Inter-organisational relationship theory

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This chapter describes how the study is performed and the methods applied for data gathering. Additionally, the chapter argues for the method choices, as well as evaluating the reliability and validity of the research

Research approach

One can distinguish between two main research approaches, namely deduction and induction (Ghauri & Grønhaug, 2005). The deductive approach can be viewed as testing theories and drawing conclusions through logical reasoning, and it is often associated with quantitative studies. The inductive approach is explained by Ghauri and Grønhaug (2005) as drawing conclusions from empirical observations through interpretations, and this type of research is more often associated with qualitative studies.
The authors recognize a request for research on the topic of providers’ and buyers’ perspectives on TPL relationships, and therefore this thesis reviews literature concerning areas that will be applied in the investigation of the topic. Empirical observations are subsequently done through semi-structured interviews with different managers both from TPL providers and buyers in order to investigate how these actors adapt and cooperate to develop mutually beneficial TPL-relationships. Thus, it is difficult to classify this study as belonging to one specific approach. Saunders et al. (2009, p. 127) emphasise that ‘not only is it perfectly possible to combine deduction and induction within the same piece of research, but also in our experience it is often advantageous to do so.’ However, this thesis leans more toward a deductive approach, since it applies aspects from literature to a specific business context to investigate and broaden the understanding of this context.

Quantitative and qualitative methods

In order to gather empirical data to solve a research problem, there is a distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative methods involve the collection of numerical data, and the measurement of these data is preferred (Aliaga & Gunderson, 2002). Qualitative methods on the other hand, analyse data gathered through interviews or observations (Kumar, 2005), and aim to answer questions of ‘how’, ‘why’, and/or ‘what’ (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011). Moreover, use of the qualitative methods includes subjective interpretation of the empirical data collected, to create useful information about the investigated topic (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2012).
The empirical data collected through interviews in this thesis are analysed and interpreted to extend the understanding of this specific topic. The thesis therefore applies a qualitative method, since interviews are used as a data collection method, and due to the mentioned interpretative way of analysing the data.

 Methodological choice

In research it is possible to choose between two different methods. Saunders et al. (2012) distinguish between mono and multiple methods. In the mono method only a quantitative or qualitative study is used to answer the research question. When using multiple methods, Saunders et al. divide this group in two new groups where multi-method concerns using more than one data collection technique, restricted within either a quantitative or qualitative design. The second group is mixed methods, where both quantitative and qualitative methods are combined to answer the research question. This thesis uses a mono method, and a single data collection technique, since the empirical data are gathered semi-structured interviews. The authors view this approach to data collection as appropriate in this concern, because of the need to get insights to several relationships while at the same time keeping the opportunity to get access to detailed information to interpret.

Research classification

Research can be classified into three categories, namely exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory (Saunders et al., 2012).
Exploratory studies are appropriate when investigating under-researched areas, and their findings help shape directions for future research (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011). Brannick (1997) characterizes exploratory research as dealing with research questions of ‘what’. Descriptive studies are characterized by structured and well understood problems (Ghauri & Grønhaug, 2005), and Brannick (1997) characterizes this classification as dealing with questions of “when”, “where” and who”. Explanatory studies seek explanations of relationships between different components of a topic (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011), and answer questions of “how” and “why” (Brannick, 1997).
The main focus of this thesis resembles an explanatory study, since the thesis answers questions of how TPL providers and buyers adapt and cooperate to develop mutually beneficial and long-term TPL relationships. Since the thesis deals with an area which is somewhat under-researched and asks ‘what makes providers and buyers willing to cooperate’ and ‘what are their attitudes towards cooperating and adapting to each other’, it also has an element of the exploratory approach.

Research strategy

According to Saunders et al. (2012) it is possible to choose several different strategies of research; experiment, survey, case study, action research, grounded theory, ethnography, and archival research. The research purpose determines which strategy is the most appropriate one, but a combination of strategies can also be used to strengthen the research.
A case study provides the possibility to explore a current phenomenon in a real-life context (Yin, 1994). In order to investigate how TPL providers and buyers adapt and cooperate to develop mutually beneficial TPL-relationships a case study strategy is chosen for this thesis. A case study is associated with qualitative data,and allows the use of different data collection techniques such as interviews, observations, and focus groups (Patton, 2002). Since this thesis investigates relationships from the viewpoints of different companies, it is characterized as a multiple case study. Further, the thesis has a holistic view, where the whole company in general can be included. Interviews with managers, both in buyer and provider companies that at the present time are in a TPL relationship, are conducted for the investigation of the topic.

Time horizon

Saunders et al. (2012) distinguish between cross-sectional and longitudinal time horizons. Where longitudinal studies allow for the investigation of changes or development in a context over time, cross-sectional research focuses on investigating a case at a particular moment in time (Ruane, 2005). This thesis applies a cross-sectional time horizon, since the viewpoints that are brought forward in the study are collected during a limited period of time.


According to Saunders et al. (2012) it is possible to use two kinds of sampling techniques. Probability sampling is often used when the population is known and the probability to select a specific case is equal. Probability sampling is often used in surveys where you need to make statistic inferences from the population. Non-probability sampling is used when no sampling frame is available, and the probability of each case to be drawn is unknown. Saunders et al. stress that this sampling technique can provide rich information about the study, through exploring the research questions.
This thesis has a combination of an explanatory and exploratory purpose, and seeks to improve the insight of the chosen topic. A non-probability technique is therefore selected, since it is not possible to decide a sampling frame and since the thesis will not use statistical inferences to emphasise the results.

Sampling techniques

When using non-probability sampling, Saunders et al. (2012) differentiate four techniques. The first one is Quota sampling. This technique is entirely non-random and is often used for structured interviews. The second technique is purposive sampling and by using this technique the researcher uses their judgement to select cases that will best answer the research question(s). In the third sampling technique, volunteer sampling, the participants have volunteered and not been chosen by the researcher(s) to answers the research question(s). The last technique is haphazard sampling and is used when cases are selected without any clear opinion in regard to answer the research question(s).
This thesis uses a purposive sampling. The authors wanted to select cases that are particularly informative and that would provide thorough information for answering the research purpose. The authors selected four TPL providers that are major actors with long experience in their industry, both in Norway and Sweden. This was important to ensure well-argued thoughts in order for the authors to answer the research questions properly. For the same reason, the authors selected buyers that have used a TPL-provider over a longer period of time.

Data collection

Saunders et al. (2012) distinguish between secondary and primary data as literature sources available to develop an understanding of, previous research.
The first category, secondary data, contains previously gathered data which might only be relevant to the problem that the data was collected for. Secondary data include books, journal articles, online data, webpages of companies, and catalogues (Ghauri & Grønhaug, 2005). The second category, primary data, consists of data gathered specifically to solve the particular problem at hand (McDaniel & Gates, 1998), and data gathering techniques include interviews, experiments, observations, and surveys (questionnaires) (Ghauri & Grønhaug, 2005).
This thesis has based the literature review on previous research that has conducted data gatherings for their respective studies. Since this thesis applies viewpoints from these previous studies, these viewpoints have been part of the shaping of this thesis. The search for secondary data for this thesis has been conducted through academic journal articles and educational course books. Reviewing secondary data provides valuable insight to other researchers’ work on the field in focus, and further contributes to the building of a theoretical foundation of the topic researched.
The primary data used in this thesis is gathered through interviews with various managers in TPL provider and buyer companies in Norway and Sweden that are presently in a TPL relationship. The description and rationale for the chosen approach will be given in the following section.

Semi structured interviews

Interviews as a data collection technique can be classified as structured, semi-structured, or unstructured. Unstructured interviews have no predetermined questions, but take the form of a conversation between the researcher and the interviewee (Tenenbaum & Driscoll, 2005). Semi-structured interviews consist of themes and some key questions to be covered. Finally, in structured interviews the researcher asks standardised questions in the same way in the same order to all the interviewees (Tenenbaum & Driscoll, 2005).
The interviews developed for this thesis are of a semi-structured manner. An interview guide with a set of themes and key questions covering the topics of interest has been developed; one for the providers and one for the buyers. The interview guide consists of open-ended questions and it was used as a checklist to make sure that the topics of interest were covered during the interviews. The questions were not asked in a direct order, but adapted to the answers of the interviewees. This enabled the interviewee to answer freely, and also allowed the authors to follow up interesting answers. The latter point is important, considering that the different interviewees are likely to have different viewpoints on important aspects, as well as varying preferences in their way of addressing the questions.
A final rationale for conducting semi-structured interviews is that the interviewees have different positions in their respective companies, and also that their companies are different, since both providers and buyers of TPL services are included in the thesis. Therefore, an interview conducted in a semi-structured manner enables the interviewees to answer individually and freely, based on their positions. All interviews are conducted via telephone, with follow-up e-mails where additional questions arose after the interviews. For the interviewees to be prepared for the interviews, introduction phone calls were made, interviews were scheduled, and the interviewees received the interview guide via e-mail (See appendix 1).
Four TPL providers and three buyers have been interviewed for this thesis. Among these, two providers and two buyers are Norwegian, while two providers and one buyer are Swedish. All of the interviewed companies were chosen because they are major actors in their industry and their experiences and perceptions are highly relevant for the investigation of the topic. For interview details, see appendix 2.

Data analysis procedures

The interpretative nature of this thesis, through the use of qualitative methods, implies that the analysis in reality starts at the point of data collection. As mentioned, the interviews have been recorded and transcribed in order to facilitate a deep interpretation and understanding of the findings, in light of the reviewed literature. The interview categories and questions were developed based on the reviewed literature, and facilitated the presentation of the empirical findings in the following categories; relationship forming, trust and adaptation, and safety and risk. Subsequently, the material from the empirical findings from each interview was colour-coded in relation to the research question it addressed, and interpreted in light of the respective research question. Firstly, a comparison within the two groups, providers and buyers, was made, followed by a comparison and contrasting between the two groups. This was done to discover potential differences and similarities in the different companies’ attitudes and practical experiences. To ensure the quality of the analysis, the authors discussed patterns and implications of the material throughout the process. This also enabled the discovery of areas of importance in the TPL context that have not been found in the literature. It therefore provides new insights to the TPL relationship context and helps in answering the purpose of the thesis.

Reliability and validity

Kirk and Miller (1986) highlight that the reliability and validity of a research is critical in order for it to be credible and objective.


Reliability concerns internal consistency – i.e. if data collected, measured, or generated are the same under repeated trials (O’Leary, 2010). Saunders et al. (2012) differentiate between four factors that can affect the reliability of research; participant error, participant bias, observer error, and observer bias. When external factors influence the participants’ answers, this is described as participant error, while participant bias occurs if and when the interviewees do not provide all the information or do not answer questions completely (Robson, 2002). Mitchell and Jolley (2010) highlight observer error and bias being closely connected in that when the researchers’ subjective bias prevent them from making objective observations, observer error derives from observer bias.
As mentioned, all the interviews were scheduled in advance to ensure that the interviewees had enough time to answer properly. Interview guides were e-mailed to all the interviewees, after their agreement to participate in the study was confirmed. These steps were taken to avoid uncertainty and thus participant errors as far as possible. After having received the interview guide, but before conducting the interview, all interviewees were asked if their answers should be kept anonymous in order to prevent participant bias.
To prevent observer error, all interviews were audio-recorded and subsequently transcribed in order to quote the interviewee correctly. Before starting recording of the interviews, the interviewees were asked if they accepted the recording. Finally, the empirical findings (chapter 4) from each interview were e-mailed to the respective interviewee for their acknowledgement of the material.

Validity (Credibility and transferability)

Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2009, p. 157) state that ‘validity is concerned with whether the findings are really about what they appear to be about.’ Validity concerns truth and value, i.e. if conclusions are correct, and also with whether methods, approaches, and techniques relate to what is being explored. Validity is further divided between “measurement”, “internal”, and “external”. Internal validity is established when the research demonstrates a causal relationship between variables, while external validity is concerned with whether the research findings can be generalized to other relevant settings or groups. Considering that qualitative research does not investigate topics in the same manner as quantitative research, Bryman and Bell (2007) emphasise that qualitative studies should be evaluated according to different criteria than those used in quantitative studies, and therefore argue for the use of Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) propositions of credibility as a parallel to internal validity – “how believable are the findings”, and transferability as a parallel to external validity – “do the findings apply to other context” (cited in Bryman & Bell, 2007).
Concerning credibility, this thesis has interviewed actors both from the buyer and the provider side in TPL relationships. Covered fields are their experiences and perceptions as well as their companies’ attitudes concerning cooperation and adaptation in TPL relationships. The interviewees did not seem to hold back information during the interviews, and were talking, presumably, freely about their thoughts and experiences around the topic. No indications of loss of credibility appeared during the work with the interviews, so as far as the authors know, the findings are seen as credible.

1. Introduction
1.1 Background
1.2 Problem discussion
1.3 Purpose
1.4 Delimitations
1.5 Research questions
1.6 Outline
2. Theoretical framework 
2.1 Introduction to third party logistics
2.2 Inter-organisational relationship theory
2.3 Relationships in a TPL context
2.4 Summary
3. Methodology 
3.1 Research approach
3.2 Quantitative and qualitative methods
3.3 Methodological choice
3.4 Research classification
3.6 Time horizon
3.7 Sampling
3.8 Data collection
3.9 Data analysis procedures
3.10 Reliability and validity
4. Empirical Findings
4.1 Provider A
4.2 Provider B
4.3 Provider C
4.4 Provider D
4.5 Buyer 1
4.6 Buyer 2
4.7 Buyer 3
5. Analysis 
5.1 Providers’ viewpoints related to RQ 1
5.2 Buyers’ viewpoints related to RQ 1
5.3 Providers’ viewpoints related to RQ 2
5.4 Buyers’ viewpoints related to RQ 2
5.5 Providers’ viewpoints related to RQ 3
5.6 Buyers’ viewpoints related to RQ 3
5.7 Analysis summary
6. Conclusions and suggestions for further research
6.1 Conclusions and contribution
6.2 Suggestions for further research
Adaptation and Cooperation in TPL Relationships How do providers and buyers adapt and cooperate to develop mutually beneficial and long-term relationships?

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