Moving Beyond the Systems Approach in SCM and Logistics Research

Fredrik Nilsson, Britta Gammelgaard

Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskriftTidsskriftartikelForskningpeer review


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to provide a paradigmatic reflection on theoretical approaches recently identified in logistics and supply chain management (SCM); namely complex adaptive systems and complexity thinking, and to compare it to the dominant approach in logistics and SCM research, namely the systems approach. By analyzing the basic assumptions of the three approaches, SCM and logistics researchers are guided in their choice of research approaches which increases their awareness of the consequences different approaches have on theory and practice.

Design/methodology/approach – The point of departure for the research presented is conceptualization based on literature reviews. Furthermore, years of observations, discussions and empirical studies of logistics operations and management have also influenced the design of this research.

Findings – With a discourse set in relation to the dominant approach in SCM and logistics research, the systems approach, it is concluded that the underlying assumptions of complex adaptive systems and complexity thinking are more appropriate than systems approach for contemporary challenges of organizational complexity in SCM and logistics. It is found that the two complexity-based approaches can advance SCM and logistics research and practice especially when focusing on innovation, learning and sense-making.

Research limitations/implications – Reflections of underlying assumptions when considering and selecting methodological approaches have implications for research results. This paper provides both a framework for and an analysis of such reflection which contributes to the further development of SCM and logistics research. Future research is needed to empirically provide insights on how complexity approaches can advance the area of SCM and logistics.

Practical implications – For logistics researchers and practitioners dealing with creativity, innovation, learning and sense-making and other human-related aspects, the complexity approaches, with underlying assumptions, presented will provide reflection, inspiration and guidance for further development.

Originality/value – This paper contributes to the further development of SCM and logistics research and practice by providing a reflective analysis and discussion of established and new research approaches with potential benefits for the SCM and logistics community.
TidsskriftInternational Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management
Udgave nummer8/9
Sider (fra-til)764-783
StatusUdgivet - 2012


  • Complexity theory
  • Basic assumptions
  • Paradigm
  • Logistics
  • Supply chain management
  • Systems approach,
  • Distribution management