Inter‐Organizational Learning in Supply Chains: A Focus on Logistics Service Providers and Their Customers

Inter-Organizational Learning in Supply Chains: A Focus on
Logistics Service Providers and Their Customers
Ila Manuj
, Ayman Omar
, and Terrance L. Pohlen
University of North Texas
American University
The learning process between supply chain entities is explored from the perspective of senior third-party executives. Through grounded the-
ory, a theoretical framework emerged that extends our understanding of learning within a supply chain by identifying the major constructs
and learning stages comprising the basic social process of inter-organizational learning. This framework provides signicant insights into the
complex process employed in a supply chain to share, disseminate, and store information; co-create knowledge; and to derive a competitive
Keywords: inter-organizational learning; grounded theory; supply chain; knowledge co-creation
Learning across organizations, or inter-organizational learning
(IOL), leads to new insights and understandings that jointly
emerge through the collaborative sharing of information and
knowledge between multiple entities in a supply chain (Flint
et al. 2005). Learning may occur with customers, distributors,
suppliers, alliance partners, and even competitors (Nonaka 1994).
IOL enables supply chain executives to jointly learn how to
combine capabilities and processes to achieve a competitive
advantage by continually creating value for the end customer.
Executives can use this knowledge to more effectively anticipate
and respond to their customersneeds while strengthening col-
laborative relationships within the supply chain (Johnson and
Sohi 1997; Simonin 1997; Yazdanparast et al. 2010; Mohr and
Sengupta 2002).
IOL is a complex social phenomenon involving dynamic
behavioral interpretations and processing of events, decisions,
and contexts; these interpretations are difcult to capture with-
out an understanding of the mindsets of executives going
through the learning process (Balogun and Johnson 2004; Furst
and Cable 2008; Huxham and Hibbert 2008; Omar et al. 2012).
Learning takes place through multiple components such as
gathering, processing, and disseminating knowledge and infor-
mation. It also involves developing a shared interpretation
and storage of this knowledge in the organizations memory
(Sinkula 1994; Slater and Narver 1995). IOL is not a static
process; it continuously evolves based on different interpreta-
tions and experiences.
These learning components and experiences are not clearly
understood in terms of how they are perceived and interpreted
by senior executives. In particular, these elements are essential
for third-party logistics (3PL) providers as they continuously
seek to develop new and innovative solutions, and to integrate
and adapt their business processes with their customers and other
trading partners (Phene and Almeida 2008; Lederman 2010).
This research attempts to increase our understanding of IOL and
executives perceptions of the learning process by addressing the
question: How do the senior executives of 3PL providers per-
ceive and interpret the IOL occurring with their customers in
terms of the process, its elements, associated experiences, and
outcomes? To address this research question, three major goals
were formulated to advance our understanding of IOL:
1. The main goal of this research is to expand the theoretical
understanding of executivesperception and interpretation of
IOL by uncovering the major IOL constructs and examining
the complexity of this social process.
2. The second goal of this research is to shed more light on IOL
by examining it from an interpretivist lens, which argues that
knowledge is not discovered rather constructed through social
3. The third goal of this research is to uncover how IOL could
lead to a competitive advantage for 3PL rms and their cus-
The investigation into the learning process has its foundations in
the knowledge-based and resource-based views of the rm which
consider knowledge to be the most strategically important
resource and the fundamental basis for competition (Grant 1996).
The ability of a rm to learn to effectively combine resources
into capabilities that are not easily duplicated is a potential
source of competitive advantage. Other than being a capability in
itself, learning enables other capabilities such as collaboration
(Sinkovics and Roath 2004), agility (Bowersox et al. 1995;
Christopher 2000), exibility (Fawcett et al. 1996; Morash and
Clinton 1997), and information focus (Zhao et al. 2001).
Corresponding author:
Ila Manuj, Department of Marketing & Logistics, College of Busi-
ness Administration, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle,
Denton, TX 76201, USA; E-mail:
Note: All authors contributed equally to the manuscript. The authors
are listed in the alphabetical order of their last names.
Journal of Business Logistics, 2014, 35(2): 103120
© Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals
The learning literature has evolved to encompass four levels
(Beesley 2004). Initial research focused on how organizations
acquired knowledge through internal social actors, namely the
individual, group, and organizational (OL) levels of learning
(Crossan et al. 1999). Driven by the need to understand how
learning takes place within large, complex networks and supply
chains (Flint et al. 2005; Samuel et al. 2011; Berghman et al.
2012), the research recognized a fourth level, IOL (Lampela
2009). IOL can be dened as a complex social process whereby
rms learn from each other or learn with each other (Knoppen
et al. 2010) to co-create new knowledge.
Larsson et al. (1998) made the distinction between OL and
IOL by including the learning synergy or interaction effect
between organizations that would not have occurred if there had
not been any interrm interaction. On similar lines, Jones and
Macpherson (2006) extend Crossan et al.s (1999) OL process
framework to include IOL as a fourth level of learning. They
argue that external organizations have a signicant role to play
in the processes by which new knowledge and procedures
become imbedded in the participating rms. Inter-organizational
collaboration in the learning process is now commonly viewed
as essential for effective performance (Provan and Milward
1995; Knight 2002).
The exploration of IOL has evolved from how rms learn from
each other to how rms co-create knowledge. Initial research
emphasized the transfer and appropriation of knowledge from one
rm to another (Levitt and March 1988; Hamel 1991; Huber
1996). This perspective was largely based on research in interna-
tional joint ventures where companies often were engaged in
knowledge acquisition for the parent organization (Hamel 1991;
Levinson and Asahi 1995; Huber 1996; Inkpen 2000; Lane et al.
2001). The emphasis of this initial research stream was to extend
the OL constructs into an IOL context and to investigate the pro-
cesses that rms employ to learn from each other (Holmqvist
2003a,b; Janowicz-Panjaitan and Noorderhaven 2008; Cheung
et al. 2010; Hern
andez-Espallardo et al. 2010; Cheng 2012).
More recent research has explored how rms collaborate and
learn together (Flint et al. 2005; Lai et al. 2009; Chang and Got-
cher 2010; Westerlund and Rajala 2010; Berghman et al. 2012;
Otto 2012). IOL within this stream of research includes learning
about partners, as well as partnering, which allows rms to
respond more efciently to each others and market demands.
IOL research has recently been extended into a logistics and
supply chain management context (Panayides 2007). Many com-
panies have sought to develop strong relationships with their
trading partners for the positive effect of learning on relation-
ships and performance. Spekman et al. (2002) explore the pre-
conditions for learning in a supply chain and established a
relationship between IOL and performance. The effect of
upstream knowledge exchange and learning between rms on
performance and innovativeness has been demonstrated in multi-
ple studies of suppliermanufacturer relationships (Modi and
Mabert 2007; Azadegan et al. 2008; Azadegan and Dooley
2010; Azadegan 2011; Berghman et al. 2012). For example,
Wagner (2012) examines how the absorptive capacity of manu-
facturers and supplier innovativeness affected the new product
development process. Another stream of research established
relationships between interrm learning and performance in a
supply chain context (Hult et al. 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007). Flint
et al. (2008) examine the effect of the extent of learning across
rms in a supply chain on innovation and performance. Bessant
et al. (2003) explore supply chains as a mechanism for learning
and nd little diffusion of learning beyond rst-tier suppliers in
their study. Biotto et al. (2012) examine the diffusion of quality
management practices across a supply chain and nd that the
exchange of product and service quality knowledge can posi-
tively affect learning, product and service quality, and perfor-
mance across multiple tiers. In two related case studies, the
adaptive capacity of rms within a supply chain were examined
and determined to affect inter-organizational adaptation and
learning (Knoppen et al. 2010, 2011).
The extant research provides a foundational theoretical under-
standing of IOL; however, two major gaps currently exist in our
understanding of IOL within a logistics and supply chain con-
text. First, we know little regarding the complex processes occur-
ring in the minds of the senior executives engaged in managing
and executing IOL. Second, IOL is dened as a process, but
prior research has largely explored IOL as a construct. As a
result, our understanding of the process by which rms engage
in IOL requires further investigation.
The process and construct of IOL as perceived, experienced,
and managed by logistics and supply chain executives has not
been investigated. Executivesperceptions are important to thor-
oughly understand IOL since these individuals exercise responsi-
bility in key areas that lie at the intersection of two or more
organizations. Senior executives have responsibility for assimilat-
ing, disseminating, and interpreting learning and creating organi-
zational memories (March 1991; Slater and Narver 1995);
developing absorptive, receptivity, and transparency capacities
(Larsson et al. 1998); affecting existence, breadth, elaborateness,
and thoroughness of knowledge gained (Huber 1991); and bal-
ancing between adaptive versus generative and explorative versus
exploitative learning (Crossan et al. 1999; Holmqvist 2009).
They need to answer questions such as who should be involved
in learning; how to motivate learning; and the best ways to man-
age the learning process (Flint et al. 2008). A limitation of
almost all studies is only the structural components of rms that
facilitate IOL have been examined. The literature needs to be
supplemented to further advance IOL theories to adequately
explain how executives perceive and go through the IOL
The extant research supports the conceptualization of IOL as a
social process but has explored IOL as a construct. The realiza-
tion of IOL depends on the interaction between social actors and
the quality of relationships between organizations (Beesley 2004;
van Winkelen 2010). The IOL process occurs over time and
involves discernible break points that have been perceived and
recorded by several researchers (Nonaka and Toyama 2003;
Jones and McPherson 2006). IOL involves signicant complexity
and ambiguity as learning may differ between rms due to an
absence of a formal, centralized decision-making authority
(Holmqvist 2009). This results in IOL typically being a slow,
time-consuming venture (Liebeskind et al. 1996). However, cur-
rent research, because of its focus on the structural components
that facilitate IOL, does not capture the dynamic nature of learn-
ing. The research does not look at the evolutionary aspects of
the process and what may hinder or facilitate this process from
an executives perspective.
104 I. Manuj et al.

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