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Assessing the Rigor of Case Study Research in Supply Chain Management

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Assessing the Rigor of Case Study Research in Supply Chain Management
  Research paper Assessing the rigor of case study research insupply chain management Stefan A. Seuring  Department of International Management, University of Kassel, Witzen Hausen, Germany Abstract Purpose  – This paper aims to assess the current practice in research on supply chain management applying a case study method. Two particularresearch fields, namely sustainable supply chain management (SustSCM) and performance supply chain management (PerformSCM), are used asexamples. Design/methodology/approach  – The paper is based on a content analysis, where quality criteria for documenting case study research are analyzed.A total of 68 papers from the two research fields (51 SustSCM and 17 PerformSCM) forms the sample. The criteria of analysis chosen are taken from thecase study research process. Findings  – There are two major findings: first, supply chain researchers have to make a greater effort to collect data from supply chains (i.e. at leasttwo, or better, three or more stages of the supply chains). Second, the research process needs to be more comprehensively documented in related peer-reviewed journal publications. This way, the value of case study based research might be appreciated more, as well enabling stronger conclusions to bedrawn on the individual piece of research. Research limitations/implications  – The research presented focuses on two particular fields inside SCM. However, the observations made thatmethodological rigor is often lacking in the papers holds for both fields. Originality/value  – The paper contributes to the further development of appropriate empirical research strategies for supply chain management. Keywords  Supply chain management, Economic sustainability, Performance management, Case studies, Research method Paper type  Research paper 1. Introduction While supply chain management has received much attention,few examples can be found where “real” supply chainscapturing at least three stages are described and analyzed inempirical research. The term “stage” is used here to comprisefocal companies as well as  n -tiers of suppliers and/or  n -tiers of customers (see the term used in the same meaning, by, forexample, Catalan and Kotzab, 2003; Narayanaswamy  et al. ,2003). Taking a brief look at different research strategies (Yin,2003, p. 5), case studies can be comprehended as aparticularly useful approach for assessing “real world”examples (McCutcheon and Meredith, 1993). Case studiesallow direct observation of the field, which would beparticularly suitable for approaching several stages of asupply chain. Case study research has often been criticized forits lack of rigor (Ellram, 1996). Still, if the research process iscarried out in a structured way and is well documented thencase study research will continue to allow the in-depthanalysis of contemporary phenomena. For ensuring rigor,quality criteria have been put forward which should beobeyed. These comprise, for example, case selection, datacollection, validity and reliability. Taking up this researchprocess and related quality criteria should enable “useful”case study research in supply chain management.The importance of case based research has been highlightedby a number of authors for operations (McCutcheon andMeredith, 1993; Stuart  et al. , 2002; Voss  et al. , 2002) andlogistics management (Ellram, 1996) and supply chainmanagement (Hilmola  et al. , 2005, Seuring, 2005) in recentyears. In line with the general methods of case study research(Yin, 2003) and its outline for management related research(e.g. Eisenhardt, 1989) the process of case study research isdiscussed. This process has to be conducted in a structuredway to ensure rigor and quality of the research. Looking atcase study publications, a frequent observation is that theresearch process is only described as a minor issue, if it ismentioned at all.The aim of the paper is to analyze to what degree case studyresearch in supply chain management is conducted andwhether it is presented in a rigorous manner in related peer- The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at Supply Chain Management: An International Journal13/2 (2008) 128–137 q  Emerald Group Publishing Limited [ISSN 1359-8546][DOI 10.1108/13598540810860967] This research was carried out while the author worked at the Carl vonOssietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany. He would like to thank hisformer Master’s students there, Janine Kayser, Yan Liu, Julia Stru¨ber andSusanne Wemken, for helping with the operational parts of the research.A full list of case study papers assessed in the fields of supply chainperformance management and sustainable supply chain management isavailable from the author upon request. 128  reviewed journal publications. As an analysis of all relatedpublications would be too broad, two particular fields areselected:1 supply chain performance management (PerformSCM);and2 sustainable supply chain management (SustSCM).In both fields, a key word or title word search for relatedpublications was performed. Case-related papers wereselected for the further analysis, which was conducted bymeans of a content analysis. This leads to the followingstructure of the paper. The first section briefly introducessupply chain management. Next, the research method appliedwithin this paper, i.e. content analysis, is discussed. The casestudy methods are summarized to allow identifying theanalytic dimensions and respective categories used for thecontent analysis. The subsequent section briefly justifies theselection of the two fields (i.e. sustainable supply chainmanagement and supply chain performance management)analyzed in detail and provides details how related publicationwere selected. Then, the analysis is presented, which isstructured in accordance to the case study research processdescribed above. This will help point out how “better” casebased research in supply chain management can beconducted. 2. A brief background on supply chainmanagement Supply chain management has developed into a majorconceptual approach inside management and businessadministration. As a basic comprehension, the followingdefinition(s) will be taken up: “Supply chains are a set of threeor more entities (organizations or individuals) directlyinvolved in the upstream and downstream flows of products,services, finances, and/or information from a source to acustomer” (Mentzer  et al. , 2001, p. 3). And “supply chainmanagement (SCM) is the integration of these activitiesthrough improved supply chain relationships, to achieve asustainable competitive advantage” (Handfield and Nichols,1999, p. 2).Based on their review, Mentzer  et al.  (2001, p. 7) proposethat supply chain management has the followingcharacteristics:1 a systems approach to viewing the supply chain as awhole, and to managing the total flow of goods inventoryfrom the supplier to the ultimate customer;2 a strategic orientation toward cooperative effort tosynchronize and converge intra-firm and inter-firmoperational and strategic capabilities into a unifiedwhole; and3 a customer focus to create unique and individualizedsources of customer value, leading to customersatisfaction.While the debate on theory development in supply chainmanagement has already started (e.g. Croom  et al. , 2000;Chen and Paulraj, 2004; Mentzer  et al. , 2004), relatedadvancements in research approaches have rarely beenaddressed (see, for example, the papers in Kotzab  et al. ,2005). Further, the questions arise regarding whatdistinguishes research on supply chain management fromresearch in other management fields. As supply chainscomprise several companies, one major requirement mightbe that data collection is carried out across several stages of the supply chain, irrespective of the specific research designapplied. Selecting one particular research design, i.e. casestudy research, would provide a flexible and customizableapproach for related supply chain research (Seuring, 2005),justifying the already stated research aim.While editorial boards of journals often have preferences forspecific empirical research approaches,  Supply Chain Management: An International Journal   as one prominentexample encourages case research related papers (see Similaranalysis is missing so far. Hilmola  et al.  (2005) present arelated piece of work, which complements the methodologydriven approach taken here by looking at whether and howcase study papers have contributed to theory development. Inparticular, they analyze whether a deductive or an inductiveapproach was taken and what kind of data (qualitative orquantitative) was used. Yet, the research process is notassessed. 3. Research methodology For the research methodology, two issues need to beaddressed. First, content analysis is described, as this is themethod applied for the research presented in this paper.Second, case study research needs to be briefly outlined, asthis research strategy was applied in the analyzed papers. Thedifferent steps of the case study research process provides theanalytic dimensions used in the content analysis. Jauch  et al. (1980) have argued on the suitability of such an approachallowing detailed insights beyond the single case. 3.1 Content analysis The research process conducted will be described accordingto the five steps outlined by Stuart  et al.  (2002). While theauthors use this for case study research, it is a generalapproach suitable for different empirical research methods.“Content analysis is the research technique for theobjective, systematic, and quantitative description of themanifest content of communication” (Berelson, 1952, p. 55).Peer-reviewed journal articles form a typical mode of communication among researchers, so they form a relevantunit of analysis. The analysis of documents pursues the aim of opening up material that does not have to be created on thebasis of a data collection by the researcher. One problem isderived from the challenge that it is impractical to readeverything. Only for emerging or narrowly defined issuesmight it be possible to provide complete reviews. Hence, twoparticular fields inside supply chain management were chosento conduct the analysis.The research is driven by theoretical pre-considerations andfollows a clear process, as this allows conclusions to be drawnon the analyzed material. A process model for content analysis(Mayring, 2003, p. 54; see also Neuendorf, 2002, pp. 50-51)comprises the following four steps:1  Material collection  – The material to be collected is definedand delimitated. Furthermore, the unit of analysis (i.e. thesingle paper) is defined.2  Descriptive analysis  – Formal aspects of the materials areassessed, for example the number of publications per year.This forms the background for the theoretical analysis. Assessing the rigor of case study research in SCM Stefan A. Seuring  Supply Chain Management: An International Journal Volume 13 · Number 2 · 2008 · 128–137  129  3  Dimension selection  – Structural dimensions and relatedanalytic categories are selected, which are to be applied inthe literature review to structure the field.4  Material evaluation  – The material is analyzed and sortedaccording to the structural dimensions and categoriesbuilt. This should allow identification of relevant issuesand interpretation of results.This process was followed in the study. As it would not befeasible to assess all case study papers published in supplychain management, two particular fields where chosen:1 sustainable supply chain management; and2 supply chain performance management.Both can be justified in that they only emerged within aboutthe last ten to 15 years, so the overall number of publicationsis still limited. For both fields, the period from 1990 to 2005was taken into account. A systematic search for papers wasconducted by means of a key word search in major databases(e.g. EBSCO, but also the publisher databases such asEmerald, Blackwell Synergy, Elsevier Sciencedirect, Taylorand Francis, Wiley).For the field of supply chain performance management thesearch was then restricted to searching for “supply chain” and“performance” in the title of the paper, as specially“performance” is very frequently used as a key word.Otherwise, the results would have been overwhelming,yielding a data basis that could not have been handled. Basedon the search process, papers could even fall into both researchfields, although only three such examples were found, all withone author in common (Zhu and Sarkis, 2004; Zhu  et al. ,2005; Hervani  et al. , 2005). A second reason for selecting thesetwo particular fields is that they form two major streams of research that the current he author works in. Hence, the authorhas a detailed knowledge of the field already, which allows ananalysis of the material in the respective contexts.The limitations of the method are almost obvious: “Contentanalysis is reliant on the multiple judgments of a single analyst[ . . . ] keen to find support for a particular view of the data”(Brewerton and Millward, 2001, p. 153). This risk can bereduced by involving two or more researchers when searchingfor and analyzing the data. This helps to ensure the validity andreliability of the research. In this particular case, the detailedanalysis of the papers was conducted involving master students.For each field, two students were involved to analyze thematerial. Thereby, a total of three persons assessed the materialin each field. Instead of calculating the inter-coder reliability,each difference in coding of the material was assessed by theresearch team and checked for the categorization. This way, alldifferences could be eliminated.After this short overview about the research design of adocument analysis and the method of content analysis, this isapplied to the body of literature on sustainable supply chainmanagement and supply chain performance management.The single dimensions and categories for the analysis will beselected by building on the case study research process. 3.2 Defining case study research “A case study is an empirical enquiry that (1) investigates acontemporary phenomenon within its real life context,especially when (2) the boundaries between phenomenonand context are not clearly evident” (Yin, 2003, p. 13). Casestudies are used as a research method if contextual factors aretaken into account but at the same time limit the extent of theanalysis (Eisenhardt, 1989; Voss  et al. , 2002). Applying aflexible, sometimes even opportunistic research strategy is oneof its major strengths, but might also be a major weakness of case study research, in particular, if the process is not welldocumented.Linking this to the research cycle of description,explanation and testing (Meredith, 1993), one can look atwhat kinds of insights can be gained from case study research.It is evident that case study research investigates acontemporary phenomenon in its real life context (Yin,2003), so that, for example, existing theories might be takenup to gain a first insight into the phenomenon studied. Casestudies can be used for different purposes. Yin (2003, p. 3)distinguishes three types of case studies:1 an exploratory case study is aimed at defining thequestions and hypotheses of a subsequent study (notnecessarily a case study) or at determining the feasibilityof the desired research procedure;2 a descriptive case study presents a complete description of a phenomenon within its context; and3 an explanatory case study comprises data bearing oncause-effect relationships – explaining how eventshappened.Furthermore, Yin (2003, pp. 40-7) suggests case selectionbased on the following criteria. A single case can serve as acritical example: . if it forms an extreme or unique case (e.g. if not manycases are available); . if it forms a typical or representative case, standing as anexample of a wider group of cases; . if it is a revelatory case, where the investigator has anopportunity to observe and analyze a phenomenon so farinaccessible to scientific investigation; . if it provides a longitudinal case studying two or morepoints in time; or . if it stands as a pilot in a multi-case setting.In contrast, multiple cases often use a replication logic, butcan also be used to select typical cases within a certain domain(Eisenhardt, 1989). In this context, the question ariseswhether rather a single case is studied on an in-depth andinterpretative basis (Klein and Myers, 1999) or whether amore positive multi-case design is chosen (Dyer and Wilkins,1991; Eisenhardt, 1991). 3.3 The case study research process The research process for case studies is similar to those usedfor other (empirical) research. Stuart  et al.  (2002, p. 420)propose a five-stage research process (see Figure 1) andexplain in detail how each step should be carried out whenconducting case study research (for similar descriptions, see,for example, Yin, 2003; Eisenhardt, 1989; Mentzer andKahn, 1995; Ellram, 1996; Voss  et al. , 2002).It should be emphasized that while a linear, sequentialapproach is chosen, not only but in particular in case studyresearch, the actual process might have to repeat severalstages. While starting at one research question and/orcollecting some evidence on a social or organizationalphenomenon, the researcher might have to return to aprevious research stage, yielding a much more iterativeprocess (Golden-Biddle and Locke, 1993). This might thenover time allow theoretical constructs to form (Van Maanen,1979). Assessing the rigor of case study research in SCM Stefan A. Seuring  Supply Chain Management: An International Journal Volume 13 · Number 2 · 2008 · 128–137  130  3.4 Ensuring quality of case study research The quality of research designs is ensured by aiming forvalidity (i.e. is the stated evidence valid?), and reliability ( the stated evidence correct?) (Mayring, 2002, p. 140; Yin,2003, p. 34). Mayring (2002, p. 141) emphasizes the specificproblems in ensuring objectivity and reliability of qualitativeresearch and measure-related performance. The excellence of qualitative research is addressed especially through proceduralreliability and validity (Stuart  et al. , 2002). This has led to adebate on related quality factors (Mayring, 2002, p. 144;Mentzer and Flint, 1997). In line with other authors, Mayring(2002, p. 144) proposes six quality factors for qualitativeresearch:1 process documentation;2 safeguarding interpretations by arguments;3 research process structured by rules of conduct;4 closeness to the study item;5 communicative validation; and6 triangulation.For case study research, Yin (2003, p. 34) outlines howvalidity of the research can be ensured. He proposes threetypes of validity:1 construct validity;2 internal validity; and3 external validity.These three types of validity are applied during differentstages of the research process, as reliability and validity areensured by a clearly structured research process. The issuesoutlined in this section will be taken up in the three casespresented below to illustrate such research. 3.5 Selecting analytic dimensions based on case studyresearch Based on this research process, the following criteria will beused to assess case study based publications on supply chainmanagement. The applied criteria (see Table I) are frequentlypresented and discussed in related publications, so takingthem up is a deductive step in the content analysis. Theanalytic dimensions and related categories are not discussedin detail here as comprehensive descriptions can be found inthe literature already cited.In most dimensions, papers could have been assigned tomore than one category, so the total count presented later inthe paper can exceed the number of papers. In manyinstances, the information search for in the content analysiswas not openly stated in the paper. It was given ratherimplicitly and could only be concluded on by reading thepapers, as authors did not state related details in thedescription of their research process. As one example, thetheoretical aim was concluded to be exploration when theauthors did not mention one at all, but instead provided acase study to illustrate some conceptual findings. 4. Case study research in the two research fields To select case study related papers, each paper wasunambiguously assigned to one research methodology,where five categories were distinguished:1 conceptual;2 case study;3 survey;4 model; and5 literature reviews.Table II shows the absolute number of papers as well as thefraction of the particular research method. It should be notedthat papers which provide empirical evidence as their Table I  Analytic dimensions and related categories for the contentanalysis Dimensions Categories Stage 1: Research question  Theoretical aim  Exploration, theory building, theory testing, theoryextension Stage 2: Instrument development  Cases  Number of cases, embedded units and stages of thesupply chain where data was collected Case selection  Single cases: unique case, representative case,revelatory case, longitudinal case, pilot case for multicase designMultiple cases: unique case, representative case,revelatory case, longitudinal case Stage 3: Data gathering  Data gatheringtechniques Open interview, semi-structured interview, structuredinterview, questionnaire, documents/websites/publications, direct observation, participantobservation Stage 4: Data analysis  Data analysis  Transcription, use of software, cross-case analysis Stage 5: Dissemination/overall process  Case quality  Construct validity, internal validity, external validity,reliability Table II  Research methodologies applied in the two fields Research field Total ConceptCasestudy Survey ModelLiteraturereviewPerformSCM  149 32 (21) 17 (11) 63 (42) 37 (25) 0 SustSCM  130 29 (22) 51 (40) 33 (25) 13 (10) 4 (3) Note:  Figures in parentheses are percentages Figure 1  The five-stage research process model Assessing the rigor of case study research in SCM Stefan A. Seuring  Supply Chain Management: An International Journal Volume 13 · Number 2 · 2008 · 128–137  131
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