A complexity perspective on logistics management. Rethinking assumptions for the sustainability era

AuthorFredrik Ralf Nilsson
Publication Date12 Aug 2019
A complexity perspective on
logistics management
Rethinking assumptions for
the sustainability era
Fredrik Ralf Nilsson
Department of Design Sciences, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to elaborate on how perspectives and assumptions embedded in the
complexity paradigm contribute to make logistics management research better aligned with real-life logistics.
This is necessary, due to increasing supply chain complexity caused by an increasing request for sustainable
development (SD).
Design/methodology/approach The research is exploratory and based on a narrative literature review
of logistics and supply chain management (SCM) from a complexity science perspective. Qualitative research
interviews have been conducted with 12 logistics and supply chain managers in international companies and
have focussed on their daily experiences and the underlying assumptions related to their actual work.
Findings Logistics and SCM research is embedded in the functionalistic paradigm with reductionistic
assumptions as the dominant logic. These do not sufficiently align with the complexity related, for example,
to the daily work of SD in logistics management practice.
Research limitations/implications It is proposed that the inclusion of complexity-based assumptions in
logistics management research can increase realism in the advancement of the discipline. A key result is that
the recognition of logistics as complex means inclusion of human and social aspects which is apparent in
any logistics process or phenomenon in logistics knowledge creation processes.
Practical implications Increased realism in logistics management research by addressing complexity,
instead of merely reducing it, will provide logistics and supply chain managers with increased understanding
and appropriate knowledge when they deal with emerging challenges such as SD.
Originality/value Based on Bouldings levels of complexity, this paper challenges the underlying
assumptions of logistics management in research and practice, and provides reflective frameworks for
advancingthe discipline and aligningit to the complexity of contemporarychallenges in logisticsmanagement.
Keywords Sustainability, Europe, Decision making, Agile, Supply chain processes, Qualitative interviews
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
The concern of complexity in logistics and supply chain management (SCM) is often
mentioned in the literature (Sanders et al., 2013; Bode and Wagner, 2015). While most
literature only describes complexity in general terms, a growing body of literature explicitly
addresses it in logistics and SCM (e.g. Christopher, 2016; Manuj and Sahin, 2011;
Gerschberger et al., 2017). In the recent special issue of Journal of Operations Management
on complex adaptive systems (CAS), Nair and Reed-Tsochas (2019) conclude that
complexity perspectives can contribute by providing increasing realism regarding models
and by providing more understanding of the highly interconnected nature of contemporary
supply chains. They (Nair and Reed-Tsochas, 2019 p. 80) also declare that in much of SCM
research, we consider the simplistic conceptions of organizational and interorganizational
The International Journal of
Logistics Management
Vol. 30 No. 3, 2019
pp. 681-698
Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/IJLM-06-2019-0168
Received 10 June 2019
Accepted 11 June 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
© Fredrik Ralf Nilsson. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the
Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and
create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to
full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at
for the
structures, linear relationships between practices and performance, and ignore the adaptive
nature of strategies and processes.
With the increasing concern for environmental and social issues in society, companies
have to consider sustainable development (SD) in their strategies and not only prioritise
financial performance and results (Porter and Kramer, 2011; Nair et al., 2016). Consequ ently,
the need to handle increased complexityfor logistics and SCM can be expected (Sanderset al.,
2013; Carter andRogers, 2008; Wittneben et al., 2009). Cruz et al. (2006, p. 872) state thatSD is
perhaps one of the most complex and important demands that has occupied managers
reflection, and Hall and Vredenburg (2003) report on the major difficulties which managers
have in dealing with SD. Furthermore, Russel et al. (2018, p. 37) state that everything about
achieving sustainable logistics and supply chain management is complex. For example,
based on the multifaceted nature of SD, the interpretation of what SD meansin different parts
of an organisation or a supply chain is difficult to comprehend (Abbasi and Nilsson, 2012).
SD became popular after the Brundtland Commission report of 1987. Today, the
perspective on SD requires economic, social and environmental considerations (United
Nations, 2005) as sustainability is required to provide economic profitability, social
responsibility and environmental conservation (Elkington, 1998). Such an accomplishment
requires power,commitment and collaborationas there is not necessarily any correspondence
between economic,social and environmentalsustainability (Low and Gleeson, 2003).Logistics
is an area which is severely challenged when it comes to reaching the goals of Agenda 2030
(UN General Assembly, 2015). The movementof goods requiring set-up of logisticsnetworks,
transports between nodes (McKinnon etal., 2010) and delivery policies have all contributed to
the huge amounts of emissions affecting our planet today (IPPC, 2014). Furthermore, on the
competitive European transport market, depletion of logistics charges has led to lowering of
salaries and worse working conditions for drivers (Kummer et al., 2014).
The quest for logistics management research is to evaluate current and former practices
and provide guidance to practitioners and policy makers on what to do and how to act in
relation to present and future challenges. In the era of SD, this means evaluation of and
guidance sustainable practices, theories and methods, i.e. providing the logistics discipline
with knowledge on how to work and act in order to achieve Agenda 2030 goals and develop
sustainable logistics practices. However, as it is argued in this paper and pointed out in
several previous studies (e.g. Mears-Young and Jackson, 1997; Arlbjørn and Halldorsson,
2002; Nilsson, 2006; Carter et al., 2015), the logistics discipline has evolved from
problem-solving issues in industry and has been theoretically based on a positivistic
epistemology with reductionism as the central assumption.
Coming from this functionalis tic paradigm with central assumption s such as
controllability, optimality, rationality and objectivity (Nilsson and Gammelgaard, 2012;
Nilsson andChristopher, 2018), it is challenging in many waysto handle the rapid change and
the multi-natured challenges related to SD. Reflecting on the magnitude of logistics and
supply chain activities involving several tiers of suppliers which are globally dispersed,
theory recommends that these activities are broken into sub-units in order for us to
understand and deal with them, i.e. reduce scope, context and complexity. However, what
would happen if we took a holistic perspective and treated the role of logistics in SD in its
complex entirety? What if, instead of trying to reduce phenomena to controllableand
independentparts, we actually studiedand understood the emergent outcomesfrom everyday
interactions among individuals based on their self-organising processes (deliberate or not)?
What happens if, instead of indisputably believing in unfolding predetermined strategies
( formativeand deterministic), weregard development as being more transformative as it uses
adaptive strategies and activities (transformative and emergent)? As a result, what type of
knowledge can we produce by addressing and understanding logistics management from a
new set of assumptions better aligned to the complex reality we often experience?

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