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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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Systematic review and the need for evidence
Article Type: Guest editorial From: Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Volume 17, Issue 5
About the authors
Professor Richard WildingBSc, PhD, CEng, Eur Ing, FIET, FCILT, is Chair (Full Professor) in Supply Chain Strategy at the Centre for Logistics and Supply Chain Management, Cranfield School of Management UK. Richard works with European and international companies on logistics and supply chain projects in all sectors, including pharmaceutical, retail, automotive, high technology, food drink and professional services to name a few. He is a champion for encouraging evidence based decision making within industry and is an advocate for ensuring academic knowledge can create action and impact within the organisations he works with. His work with industry has been recognised at the “European Supply Chain Excellence Awards 2010” where he won the “Individual Contribution Award”. At the “European Supply Chain Distinction Awards 2008”, he received the “Distinguished Service Award for Thought Leadership and Service to Supply Chain Management”. Richard’s special areas of interest include the creation of collaborative business environments, reducing supply chain vulnerability and risk, time compression and techniques for aligning supply chains to maximise customer value and reduce cost. Richard Wilding can be contacted at: Richard.Wilding@cranfield.ac.uk
Dr Beverly WagnerEditor of Supply Chain Management: An International Journal. Broadly, her interest lies in the area of buyer/supplier relations which includes inter-organisational cooperation, supply chain management, network organisations and innovation in SMEs. She has been involved in research into formation and implementation of partnering and business alliances in the drinks and packaging sector, also in the microelectronics and oil and gas industries. Over time, the focus of her research has changed from investigating supplier and retailers relations, to the use of social network techniques so as to understand complex inter-organisation relationships. Her current area of study is to try and better understand how companies implement sustainable business models. Beverly Wagner can be contacted at: email@example.com
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 practise. 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 in order 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 Masters 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 (for example, 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. Our original intention was to publish one special issue but, with the support of the publishers, we have been able to produce a special issue in two parts, with the inclusion of additional 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 special issue part 2
Part 2 includes the following articles:
“Sustainable purchasing and supply management: a structured literature review of definitions and measures at the dyad, chain and network levels”, Miemczyk et al. This article reviews the concept of sustainability from a purchasing perspective and considers levels of inter-organisational analysis including; the dyad, chain and network levels; which concludes that research to date does not sufficiently consider the extended network. The review focuses on definitions and measures of sustainable purchasing and supply management. Additionally, analysis establishes that most sustainable purchasing research to date is focused on environmental aspects of sustainability and less so on social aspects. Research at the supply chain level, tends to focus on green or environmental issues, as opposed to the few examining social issues. The authors provide a definition of sustainable purchasing and supply and set out a research agenda that includes analysing sourcing risks in the wider networks; developing measures to explore and test sustainability across supply chains; identifying stakeholders in the purchasing and supply process; issues related to sustainability and new product development and encouraging research in social sustainability.
“Making connections: a review of supply chain management and sustainability literature”, Ashby et al. Similar to Miemczyk et al. (this issue) the article suggests that the environmental factors relating to sustainability are significantly better represented in literature than social dimensions. Indeed the authors suggest that research to date treats these as separate and offers only limited insight into their integration in current supply chain and sustainability research. With regards to environmental dimensions, the review recognises that firms have made considerable progress in the issue of environmental sustainability and it points to the limited research as to how supply chain relationships can be harnessed to achieve sustainability. The authors acknowledge the challenge for researchers in developing appropriate methods and tools that can capture an evolving field of sustainable supply chain management. The review highlights key themes and issues for supply chain managers and illustrates a number of areas for future research. These include understanding sourcing risks in the wider network, developing appropriate measures to verify sustainable adoption across supply chain tiers, new product development and social sustainability.
“Themes and challenges in making supply chains environmentally sustainable”, Abbasi, M. and Nilsson, F. The aim of this article is to explore themes and challenges in implementing environmentally sustainable supply chains in relation to logistics and transport. Propositions suggested include investigating green supply chain management, also the systematic analysis reveals five major themes within the literature: management issues; green activities, policies and strategies; reverse logistics; sustainable supply chains; and transport fuel and energy emissions. Specific challenges that emerged as a result of the synthesis of these five categories relate to costs of implementation, complexity, operationalisation, mind set and culture. Literature review established that sustainability is considered separate from supply chain management and the authors argue that this subject should be integrated into supply chain management and not treated as a concept or theory in its own. Equally, environmental and social issues should be evaluated by supply chain management in the same way as revenue and costs. The authors conclude that there is a need for models and frameworks that take holistic perspectives in order to address the complex implementation of sustainable supply chain practices.
“Extending sustainability to suppliers: a systematic literature review”, Gimenez, C. and Tachizawa, E. The aim of this review is to evaluate the governance structures used to extend sustainability to suppliers. The paper highlights that supplier assessment and collaboration are effective in improving sustainability. The main contribution of this article is as an integrated framework that considers governance mechanisms in greening suppliers, that impacts on sustainable performance and enables these approaches. It also identifies that most studies are specific to buyer-supplier dyadic relationships. The main conclusion of the article however is with regards to governance mechanisms and it says that both supplier assessment and collaboration with suppliers have a positive impact on environmental performance and corporate social responsibility so that firms’ need to adopt both practises in order to improve sustainability. Activities identified include senior management commitment, as well as trust and clarity of objectives. The main managerial implication is that companies must allocate resources and management support, develop supply management capabilities and adopt appropriate performance measurement systems, in order to promote sustainability in the supply network.
“Conducting content-analysis based literature reviews in supply chain management”, Seuring, S. and Gold, S. This article reinforces the significance of literature reviews within the research process and the usefulness of content analysis as an analytical tool. The authors applied content analysis to 22 literature reviews between 2000 and 2009 and in so doing identified guidelines for conducting a transparent and rigorous content analysis. The authors suggest that literature reviews in the field of supply chain management are less rigorous than other empirical research, often omitting detailed descriptions of data gathering and quality criteria such as reliability and validity. They call for more stringent and systematic procedures that encourage replicable and traceable arguments and suggest that this is possible only when the research question and purpose in mind is clear. Furthermore, a pre-defined process and structure, such as content analysis should guide the researcher through the literature review process. Findings and methodological discussion in this article provide practical guidance for SCM researchers on how to use content analysis when conducting literature reviews.
“Agency theory and supply chain management: a structured literature review”. Fayezi et al. The aim of this review is to help explain how Agency Theory can be used to inform supply chain behaviour especially regarding managing risk and incentive alignment. It has been suggested that Agency Theory may provide a mechanism to describe how players within the supply chain respond to transaction cost dilemmas involving rational and non-rational behaviour. This is relevant because maintaining inter, and intra, organisational relationships involves identifying supplier and customer costs and benefits. Findings of this structured literature suggest that application of agency theory provides a useful basis for understanding a diverse range of activities within supply chain management and can help establish longer-term business relationships. From a managerial point-of-view, it is clear that Agency Theory is a useful tool to identify and improve relationship portfolios that mitigate behavioural uncertainty in the supply chain. From a theoretical perspective, agency theory appears to support managerial decision-making and strategy formulation. At the same time, the systematic review highlights the need for further research to address existing gaps in the literature that have been drawn to our attention.
Conclusion – part 2
Part 2 of the special issue is dominated by reviews addressing different aspects of sustainability within logistics and supply chain management. We received a considerable number of papers focussed on this particular subject which would seem to indicate that currently there is a great deal of research being undertaken globally and is very much on the topical agenda for many organisations.
A number of key themes are developed one being the interpretation of sustainability within literature. The majority of literature focuses on environmental sustainability, ignoring the other two dimensions of sustainability namely sustainable society and economic sustainability. All authors identify this theme (Miemczyk et al., Ashby et al. and Abbasi and Nilsson). Gimenez and Tachizawa develop the theme outlined by Pilbeam et al. (see part 1 on the importance of governance and collaboration. Finally, Seuring and Gold provide us with excellent insights into the use of literature reviews within supply chain management. A systematic review of reviews! These findings provide the reader with further insights into how to design and undertake robust reviews in the subject area.
We hope that readers of these articles will gain novel insights, from the perspective of methodology and themes. A key theme that cannot be ignored is the systematic evidence-based approach utilised by the papers in this issue. For those new to this approach, it is hoped that lessons can be learned and research and theory development further improved from the application of these principles in the area of logistics and supply chain management. Finally, the reviews in both issues indicate that more “traditional” areas of supply chain research remain relevant and appropriate including, but not limited to, supplier evaluation, governance, buyer-supplier relationships, performance measurement and risk management.
Professor Dr Richard Wilding and, Dr Beverly WagnerGuest Editors
Smith, R. (1991), “Where is the wisdom: the poverty of medical evidence”, British Medical Journal, Vol. 303 No. 6806, pp. 798–9