From supply chain learning to the learning supply chain: drivers, processes, governance, trade-offs, complexities and challenges


Submissions Deadline: 31st of May, 2023


The year of 2020 has posed unprecedented uncertainties and challenges to the practice of supply chain management. COVID-19, trade wars, political polarization, Brexit, to mention a few, have largely changed the business landscape. Firms and other actors like governments and NGOs realize particularly that one of the major bottlenecks is the ability to learn from or even together with others. Companies more than ever now realize they have to learn new capabilities, together with their supply chain partners, to face the current challenges and the uncertainties of the future.

Supply chain learning can be defined as the collective learning that happens among multiple supply chain players. Bessant et al. (2003) is among the first to formally propose the concept of “supply chain learning” (SCL). They identify the stages of SCL (i.e., set-up, running and sustaining) and suggest different tasks and governance mechanisms needed for effective learning in supply chains. Earlier, Dyer and Nobeoka (2000) explore the knowledge sharing network of Toyota and find that strong network identity and coordination rules are needed to manage the needed multidirectional knowledge flows within the network and achieve the most effective learning outcomes. In a similar vein, Spekman et al. (2002, p. 42) suggest that learning is a key component of supply chain competency, and that the supply chain can be seen “as a vehicle for gathering knowledge and learning”.

In recent years, several aspects of supply chain learning have received widespread attention within the literature (Jia et al., 2019; Powell and Coughlan, 2020), giving rise of a number of key supply chain learning perspectives such as operational learning (Yao et al, 2012), technological learning (Smart et al, 2007), management learning (Zhu et al., 2018) and sustainability learning (Roy et al, 2020). These learning opportunities emerge from the efforts of supply chain players to enhance information sharing (Huo et al., 2020) and collaboration (Cheung et al., 2010) to resolve supply chain emerging challenges. Although the literature converges in recognizing the importance of learning to enhance supply chain performance in its various dimensions, the literature still lacks a fine-grained understanding of the supply chain learning phenomenon.

While many studies acknowledge the importance of supply chain learning, only a handful of studies have focused directly on the topic. For example, Bessant et al. (2012) suggest that formally configured groups of organizations such as supply chains and networks have become increasingly important channels for learning and innovation. Silvestre (2015) suggest that supply chain learning happens through learning loops where knowledge is acquired, which in turn leads to innovations that enhance supply chain sustainability trajectories. Gong et al. (2018) explore how multinational corporations orchestrate internal and external resources to help their multi-tier supply chains to learn sustainability-related knowledge. Yang et al. (2018) suggest that dynamic capabilities such as innovation, relationship, collaboration, integration mediate the relationship between supply chain learning and supply chain performance. More recently, Silvestre et al. (2020) argue that supply chain learning supports the simultaneous employment of exploitation and exploration capabilities in supply chain initiatives that, in turn, generate a superior supply chain performance. Taking this scant body of literature into account, we argue that the concept is still immature and there is a need for further research to fine-grained understanding of supply chain learning. A deeper theoretical and empirical insights on how supply chain learning actually happens in practice, its drivers, processes, governance, trade-offs, complexities and challenges is necessary.

Closing these gaps is important because learning still often occurs between 1st tier suppliers and focal companies, but it does not cascade throughout the supply chain in areas where the focal companies have less control, for example, in tiers located further away from the focal company (Bessant et al. 2003). Therefore, echoing the concept of “learning organization” (Senge, 1994), we extend it further to the concept of “learning supply chain”. Learning supply chains require a strong awareness regarding the significance of continuous learning, not only between focal companies and 1st tier suppliers/buyers, but also across their entire supply chains. This in turn, will shed new light on how supply chain managers can create mechanisms and processes to achieve and foster learning in supply chains.

As per their nature, supply chain learning is a complex phenomenon that must involve multiple supply chain partners often focusing on conflicting goals/interests, which may lead to important trade-offs (Blome et al., 2014). This means that both theory and practice should acknowledge that the a priori postulated link between supply chain learning and supply chain performance is always positive may actually not be true. As a consequence, much more research attention should be derived to the supply chain learning phenomenon.

Potential Topics

The proposed special issue will bring together research shedding light on all angles of supply chain learning, with a view that learning manifests jointly across multiple supply chain tiers or in conjunction with further stakeholders. The overall aim of the special issue will thus be to further illuminate how supply chain players interact/cooperate/collaborate to enhance supply chain learning, how supply chain learning manifests itself, and the consequences thereof. The special issue is targeting particularly rigorous and innovative qualitative and quantitative empirical work that advances theory or tests theory. We also encourage all types of empirical work, apart from case studies, surveys, panel data, experiments, we also welcome action research, ethnographic studies or modeling work with clear empirical contributions. In addition, we encourage more practical contributions aligned to the new IJOPM’s Impact Pathway section (

The following list (not exhaustive, simply for guidance) outlines the areas of interest for this special issue:

  • The dynamics on how different supply chains, including traditional supply chains, digital/virtual supply chains and service supply chains, collectively learn in areas such as:
    • Sustainability (i.e., environmental and/or social practices, reverse logistics, closed-loop, circular economy)
    • Technology (e.g., technological innovations, industry 4.0, IT)
    • Management (e.g., processes, operations, lean principles, quality)
    • Innovation (e.g., change management, exploration capabilities)
  • Synergies, trade-offs, tensions and unintended consequences of supply chain learning
  • The strategies, governance mechanisms and processes designed/developed/employed by supply chains to collectively learn
  • The interrelationships of individual, intra-organizational, inter-organizational and network levels of supply chain learning
  • The role of different stakeholder groups on supply chain learning (e.g., suppliers, buyers, competitors and other secondary stakeholders such as governments/regulators, NGOs, research organizations)
  • The role and impact of different cultural backgrounds in supply chain learning
  • The dynamics behind supply chain learning under high environmental turbulence
  • The relationship between supply chain learning and capabilities (e.g., exploitation, exploration, dynamic, technological, organizational capabilities)
  • The dynamics behind supply chain learning under governance structures within weaker institutions (e.g., emerging/developing economies/BOP)
  • The processes and mechanisms on how knowledge is managed in the supply chain and disseminated from organizations to supply chains (and vice-versa)
  • How supply chains learn from failures and scandals (e.g., sustainability/corruption/ethical scandals – e.g., IJOPM special issue on the hidden side of sustainable operations and supply chain management: Matos et al, 2020)
  • How supply chains learn from crisis (e.g., pandemic/Covid-19, disruptions, natural disasters; trade disputes)
  • The dark side of supply chain learning such as path dependence and lock-in situations as well as the role of forgetting

Finally, we strongly discourage submissions of manuscripts that state the obvious and confirm what is already known in literature. For example, it is already known that supply chain learning may have positive performance effects. Furthermore, we discourage purely descriptive research.

Key Dates and Submissions Information

Submissions Deadline: 31st of May, 2023

All manuscripts undergo a multistage double-blind review process will be implemented. Submissions are to be made through the IJOPM ScholarOne manuscript submission portal, and authors are encouraged to consult the journal's author guidelines. Authors of the papers under review and interested contributors of this special issue will be invited and encouraged to participate in a Special Issue Workshop to be held in June 2022 at the 29th International Annual EurOMA Conference in Berlin, Germany.

For further information or queries regarding the special issue, please do not hesitate to contact the co-editors.

Guest Editors

Prof. Bruno Silvestre [email protected]

Prof. Bruno Silvestre is the Associate Dean (Strategic Partnerships & Administration), the Director of the Transport Institute and Professor of Supply Chain Management at Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. Previously, he worked as the Chancellor’s Research Chair in Sustainable Supply Chain & Innovation Management at the University of Winnipeg. Prior to that, Dr. Silvestre worked at the Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, and at SPRU, University of Sussex, UK, respectively as an Adjunct Professor and Research Scholar. His research focuses on supply chain learning for sustainability and innovation and has appeared in the International Journal of Operations and Production Management, International Journal of Production Economics, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Cleaner Production, International Journal of Production Research, Production Planning & Control, Technovation, Organization Studies, and others. In addition to his academic work, Dr. Silvestre has 13 years of industry experience prior to joining the academy in manufacturing/operations/supply chain management, business development and project management in the energy, mining, manufacturing and high-tech industries.

Dr. Yu (Jack) Gong [email protected]

Dr. Yu (Jack) Gong is a Lecturer in Operations Management, Director CORMSIS Business Liaison (China) at Southampton Business School, University of Southampton, UK. He obtained his PhD at the University of Exeter (2013-2016), MSc in Logistics and Supply chain management at Cranfield University (2009-2010). He has publications in several high quality journals such as: International Journal of Operations & Production Management, International Journal of Production Economics, International Journal of Production ResearchIndustrial Marketing ManagementTransportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment  and has published four teaching cases. Prior to his academic career, he had three years’ working experience in management consulting firms in Malaysia and China. His main research interests are sustainable supply chain management and supply chain innovation. He has a track record of engaging multinational companies such as IKEA, Lafarge, Nestle, SKF and Tetra Pak.

Prof. John Bessant [email protected]

Prof. John Bessant is an Emeritus Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter and also has visiting appointments at the University of Stavanger, Norway, and University of Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany. He is a Fellow of the British Academy of Management and served on the Business and Management Panel of both the 2001 and 2008 Research Assessment Exercises. He has acted as advisor to various national governments, to international bodies including the United Nations, The World Bank and the OECD and to a wide range of companies. Prof. Bessant’s research focuses on how innovation is managed inside organizations and in inter-organizational networks to create social value. He is the author of over 40 books and monographs and many articles on the topic; the most recent include Managing Innovation (2020) (now in its 7th edition), Entrepreneurship (2018) (both published by John Wiley and Sons) and Riding the Innovation Wave (Emerald, 2017). 

Prof. Constantin Blome [email protected]

Prof. Constantin Blome is an Associate Dean Research and Professor of Operations Management at University of Sussex Business School, UK, and Kronos Group Endowed Chair for Strategic Sourcing at UCLouvain, Belgium. Constantin is the Co-Editor in Chief of IJOPM and active in several editorial boards. His research has appeared in journals such as International Journal of Operations and Production Management, Journal of Operations Management, Journal of Supply Chain Management, Journal of Business Ethics, International Journal of Production Economics, International Journal of Production Research, and others. His experience has been in manufacturing/operations/supply chain management, business development and project management in the energy, mining, manufacturing and high-tech industries. Constantin's research interests include supply chain management, procurement and operations management with strong focus on sustainability, innovation and risk issues.


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