On systems thinking in logistics management - A critical perspective
Abstract: Systems thinking. Systems theory. The systems approach. All these concepts have in various guises been claimed as central to logistics management, since its dawning in the mid twentieth century. Such claims are the starting point of this dissertation, the purpose of which is to contribute to an increased understanding of systems thinking in logistics management research, both present and for future advances. The primary unit of analysis in this dissertation is thus logistics management research.The purpose is pursued through a strategy of triangulation of research approaches, via two research objectives:To describe the nature of systems thinking in logistics management research.To explore the merits for logistics management research of an interpretive approach to actors’ systems thinking.The term systems thinking in this dissertation denotes any somewhat ‘organised’ bodies of thought with aspirations to be ‘holistic’ in the sense of aiming for comprehensiveness. This part relates mostly to the systems part of the term. With regard to the other part, systems thinking is also regarded as a term that encompasses thinking about, and in terms of, systems; either that of researchers or that of actors in logistics practices.Systems thinking can sometimes be theorised on in such a way that it seems fair to label it as systems theory. Another term that is also frequently employed is systems approach. This denotes any approach to intervene in and/or conduct research on enterprises, with a holistic ambition. Such approaches can or cannot be informed by systems theory. By approach is meant the fundamental assumptions of the effort, such as ontological and epistemological positions, views on human nature, and methodologies.This dissertation employs an approach informed by a strand of systems theory labelled Critical Systems Thinking (CST). This builds on a pluralist strategy, which entails an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of all types of systems approaches, and thus strives towards putting them to work under such circumstances in which they are best suited.The first objective is pursued by means of a combined inductive-deductive approach presented mainly through two peer-reviewed, published journal articles. The first is an extensive literature review of academic publications in logistics management; the second is a survey of logistics management academics. Results show that the systems thinking within the discipline most often is not informed by systems theory, and is oriented towards a narrow section of the available systems approaches. This is an approach that builds on an objective world-view (realist ontology), and which seeks knowledge in terms of different kinds of law-like regularities. There are variations to the kinds of knowledge that are sought, in the sense that some search for deeper, underlying generative mechanisms (structuralist epistemology), some seek causal relationships among observable phenomena (positivist epistemology). The common view on human nature is determinist, and methodologies are often quantitative. It is concluded that logistics management employs a functionalist systems approach, which implicitly assumes homogeneity in actors’ systems thinking in mutual contexts (i.e. shared logistics practices).The second objective is pursued by adopting an interpretive systems approach, thus embracing a nominalist ontology and interpretivist epistemology, in order to explore what benefits such a perspective can lend to logistics management. Informed by the pluralist commitment of CST, theoretical constructs and methods grounded in cognitive psychology are employed to study logistics management practitioners’ systems thinking through cognitive mapping. If this reveals heterogeneities in systems thinking among actors of a mutual context, in which a high degree of homogeneity can be expected, the rationale is that the dominant homogeneity assumption is insufficient. The study, presented through an unpublished working paper, concludes that actors’ systems thinking can differ in ways that render the assumptions of the functionalist systems approach inadequate. More thought, debate, and research on an interpretive systems approach within logistics management is called for.With constant expansions in the scope of ambition for logistics management in mind – towards larger enterprise systems in the spirit of supply chain management, towards more goals for enterprises than the traditional financial ones, and towards new application areas (e.g. healthcare) – it is recognised that more and more actors become stakeholders in the practices that logistics management research seeks to incorporate within its domain of normative ambitions. This leads to an expanding scope of voices that ought to be heard in order to legitimise efforts to improve logistics management practices. This in turn motivates that we should seek to accommodate not only interpretive systems approaches, but also emancipatory, in order to ensure normative prescriptions that are legitimate from the perspectives of as many stakeholders as possible, not only from the common a priori efficiency perspectives of functionalist logistics management research.
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