Systematic literature reviews (SLRs) are methods for making sense of large volumes of information. They are used to interpret this information in order to explain ‘what works’ and ‘what does not work’ when exploring specific research themes, social policy or practical issues (Petticrew and Roberts, 2006). SLRs are designed to identify existing gaps in a field of research and to make recommendations for closing these gaps. The point is to bring together the evidence base on a particular theme in order to make credible policy, research or practical recommendations [reliability].

SLRs originated in medicine where they were used to bridge the gap between research knowledge and practice. The method has since filtered into many science and social science disciplines and it is often used to help inform policy-making. In many cases, when conducting a review, an SLR uses citation indices, a research protocol, search strings, inclusion and exclusion criteria and quality assessment criteria (Tranfield et al., 2003). There are a number of key principles behind SLRs (Pittaway et al., 2004; Thorpe et al., 2005):

  • Transparency - the approach used when undertaking the review is recorded and made available when reporting the study.
  • Clarity - there is a clear series of steps through which the researcher proceeds and these steps present an ‘audit trail’ that can be scrutinized.
  • Focus - the review ensures a focused approach around a clearly formulated question.
  • Integration - SLRs are designed to link research communities with practitioners and policy-makers.
  • Equality - there is no distinction made on principle between different forms of publication output (e.g. between policy reports and academic journals).
  • Accessibility - SLRs seek to make the output from reviews more widely available outside the research community.
  • Coverage - the systematic nature of the review should ensure extensive coverage of the theme, in many cases across disciplines and subjects.
  • Synthesis - SLRs seek to compare, contrast and draw conclusions across a number of fields to present the current ‘evidence base’.


The method is relatively new in management and organization research and has been developed and argued for by researchers at Cranfield School of Management (Denyer and Neely, 2004; Tranfield et al., 2003). The ‘Cranfield method’ of SLRs mirrors in many respects common practice in other social sciences. It involves a number of stages and processes which are followed by the researcher. Stage 1 involves planning the review: identifying the need; preparing a proposal; and developing the review protocol.

Stage 2 involves conducting the review: identifying the publications; selecting the studies; assessing quality; extracting data and conclusions; and synthesizing the data. Stage 3 involves reporting and dissemination: developing the report and recommendations; and making use of the evidence in practice. Underpinning these stages are some key elements that are often applied in the Cranfield method. For example, this method of SLRs usually requires a review panel to be formed, including the research sponsors, the researchers and other experts. The panel provides a narrative cross-reference, checking through knowledgeable experience that the SLR is picking up appropriate work and not missing anything important. The SLR method also uses inclusion and exclusion criteria. These are criteria set from the outset that define what is to be reviewed. In addition, quality criteria are set and used to judge the weight that is given to certain findings as they emerge, for example, influenced by the robustness of the method used to conduct the research [inductive analysis]. In setting such criteria, the review process seeks to enable effective but clear synthesis of findings related to the subject in order to provide practical or policy recommendations [mode 2].

The Cranfield method, as outlined above, has been used in a number of studies. Most notably, the Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) used it in three studies designed to explore innovation and productivity on behalf of the Department and Trade and Industry (DTI) (Denyer and Neely, 2004). These studies on networking and innovation (Pittaway et al., 2004); the adoption of promising practices (Leseure et al., 2004); and value creation (Edwards et al., 2004) were followed by a study conducted on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on knowledge within small and medium-sized firms (Thorpe et al., 2005) and small firms and growth (Macpherson and Holt, 2007). In many of these studies, the SLR method was used to expand both the thematic understanding and conceptual treatment of the subject as well as providing a current picture of the status of research in the field (Pittaway et al., 2004; Thorpe et al., 2005).


The SLR method is at an early stage in its development within management research. It is an extremely valuable tool, providing a method for conducting literature reviews. SLRs are improvements on the traditional ‘narrative’ method because they provide a transparent and clear approach which is reported to the reader, who can then critique it. They also provide a thematic understanding (rather than a subject-based one) which enhances conceptual understanding (Thorpe et al., 2005). Currently, the process behind a narrative review is often ambiguous and, therefore, less open to scrutiny. The SLR method is most valuable when it is seeking to translate and synthesize academic research so that it can be applied in policy or practical contexts. SLRs do not, however, replace narrative methods, or expertise in a given subject, because they do not necessarily provide the same ‘intuitive’ qualities and are best viewed as supporting methods. Inevitably, however, it is expected that the use of SLRs will expand. It is likely to become a more central feature in doctoral programmes and a common requirement in publicly sponsored research. The Cranfield method of SLRs, however, is one method for conducting a literature review and it is one form of systematic method. As the concept of using and reporting a ‘method’ for doing a literature review becomes more widespread, it is expected that a wide range of alternatives (usually based on different epistemological assumptions) will emerge. These may include ‘narrative’ or ‘interpretative’ methods where the approach is more openly reported than in current practice, and alternative methods which are equally systematic but very different from the Cranfield method. A particular issue that faces these future approaches is how to integrate the intuitive benefits of narrative methods with the systematic benefits of SLRs.

locked icon

Sign in to access this content

Get a 30 day FREE TRIAL

  • Watch videos from a variety of sources bringing classroom topics to life
  • Read modern, diverse business cases
  • Explore hundreds of books and reference titles