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Prospecting the Frontiers of Logistics Research

The authors present 10 propositions for research by logisticians who constitute the wider community of “enterprise logistics.”

One of the most important aspects of professional education for “enterprise” logisticians is research. Research not only helps to develop the intellectual and problem-solving skills leaders need, but it also allows them to focus on key issues and make meaningful contributions to the community. Research projects offer students, practitioners, and faculties the opportunity to explore, compare, and critically assess available literature, consider contemporary issues from an enterprise perspective, and report conclusions to leaders, fellow practitioners, and the scholarly research community.

Our intent is to first describe our view of the “frontiers of enterprise logistics” and then present ideas that will constitute a useful collection of propositions for research. We hope that our offering will spur interest in these topics and produce some creative and useful research publications for the enterprise. We also wish to encourage discussion about logistics research and discover other ideas from members across the enterprise.

The Enterprise Logistics Frontier

We are careful to use the metaphor “frontier” when attempting to define “enterprise logistics” because we are not sure of the boundaries of this loosely coupled, interorganizational network of professional logisticians representing many institutions, cultures, and nations.

Reflecting on our Nation’s recent experience in responding to the earthquake in Haiti, we were encouraged by the vast array of international logistics responders that met the challenges of acquiring, storing, and distributing countless supplies and providing engineering and medical support and other vital logistics services to address the terrible suffering of so many. Many people, including some of our enterprise colleagues, may not be aware that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) logistics community sees its role in these circumstances as worthy of the term “core competency.” No longer are overseas disaster relief and support to domestic civil authorities considered ancillary DOD missions.

In this regard, we see our defense logistics community becoming part of a wider community of logisticians (the “enterprise”) that, as a set of otherwise autonomous organizations, comes together to reach goals that none of us can reach separately. (We adapted this definition from Rupert F. Chisholm’s 1998 book, Developing Network Organizations: Learning from Practice and Theory.)

Considering this context, we believe that the enterprise logistics “frontier” offers a tremendous array of opportunities for logisticians—including students and faculty at military and civilian institutions and operational practitioners—to think about, explore, expand, refine, and assess ideas, issues, practices, processes, and innovations. Their research efforts can be powerful forces for the development of new knowledge, insights, and practices.

We should also point out that such research is not the exclusive purview of professional logisticians. Fresh eyes, eclectic ideas, alternative viewpoints, and broader perspectives come from many of the best papers we have seen in recent years—papers written by others not traditionally seen as enterprise members.

We also seek to address the various forms of inquiry that would constitute enterprise logistics research. Before we get to our recommended proposals, we want to first describe a typology for research that the enterprise might find useful. This typology relates to the types of tasks and degrees of uncertainty that that the logistics enterprise faces as it conducts operations.

Research Rooted in an Organizational Task Typology

One way to look at the different types of research opportunities that are available is through the types of tasks that are undertaken by an enterprise. We should note that this categorization can be viewed as universal as opposed to simply applied within our field. As Charles Perrow describes in his 1986 seminal book, Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay, we see logistics tasks performed by the enterprise as falling into four types: routine, engineering, craftwork, and nonroutine, or “emergent,” tasks. Each type answers a different form of research question.

The first, routine tasks, involve organizational standing operating procedures, rules, processes, and centralized authorities that are learned, established, and enforced to address discrete, recurrent problems and to get expected results. For logistics work, these would include set ordering procedures, managing intermodal transportation capabilities (both in-house and outsourced), positioning capabilities at the point of need, and so on.

While these activities are relatively easy to efficiently control from a centralized organizational perspective, enterprise logistics should not expect to develop large-scale efficiencies by controlling routine work across the network. (Although, paradoxically, logisticians should be aware of each other’s tightly-coupled routines in a collaborative, loosely coupled way.) The analogy may be how banks operate through their individual hierarchical controls yet can be part of interorganizational financial networks such as Visa or MasterCard.

Operations and systems analysis-style research, afforded by Lean and Six Sigma techniques and other scientific management models, would be appropriate for research in routine tasks. The principal question for this research would be how to increase efficiency.

Engineering tasks, the second type, address complicated, interdependent constructions of tightly coupled, integrated logistics systems, including the development of inventory management software; design and manufacturing of specialized transportation and service technologies to enable distribution; and expertise, equipment, and supplies under various conditions associated with such factors as demand history, weather, terrain, and security.

Imagine trying to integrate already complicated logistics systems inside each participating organization across the enterprise; this is likely untenable. Probably the best the enterprise can hope for these kinds of tasks is an interorganizational appreciation for the complexity of various systems and for finding opportunities to exchange ideas and improvise off each other while participating together in planning or exercise programs.

Yet scientific-oriented, systems-of-systems research and development and lessons learned research do benefit at least the internal organization of partners that make up the enterprise. The key question is how to best reengineer routine task linkages to work under a variety of conditions ahead of time.

Craftwork represents tasks of a third kind and includes tasks that change according to the situation at hand; hence, there is a loose-coupling even within a single organization, let alone a network of organizations. Craftwork (as the name implies) embodies a certain creative, artful, and aesthetic quality. Craftwork typically involves putting routine and engineered tasks together in new ways. This is what improvisational theorists call “bricolage”—putting old things together in new ad hoc ways.

When enterprise logisticians find themselves dealing with the unique conditions they face, their craftwork is customized, whether together (loosely coupled) or singly, through collaborative inquiry methods. Qualitative case-study research that seeks to document the rich, historic descriptions of these sorts of collective craftwork would help the enterprise immensely. This is a type of research that we believe is underrepresented in logistics literature, and our hope is to encourage both academicians and practitioners to help build a library of insights answering the question, how unique logistics challenges were approached using knowledge and capabilities at hand.

Nonroutine or emergent tasks, the fourth category, are similar to craftwork. However, the complexity of these tasks (they have a high degree of interactiveness and interconnectedness with each other and with environmental variables) makes performing them harder to control from the point of view of centralized management (centralized both internally in organizations and between organizations). Here, “network-centricity” (or decentralized self-organizing) becomes essential. The enterprise participants at various locations may operate together as improvisational jazz musicians would play (with neither sheet music orchestration or a conductor).

Here, logisticians focus on “action research” that involves experimenting with action before making decisions (and decisions are participative and always tentative). Admitting its ignorance (because no one knows), management focuses (with a humility that may be the subject of a logistics ethics research study in itself) on the quality of the network connections that can serve to promote near-real-time collaboration and increase sharing of action learning.

One could argue that documenting action research is similar to qualitative forms of research in craftwork. However, the focus is more on enterprise learning about the process of reframing, innovating, and improvising while in the field—not necessarily using what is known in new ways but inventing new knowledge as well. In action research associated with emergent tasks, the question is how to gain and report insights as practitioners reflect-in-action.

While any of these task types can offer ample fields for fertile research, our hope is that enterprise logistics researchers will in fact attempt to synthesize all facets of these tasks so they are able to diagnose and prescribe applicable and relevant forms of research. The types of tasks are of course not mutually exclusive, and in fact, elements of all of the task types probably can be found in any research project. It is a question of emphasis or focus that we hope to have researchers consider.

We also believe that the community should encourage a balance between the different types of tasks. It is our contention that, to date, the emphasis in logistics research has tended more toward routine and engineering tasks that are measurable, and in many cases falsifiable, using the scientific method. While clearly valuable both as contributions to the literature and as a learning methodology, qualitative research on craftwork and emergent tasks offers great potential as well.

10 Propositions for Research

Although there is, or at least should be, a virtually limitless supply of topics for research, we wanted to address at least 10 that may help spur the effort. We considered framing the following list as a Letterman-style “Top Ten,” but we chose not to presume that these are in any priority order—the numbers are just there for reference. Our propositions can be considered as a whole or as places where any number of more focused theses can be drawn. In that regard, we offer the following challenges for the enterprise researcher from a DOD partner’s point of view.

  1. Logistics efficiency is problematic because the enterprise will almost always take the form of a loosely coupled “adhocracy”—a dynamic, entrepreneurial, and improvisational organization that self-organizes based on common values (such as the need to sustain and protect innocent life).

  2. Congress provides most defense funding to the three service departments. Defense logistics systems therefore may have to trade efficiencies associated with routine and engineering tasks while obfuscating centralized control across a full range of operations that include craftwork and emergent tasks.

  3. Defense support to civil authorities and to overseas disaster relief requires DOD logistics to serve many unpredictable (craftwork and nonroutine) tasks required by victims, local authorities, state governors, other Federal agencies, or other nations. Thus, designing organizations for defense logistics to operate under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty is problematic.

  4. DOD “global force management” policies and processes are supposed to field and sustain the right joint capabilities at the right time for apportionment or allocation to the combatant commands. Demands for efficiency (getting the taxpayer the best value) and effectiveness (giving the operational commanders ready forces) often present competing or even conflicting values and tasks.

  5. A global view of supply chain management (from obtaining raw materials worldwide to reforming transportation systems and logistics education) reveals a complicated web of potential failures for enterprise logistics.

  6. National and nongovernmental lines of communication can be threatened (air, land, sea, natural disasters, and so forth) and forced to compete for inland resources (such as host-nation support, local contractors, ports, and roads) with no prospect of centralized control.

  7. The host area infrastructure and DOD organizational designs for joint land operations may be underdeveloped and unprepared to effectively and efficiently support enterprise reception, staging, and onward movement and provide decentralized logistics activities.

  8. U.S. logistics organizations (to include U.S. and hired local contractors) play an important role in providing relief and creating or sustaining legitimate governance. Yet they typically are not systemically designed in an appropriate fashion, and logisticians are not prepared by service department or joint professional military education to assume this mission as “normal.”

  9. Future concepts (white papers, joint operating concepts, integrating concepts, and so forth) are supposed to drive logistics organizations to change to meet the complexity and ambiguity of future operational contexts. Yet history demonstrates we have been unable to forecast craftwork and nonroutine forms of work very effectively, if at all.

  10. Logistics history is important but underemphasized in the enterprise (in DOD’s case, service and joint professional military education). History is important not because it provides templates for the future, but principally because well-interpreted history teaches us how each operational context is unique and calls for critical and creative thinking, especially when dealing with craftwork and complex, non-routine tasks.

We recognize that these proposals may be incomplete and lack prioritization in the greater enterprise, yet we feel compelled to express our views and share them with others who study and operate in the frontiers of enterprise logistics. Our hope is to be seen as collegial so that we may at least begin conversations among our fellow enterprise logisticians about these sorts of proposals and perhaps address research in other terms. We invite and encourage critical reviews of both our construction of enterprise logistics and our task typology, as well as our 10 research proposals.

Dr. Christopher R. Paparone is an associate professor in the Army Command and General Staff College’s Department of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. He is a retired Army colonel and has a Ph.D. degree from Pennsylvania State University.

Colonel George L. Topic, USA (Ret.), is the vice director in the Center for Joint and Strategic Logistics at the National Defense University. He served as a Quartermaster officer for 28 years on active duty and for 3 years as the deputy director for strategic logistics on the Joint Staff.

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