrating supply and demand will enhance a firm’s supply chain agility.

Humanitarian supply chain performance management: a systematic literature review, by Abidi, Hella; de Leeuw, Sander; Klumpp, Matthais. The literature review has identified categories of performance measures in humanitarian supply chains. This is important, as it highlights reasons why performance measurement and management systems have failed to be widely developed. Thus the paper proposes guidelines and agenda for future research in this relatively unexplored area.

Theoretical perspectives on information sharing in supply chains: a systematic literature review and conceptual framework, by Kembro, Joakim, Hans; Selviaridis, Kostas; Näslund, Dag. Predominantly included are transaction cost economics, contingency theory, resource-based view, resource dependency and relational governance theories. The article suggests that these can be applied to analysing different aspects of information sharing in supply chains. The authors present a conceptual framework to assist companies in formulating their own information-sharing strategy.

Achieving supply chain resilience: the role of procurement, by Pereira, Carla Roberta; Christopher, Martin; De Silva; Andrea, Lago. This article highlights inter- and intra-organisational issues related to procurement that may improve supply chain resilience. Supplier flexibility has been identified as a key enabler to resilience, as it allows a company to be more responsive during critical times; strong relationships and supplier selection play and important roles here. By developing good relationships with suppliers, procurement managers should be able to make effective strategic decisions that cope with supply chain disruptions.

Towards a theory of multi-tier sustainable supply chains: a systematic literature review, by Tachizawa, Elcio.M; Wong, Chee Yew. This article presents a comprehensive framework to explore multi-tiered sustainable supply chains and a road map to assist future studies and managerial practice. A number of contingency variables are identified that may impact buyer–supplier relationships such as power, dependency and knowledge. Research propositions advance theory in multi-tier supply chain management and provide support for managers who wish to develop sustainable supply chains strategies.

Linking collaboration and integration to risk and performance in supply chains via a review of literature reviews, by Kache, Florian; Seuring Stefan. Collaboration, integration, risk and performance are critical to superior supply chain management, and in this article, the authors apply a content analysis linking these. Systematic review and statistical analysis highlight a strong correlation between information and rewards sharing that support collaboration/integration and risk/performance. An interesting finding is that supply chain risk management is a prerequisite of sound supply chain operations rather than a driver of performance. Findings from this article may serve as the basis for future research and development of supply chain knowledge.

Summary and future directions

The aim of this special issue was to invite articles relating to supply chain strategy, supply chain integration and supply chain risk focusing on drivers, developments and methods in these areas. Contributions currently refer to state-of-the-art literature reviews that propose future research directions that probe factors that help and hinder supply chain integration. As with the systematic review issues published in Volume 17, issues 5/6 of this journal, we are confident that these evidence-based analyses will provide researchers with areas of future research focus. The systematic reviews have also been useful to practitioners wanting to understand the current state of academic practice in specific areas enabling further impact within industry; academic efforts in the area of “supply chain” should ultimately benefit those in practice, creating value for society, the environment and the economy.

Richard Wilding and Beverly Wagner, Guest Editors


Smith, R. (1991), “Where is the wisdom: the poverty of medical evidence”, British Medical Journal, Vol. 303 No. 6806, pp. 798-799.

Further reading

Defee, C.C., Williams, B., Randall, W.S. and Thomas, R. (2010), “An inventory of theory in logistics and SCM research”, International Journal of Logistics Management, Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 404-489.

Harland, C., Lamming, R., Walker, H., Philips, W., Caldwell, N., Johnsen, T., Knight, L. and Zheng, J. (2006), “Supply management: is it discipline?”, International Journal of Operations and Production Management, Vol. 26 No. 7, pp. 730-753.

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