Remko van Hoek, professor of practice in supply chain management, calls for a return to foundations in the field. As van Hoek explains, the academic field of supply chain management was founded to assist industry with its problems, but theorizing has recently taken an outsized role in the field. His recent article, “Influencing Supply Chain Practice,” coauthored by Mary Lacity (the University of Arkansas) and Leslie Willcocks (London School of Economics) argues that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how important it is for researchers to quickly produce practical takeaways for industry stakeholders.
Their research shows that the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic left many industry leaders clamoring for some sense of direction to offset losses and to meet changing consumer demands. Industry couldn’t wait around while academic researchers deliberated on the slow, abstract process of theory-crafting. As van Hoek has written elsewhere, academics needed to offer actionable principles that industry could then adapt to a rapidly changing business ecosystem.
Van Hoek, Lacity, and Willcocks argue that researchers ought to adopt an action principles research (APR) model. Lacity, Willcocks, and Daniel Gozman invented the APR model in 2021 and van Hoek noted that APR could be used in supply chains management research and practice. In short, Walton College researchers have both advanced a new method and have collaborated and applied it across disciplines!
At new frontiers and in emergent fields of research, APR allows academics and managers to work together to produce principles that can be generally applied by other firms and thereby close the so-called knowledge/doing gap. It differs from other hands-on research methods by reducing the time horizons and the depth of knowledge required to put together actionable observations. Most importantly, it is focused on real-world results.
Van Hoek, Lacity, and Willcocks contrast APR with intervention-based research (IBR) and critically engaged research (CER), both of which push the researcher from the role of outside observer towards being an active practitioner but require much longer time horizons to produce results.
In an IBR approach, the researcher designs solutions for the problem at hand. The research thus includes implementing and evaluating the designs while functioning in the real world. IBR, therefore, demands the researcher have a great deal of expertise in their field of research, and it requires there to be a good deal of theory already available for them to reference during the design process.
CER methods have the researcher engage critically with managers on the ground. The researcher doesn’t need to be nearly as specialized, partially because the most appropriate place to apply CER methods is to emergent and under-researched problems. CER is contextual and reflective, but it can also take a long time to incubate actionable principles.
APR is essentially a subtype of CER methods – it is reflective and critically engaged with managers, but it operates on a shorter timescale. Like IBR, APR methods aim to produce useful insights, and like CER, they operate in spaces and times of uncertainty. Its primary goal is to synthesize initial lessons that enterprising firms learn during emergent challenges and disseminate action principles through the industry quickly. As researchers collaborate directly with managers through APR, they acknowledge that industry stakeholders are themselves thoughtful, reflective professionals who have clear insights on what works and doesn’t work.
APR, though, can only produce guidelines for industry to follow rather than the hard and fast best practices IBR or CER offers. APR does, however, push academic researchers to better realize the practical mission of academic business research: to help industry perform more efficiently.
Crucially, both CER and APR flip the trajectory of academic research. Rather than waiting for theorization, these methods of research jump straight into practice to uncover dynamic, novel phenomenon. Practice can then lay the groundwork for theory.
How It Functions
Researchers can thus use APR to its greatest effect when they apply it to questions we have no answers for. APR works well with supply chain management research because industry practices “evolve quickly,” leaving researchers with many fruitful avenues of study. They identify, for example, risk management during the pandemic because it challenged common thinking and industry leaders needed actionable research to respond to emergent problems. APR requires the researcher to interact directly with practitioners in the field, so researchers must identify early adopters and trendsetters. The organizations that researchers work with need to have implemented solutions for “long enough or far enough” to be useful collaborators in the research, van Hoek, Lacity, and Willcocks say. After all, as van Hoek, Lacity, and Willocks note, we cannot formulate action principles without outcomes.
Once they’ve identified practitioners, researchers interview them to understand why they made the decisions they did. During their interviews, researchers must remain alert for “gaps in the narrative” and “claims…that need clarification.” Most importantly, researchers need to identify what their key participant “attributes to the achievement of an outcome.”
After one or more rounds of interviews, the researcher is ready to interpret their data to identify the guidelines that organizations can follow to pursue particular outcomes. The researcher acts as the sense-maker, translating their key participants’ different descriptions of events and outcomes into a common language. Specifically, researchers investigate the outcomes and the actions that their interviewees attribute to those outcomes.
But the key participants’ role is not over once interviews conclude. Instead, after the researcher has identified action principles using their interviewees’ insights, the researcher shares the data with those participants, so they can review the principles and suggest revisions. This aspect of the process demonstrates how APR is a collaboration between industry and academia.
At this point, researchers continue their fieldwork until their research begins to have diminishing returns. Van Hoek, Lacity, and Willcocks also recommend researchers evaluate the provocativeness of their action principles. If they are “dissonant, shocking, intriguing or surprising,” they will point to real knowledge creation in the emerging phenomenon.
Of course, even with the insightful strengths of APR, the researcher needs to share their work with the industry for any research method to have relevancy. Van Hoek, Lacity, and Willcocks point out that some have even argued that “the gap between practice and theory…is really a knowledge transfer problem.” Community outreach is difficult for many academic disciplines, so researchers should identify ways they can get their conclusions to the public quickly and clearly.
Furthermore, the nature of peer review, despite its excellent rigor, can further stymie the strengths of APR’s speed if researchers choose to publish through more conventional routes. Van Hoek, Lacity, and Willcocks suggest researchers use various platforms such as online research briefings, LinkedIn posts, blogs, news media, trade magazines, and publications with short cycle times. They also say that industry participants in the research process are great allies in sharing information with the public.
APR isn’t foolproof. For example, it is particularly prone to anchoring bias, which means it is unclear whether the site of research is representative or abnormal. Likewise, with its intense focus on emergent phenomenon, researchers run the risk of chasing fads, especially if they are not careful to ensure their topic is a value-add and will stay around after adoption.
Every research method, though, has its shortcomings, but APR nonetheless provides researchers with a powerful tool to help sync the interests of academia and industry. The mission of the university has changed a lot in the last 100 years, and with that change, many people, both within and without academic institutions, are wondering what role universities ought to play in our lives and the economy. Having universities – and the research they create – operate at the speed of business may help clarify what this role can be.