A framework for your literature review article: where to find one?

Tips on finding a framework to structure a literature review article

I ask students in my PhD classes: based on your experience of reading literature review articles, what makes a good one? One of the characteristics they typically mention is a clear framework that structures the flow of the review.

Indeed, having a clear framework helps a reader to follow the logic of your analysis and synthesis, and – maybe even more importantly - it helps to persuade a reader that your ideas and conclusions are not just a random mix of cherry-picked thoughts, but a coherent body of knowledge. So, if you would like to write - and possibly publish - a literature review paper, the question is, how do you come up with such a framework? Where do you find one?

I suggest there are two basic options to choose from: First, you can pick a framework before you start the analysis, and structure it (and the paper) according to this framework. The second option is to let the framework emerge from your analysis of the literature. So which option is to go for?

Framework first

Using an existing framework seems to be an easier option, because you don’t need to invent anything. This might be a particularly appealing path if you are a beginner in the field (e.g., a PhD student), so you may not know enough yet to develop on your own a framework that will be meaningful and interesting to others (I discussed in another post that to be published, a literature review should be interesting to others, including experts in the field). In this context, borrowing a framework from someone else looks like a safer option. So, where do you borrow a framework then? There are again several options for this route.

Option A: Use a generic framework

The first one is to apply a generic framework that structures your review of the literature based on the typical sub-headings of the papers, such as “Theory”, “Methods” and “Findings”. Such a classical literature review first discusses what theories the literature has used, then what methods have been used, and finally what the findings say (for example, see Tenzer et al., 2017). The benefit of such an approach is that it applies everywhere - no matter what field you are in and what topic you are going to write about, this framework will suit. Another option is to structure your analysis and writing by “definitions”, “elements / dimensions”, “antecedents / determinants” and “outcomes / consequences” and / or “levels of analysis” and “time periods” (for example, see Ambrosini & Bowman, 2009) – these sub-headings are also quite generic and widely applicable.

Option B: Use a framework from your core field

Alternatively, making your framework specific to your field, you can structure your review by key dimensions or types of your phenomena of interest, that are already well-established in the literature. For example, Ertug et al. (2022) explain that their phenomena of interest (consequences of homophily) have been studied at the individual, dyad, team, organizational, and macro levels, and hence they structure their review accordingly. Charalampous et al. (2019) structured their review of research on remote workers’ well-being around five dimensions of their core construct (well-being at work). Pianese et al. (2023) use the same approach: reviewing the literature on organizational control in the context of remote working, they organize their analysis around five “control domains”, that is, types of control, well-established in the relevant literature.

These solutions are quite straightforward, and if you are writing a literature review chapter of your dissertation, they would work quite well. However, if you want to publish this literature review, these approaches might turn out problematic. Indeed, when you use such generic or universal frameworks, you are less likely to surprise a reader who is an expert in the field. So, an editor of a journal is likely to ask - Can you tell something new to our readers who know this literature? Can you show them something that they haven’t seen before even though they read it all? Being so common and generic, these frameworks are not too helpful in addressing such comments and are likely to leave you struggling to articulate the novelty or value added of your literature review. I don’t mean to say it’s impossible to publish your paper using options A and B - the examples above are evidence to the contrary - but be well-prepared to address such comments from an editor.  

Option C: Look for an existing framework where others were not looking

An alternative option is to bring a framework from another stream of literature. You do not necessarily need to go too far: a framework may come from an adjacent literature, or a conversation in a different subject domain that looks at the same phenomena. For example, to review the literature on internationalisation challenges that professional service firms face (O’Higgins et al., 2021), we used a framework of characteristics of professional service firms (Von Nordenflycht, 2010). This reads like an obvious choice, and you may wonder whether this isn’t an example of option B above. However, the internationalisation literature has been dominated by its own frameworks, with this closely adjacent area being overlooked. So our approach was quite novel.

Here is an example where I had to venture further afield: in my review of the literature on knowledge sharing (Sergeeva & Andreeva, 2016), we focused on how context in which knowledge is shared matters. Guided by this focus, in our search for an analytical framework ventured beyond the core literature we reviewed – that on knowledge sharing – and explored other literatures, focusing on those that discussed the concept of “context” in depth. We explored international business, institutional theory, and organizational behaviour literatures, all offering different treatments of context – and hence, different frameworks to describe its elements. Among those, we picked one from the organizational behaviour literature (Johns, 2006), which we deemed the best fit for our purpose.

I believe such a framework from “elsewhere” creates a much stronger potential for an interesting (read: publishable!) contribution, because it may allow you to see your literature in a different light. It also gives you an opportunity to surprise an expert in your field, because they may not have thought of the literature they know in such a way.

The question is: how do I find such a framework to borrow from a different literature? The answer is – there is no simple solution to it (sorry for the bad news). You need to read a lot beyond your own field. Explore the other literatures. Sometimes you need to do a separate “literature review” project to find such a framework!

Analysis first

Finally, you can let your findings speak and let the framework that structures your writing emerge from your analysis. An interesting example of such an approach is a literature review by Karhunen et al. (2018). They were interested in exploring the assumptions that literature has about their topic of interest (language-sensitive research in international management). So, they analysed the literature in an exploratory way, identified that three types of assumptions exist in this literature, and they structured the paper around these three.

Another example of this approach is a paper by Kossek et al. (2023). Their aim was to integrate diverse and fragmented literature on their topic (work-life flexibility policies). From the analysis of the literature, they inductively derived a taxonomy of such policies, and stages of their implementation. Then they combined these elements into an overarching framework and organized their findings around it.

Of the different approaches I discuss here, this strategy may have the strongest potential to make an interesting contribution to the literature and surprise the expert reader in your field. At the same time, it is the most challenging one, because you do not know what your analysis of the literature will bring; and you need to have both strong critical thinking skills and sufficient expertise to see the hidden themes in the literature that others have not seen yet.

Now you know where a framework can come from (and why it matters). The choice is yours.

Two more observations

First, have you noticed that while I started this post with an idea that a framework is needed to structure the flow of your writing (and this is what my students typically see first), as we went along, a framework grew into something bigger? That is, it transpires to be a tool for analysis of the literature and an enabler of your theoretical contribution - and hence, of publishability of your paper! So, do not underestimate the power of the framework.

Second, different approaches to finding a framework for a literature review are similar to different approaches to theorizing in an empirical paper. Indeed, there are exploratory studies where you let the theory emerge from your empirical data, and there are explanatory studies where you need to have a clear theoretical framework before you work with the data. This speaks to my post where I suggest you to treat your literature paper as empirical paper (if you want to publish it).

Related video


  • Ambrosini V., Bowman, C. (2009). ”What are Dynamic Capabilities and are they a useful construct in strategic management?” International Journal of Management Reviews, 11(1): 29-49.
  • Charalampous, M., Grant, C.A., Tramontano, C., Michailidis, E. (2019). ”Systematically reviewing remote e-workers’ well-being at work: a multidimensional approach”, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28:1, 51-73,
  • Ertug, G., Brennecke, J., Kovács, B., Zou, T. (2022). ”What does homophily do? A review of the consequences of homophily”, Academy of Management Annals, 16: 38–69.  
  • Johns, G. (2006). ”The essential impact of context on organizational behavior”. Academy of Management Review, 31: 386-408
  • Karhunen, P., Kankaanranta, A., Louhiala-Salminen, L., Piekkari, R. (2018). "Let’s talk about language: A review of language-sensitive research in international management", Journal of Management Studies, 55: 980-1013
  • Kossek, E. E., Perrigino, M. B., Lautsch, B. A. (2023). “Work-life flexibility policies from a boundary control and implementation perspective: A review and research framework”,  Journal of Management, 49(6), 2062–2108.
  • O’Higgins, C., Andreeva, T., Aramburu, N. (2021) “International management challenges of professional service firms: a synthesis of the literature”, Review of International Business and Strategy, 31(4): 596 – 621
  • Pianese, T., Errichiello, L., da Cunha, J.V. (2023). “Organizational control in the context of remote working: A synthesis of empirical findings and a research agenda”, European Management Review, 20(2), 326–345.
  • Sergeeva, A., Andreeva, T. (2016) “Knowledge sharing: bringing the context back in”, Journal of Management Inquiry, 25, 240-261
  • Tenzer, H., Terjesen, S., Harzing, A.-W. (2017). "Language in international business: A review and agenda for future research". Management International Review, 57: 815–854
  • Von Nordenflycht, A. (2010). “What is a professional service firm? Towards a theory and taxonomy of knowledge-intensive firms”. Academy of Management Review, 35(1): 155-174.

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