The Role of Personal Relationships in Facilitating Supply Chain Communications: A Qualitative Study

Article excerpt


The key role communications play in enabling inter-organizational processes has long been recognized-Well before supply chain management (SCM) emerged as a distinct scholarly field, Forrester's (1958) marketing treatise introduced a seminal theory of distribution management that cited communications between members of different companies as a critical predictor of overall channel performance. In subsequent marketing work, Mohr and Nevin (1990) described cross-organizational communications as the "glue" that holds a channel together: communication allows firms to transmit persuasive information between themselves (Frazier and Summers 1984), foster participative cooperative decision-making (Anderson and Weitz 1992), coordinate joint programs (Guiltinan, Rejab, and Rodgers 1980), better know customers and suppliers (Lusch 2011), and gain partner commitment and loyalty (Mohr and Nevin 1990), among other positive aspects. In contemporary SCM research, mutual information sharing among employees of supply chain partner organizations is regarded as a requirement for successfully implementing a SCM philosophy (Menlzer, DeWitt, Keebler, Min, Nix, Smith, and Zacharia 2001; Min and Mentzer 2004), with frequent information updating among the chain members often cited as a condition for effective SCM outcomes (e.g., Ellram and Cooper 1990; Cooper, Lambert, and Pagh 1997). Accordingly, interorganizational communication is now theorized as a key relational competency that can generate sustainable strategic advantage for supply chain partners (Paulraj, Lado, and Chen 2008); related research suggests that more intense, frequent and diverse communication between supply chain partners' employees is associated with buyer-supplier relationship survival and prosperity (Kenis and Knoke 2002; Lai, Li, and Wang 2008).

While the importance of employee-to-employee communication within the supply chain is thus well established, a number of gaps remain in the literature pertaining to its efficacy across contexts and units of analysis. One such gap represents the focus of the current study. Scholarly research has yet to rigorously address how personal relationships between employees of supply chain member firms that are formed outside the work context impact business-related communications between the firms they work for. We acknowledge that it is ultimately employees that communicate within supply chain interactions, and following this logic, we explore how firm-to-firm communications are impacted by personal relationships among the focal communicating employees. For the remainder of this study, when referring to inter-organizational communication, we are referring to the communication that takes place between employees across firms.

As employees from firms directly connected within a supply chain develop personal relationships (i.e., friendships), there are numerous theoretical reasons to believe that interorganizational communication dynamics will be impacted, and the failure of supply chain research to account for the role of personal relationships limits our understanding of how interorganizational communication really occurs. Thus, the current research takes a multilevel view of interorganizational relationships and communications: we seek to understand more about how social relationships formed at the interpersonal level influence work-focused communications between managers as they act in their formal role as a supply chain partner. The context of the study is the connections between employees of supply chain firms (retailers, manufacturers, etc.) and the employees of logistics service providers (LSPs). Marasco (2008) specified a need for this type of research, calling explicitly for studies that would lead to a "deeper understanding of the behavioral complexities that emerge through the interaction between the buyer(s) and provider(s) of logistics services" (p. 141).

In order to execute the research, it is first necessary to operationalize the notion of a personal relationship. …