The importance of theory in logistics, supply chain and operations management and tips on the PhD research process.

This is a Centre for Operations and Supply Chain Research (COSCR) Seminar taking place at Leeds University Business School on Wednesday 24 January 2018

David B. Grant is a Professor of Logistics at Hull University Business School and Professor of Supply Chain Management and Social Responsibility at Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. Professor Grant will be presenting his research and PhD tips as part of the COSCR seminar series.


It has long been argued that dissemination through academic journals should be both rigorous, i.e. theory or evidence-based and properly executed, and relevant to those who might read and use the research. Over twenty years ago the late Tom Mentzer began publishing a series of papers about the need for research rigour, relevance and the proper use of appropriate theories and frameworks in the logistics, supply chain and operations management (LSCOM) domains. These papers stimulated other authors to also discuss issues pertaining to theory, methodology and methods. However, other than a few recent examples, less has been published about these issues for almost a decade while at the same time the academic landscape has significantly changed. Editors, reviewers and PhD examiners are looking for more theoretical underpinnings in, and contributions to, research in applied domains like LSCOM.

But what is theory? Properly using and building theory in research is how researchers provide explanation for various phenomena and define their value and usefulness to society. Researchers readily accept that if employees in manufacturing and service companies follow robust processes they can predictably produce outputs of quality and value. Thus, the same should hold true for researchers: if they follow a robust, reliable process they can produce and publish research that is of high value to academics and practitioners, i.e. it is relevant and has impact (Carlile and Christensen, 2004).

Swanson et al. (2017) found seven theories primarily used in logistics and by association all LSCOM research: the resource-based view (RBV) of the firm (17.8%), transaction cost economics (TCE) or transaction cost theory (11.8%) game theory (10.0%), contingency theory (8.3%), institutional theory (6.3%), and organization and agency theory (5.0% each). Thus, LSCOM researchers do not take full advantage of other theories to provide explanation. In contrast, Schmenner wondered whether theory was needed at all in operations management and posited that “good empirical work does not need to be based on theory” (Schmenner et al., 2009:341). This is a pragmatic and practitioner approach and the other four ‘co-authors’ provided a commentary either supporting or refuting Schmenner’s proposition. For example, Ketokivi noted that theoretical paradigms “help us make our scientific contributions explicit” and “help us demonstrate to our peers we have done something that complements, completes, or challenges extant research within the paradigm” (2009: 342).

This lack of theoretical diversity, depth, and application in LSCOM research might be due to ‘conceptual slack’, which is a divergence in analytical perspectives and methodological approaches and boundaries related to other disciplines (Halldórsson et al., 2015). Mentzer et al. (2004) argued that researchers have made little effort to build a unified theory in LSCOM. Finally, research in LSCOM as independent domains in business and operations has only been undertaken for around a century and compared to older and more established disciplines such as economics, mathematics, psychology, and sociology they do not have a rich heritage of theory development and empirical research (Swanson et al., 2017).

One editor of a major LSCOM journal noted to the presenter that a review of that journal over the last twenty years revealed theoretical considerations did not comprise a part of many papers during the first ten years. The editor reinforced the notion that theory is an important cornerstone of any research to provide rigour and will continue to be so in future. This seminar will reflect further upon what theory is generally and as regards applied domains such as LSCOM, why academics in these domains should use theory, and how they might do so. These notions will be illustrated by examples from the presenter’s own research over the past decade.

In addition, the presenter will briefly provide some tips for PhD students on the PhD process from his almost twenty years experience supervising 26 PhD students (15 to completion) and examining 22 others.



Carlile, P.R. and Christensen, C.M. (2004). The cycles of theory building in management research. Working Paper 05-057, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.

Halldórsson, Á., Hsuan, J. and Kotzab, H. (2015). Complementary theories to supply chain management revisited – from borrowing theories to theorizing. Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Vol. 20 No. 6, pp. 574-586.

Mentzer, J.T., Min, S. and Bobbitt, L.M. (2004). Toward a unified theory of logistics. International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, Vol. 34 No. 8, pp. 606-627.

Schmenner, R.W., Van Wassenhove, L., Ketokivi, M., Heyl, J. and Lusch, R.F. (2009). Too much theory, not enough understanding. Journal of Operations Management, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 339-343.

Swanson, D. Goel, L. Francisco, K. and Stock, J.R. (2017). Applying theories from other disciplines to logistics and supply chain management: A systematic literature review. Transportation Journal, Vol. 56 No. 3, pp. 299-356.


For further information, please contact Gary Graham at

About the speaker

Professor David B. Grant

David B. Grant is Professor of Logistics, Hull University Business School, UK and Professor of Supply Chain Management & Social Responsibility, Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. He received his PhD from Edinburgh University in 2003 and his thesis investigated customer service, satisfaction and service quality in UK food processing logistics, winning the James Cooper Memorial Cup PhD Award from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK). David’s prior academic appointments include the University of Calgary in Canada and Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt Universities in Scotland, and his senior administrative appointments at Hull included Directorship of the Logistics Institute and Associate Dean (Business Engagement) from 2009 to 2014.

David’s research interests include customer service and satisfaction, services marketing and service quality, retail logistics, reverse and sustainable logistics, and methodologies in logistics and supply chain management. His business experience includes retail, corporate banking, technical design, seminar facilitation, and consulting and recent applied research has investigated retail store on-shelf availability and out-of-stocks, total loss and waste in food retailing, forecasting and obsolete inventory, fashion logistics, service quality of internet retailers, and consumer logistics and shopping convenience.

David has over 220 publications in various refereed journals, books, chapters and conference proceedings and is on the editorial board of many international journals. He is a member of the UK Logistics Research Network (LRN), the French Association Internationale pour la Recherche en Logistique (AIRL), the Nordic Nordisk Forskning i Material Administration (NOFOMA), and the British Retail Consortium’s Storage and Distribution Technical Advisory Committee. David is also a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA).