The Buying Center Is Dead, Long Live the Buying Center

Julia H. Bristor, University of Michigan
Michael J. Ryan, University of Michigan
ABSTRACT - It is customary to announce the passing of a monarch and naming of his successor in a manner similar to the above title In a similar vein, we believe that the group, which currently provides the theoretical framework for the buying center, has run its life cycle and should be replaced by the "network" concept. Thus, the institution would live on with a new role occupant.
[ to cite ]:
Julia H. Bristor and Michael J. Ryan (1987) ,"The Buying Center Is Dead, Long Live the Buying Center", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 255-258.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 255-258


Julia H. Bristor, University of Michigan

Michael J. Ryan, University of Michigan


It is customary to announce the passing of a monarch and naming of his successor in a manner similar to the above title In a similar vein, we believe that the group, which currently provides the theoretical framework for the buying center, has run its life cycle and should be replaced by the "network" concept. Thus, the institution would live on with a new role occupant.


The seminal work of Robinson, Faris, and Wind (1967) focused organizational buying researchers' interests on the relationships among buyers as well as users and others Subsequently, "others" (c.f Webster and Wind 1972; Calder 1977; Bonoma 1982) have been delineated to include a number of specific roles. The number of actors occupying these roles and their relationships have come to be known as the buying center. The notion of "group" or "small group" has, either explicitly or implicitly provided the conceptual underpinning's for the buying center. Whereas we believe this collectivity of actors and their relationships should endure as a useful conceptual framework, we believe that approaches to studying it based on group-- conceptualizations should be replaced by networks . Our arguments are based on the observation that the group paradigm, in terms of theory and method, does not adequately address important organizational buying behavior issues. For example, group approaches have not gotten us beyond the classificatory Buygrid (Robinson, Faris, and Wind, 1967) approach to decision influence. Terms such as influence, power, authority, and involvement have been confused with resulting measurement difficulties (Silk and Kalwani 1982), and there are no theoretical explanations for why influence varies by buyphase and product type.

It is not surprising that "group" researchers have provided little guidance for these problems as their interests are quite different. For example, Zander (1986), a leading group researcher, states that his focus is on an enduring body with continuing characteristics such as requirements for membership, a name, a charter, and officers. These requirements hardly fit the description of a buying center. As a result, concepts that are heavily researched by group theorists, such as leadership, have limited usefulness in understanding purchasing processes.

There are, of course, many definitions of groups, some of which may approximate some buying center descriptions. However, the majority of buying centers would not be recognized as being a -full fledged "group". In an extensive review, Cartwright and Zander (1968) conclude that group members

1) engage in frequent interaction

2) define themselves as group members

3) are defined by others as belonging to the group

4) share norms

5) participate in an interlocking role system

6) identify with one another

7) find the group to be rewarding

8) pursue promotively interdependent goals

9) have a collective perception of unity

10) tend to act in a unitary manner toward the environment

Our attention will now turn to approaches and problems in marketing and organizational buying. The next section will show that research based on the above underlying beliefs is apt to miss the mark.


It is widely recognized that the Buying Center has not lived up to its expected potential. Periodic appraisals of organizational buying behavior and the Buying Center (Bonoma, Zaltman and Johnston 1977; Bonoma and Zaltman 1978; Wind 1978a, 1978b and Johnston 1981) have all produced similar criticisms and recommendations without producing subsequent results. But, in each case, the Buying Center's potential utility has gone unquestioned. Representative of this position is Bonoma and Zaltman's (1978) claim that despite little progress, the Buying Center concept is necessary and fruitful and is theoretically relevant and substantively innovative but needs to be moved from its theoretical status to one which can be practically used. In this regard, problems such as the operationalization "group" rather than "individual" constructs must be overcome. An alternative approach to fixing up the group concept however is to examine the viability of the concept itself.

Cyert, Simon, and Trow's (1956) case study of a purchase revealed minimal overlap in the members who attended meetings. In short, there was minimal interaction, contrary to the first group characteristic previously listed. In fact, a formidable task that practioners face is promoting interaction since some buying centers are not given formal status (e.g. recognition, membership) and may never meet. Without formal status and interaction, group rewards are not possible, contrary to group characteristic seven mentioned above. Even if the group has formal status, key actors in the purchasing decision may not define themselves as group members, contrary to group characteristic two. For example, the current CEO of General Motors personally influenced the steel commodity management team's decision to purchase domestic steel of lover quality and higher price than that available off shore. Yet, the seller would not consider the CEO to be a member of the team. Thus, casual observations tent to discount the usefulness of group member characteristics one, two, and seven in buying situations.

Extensive snowballing is often necessary to identify buying group members (Moriarty and Bateson 1982) as the lack of frequent interaction prevents an individual from enumerating the members. Thus, researchers actually force a group to exist as a result of method since members to not adhere to characteristic three.

Sheth's (1973) well known model of organizational buy behavior essentially posits the existence of conflict and political resolution due to the specialized nature of the different business functions represented in the buying center. In short, different functional areas attempt to sub-optimize for the organization as each has its own values, reward system, and perception of reality. This view negates characteristics four, six, nine, and ten. Having left only two (five and eight) of the ten group member characteristics unchallenged regarding their usefulness in organizational buying, it seems safe to explore conceptual alternatives.


Purchasing Rules

The two characteristics unchallenged above do not depend on the other eight to be useful. An interlocking role system and promotively interdependent goals are concepts also imbedded in structural role theory. Consequently, our attention turns to purchasing roles.

Roles are expectations about sets of behavior that other people communicate to the occupant of a particular position (Katz and Kahn 1966). Thus organizational roles represent a system of relationships between members. A number of roles have been consistently Identified as being assumed by purchasing participants The buying center has been defined as being composed of five roles the buyer, the decider, the influencer, the gatekeeper and the user (Webster and Wind 1972). Various references have been made to some sort of boundary role in the purchasing process (cf. Spekman 1979, Wind and Robertson 1982). Gronhaug (1976) discussed the initiator and Bonoma (1982) and Krapfel (1982; 1985) identified the inside advocate as a major purchasing role. The opinion leader, associated with Word of mouth/two-step hypothesis, is another important purchasing role. This list is far from comprehensive. Calder (1977) suggested 25 or so roles which sight be operational in purchasing situations, such as the information giver and seeker, the follower, and the Coordinator. Little theory exists to explain who assumes these various roles or how, although there is sufficient anecdotal ewidence to verify their existence and importance. For example, Pettigrew (1975) vas able to show that a computer purchase decision outcome was a direct result of the gatekeeping activities of one person who had a strong preference for one supplier and who, to ensure that his preference be chosen, prevented other suppliers from making contact with the decision makers.

Role theory is based on the notion of networks since any group is not isolated but rather is embedded non-independently is a larger social system (Fombrun 1982). Consequently, our attention now turns to networks.


in the abstract, a network can be defined as a set of nodes or units and the relationships (or lack of) between them. Depending on the research question, networks can be analyzed at multiple levels including individual nodes, partial networks (dyads, triads and other system subsets), and the total network system. In nodal analysis the individual is always considered in relation to others. The notion of a network is common to many disciplines and, despite definitional differences both within and between fields, all contain a core conceptualization consistent with that presented above. The notion of a network is also compatible with everyday usage of the term as "An interconnected or interrelated chain or group or system," (Webster's Third Nev International Dictionary of the English Language).

Networks are common to electrical engineering and to project planning in operations research. Their theoretical aspects are, however, largely mathematical and less useful to this paper than various social science usages. For example, a communication network "consists of interconnected individuals who are linked by patterned communication flows," (Rogers and Agarwala-Rogers 1976, pg. 110). In this case, the relational content is uniplex. That is, communication is the only type of relation considered.

In organizational behavior the network concept appears in tandem with network an lysis (e.g. Tichy, Tushman and Fombrun 1979; Lincoln 1982; and Fombrun 1982). As Tichy and Fombrun (1979) note, network analysis ass made few substantive contributions to the organizational behavior field, in part because of the incomplete conceptualization of networks. To the extent that networks are treated conceptually la this literature, the works of sociologists and social anthropologists (hereafter referred to as social anthropologists) have served as reference points.

From this group comes the most useful discussion of constitutes a network (e.g. Barnes 1954; Bott 1956; Nadel 1964; Mitchell 1969; and Boissevain 1974). In contrast to communication networks, social networks are usually multiplex, or contain a number of relations including affect, kinship, gossip, toking, communication, or influence. Bott (1956) and Boissevain (1968) are explicit in differentiating networks from groups by noting that in networks not all individuals have social relationships with one another as would be expected in formal groups. To Barnes (1954), "Each person is . in touch with a number of people, some of whom are directly in touch with each' other and some of whom are not...I find it convenient to talk of a social field of this kind as a network," (pg 43). To Mitchell (1969), a network is a specific set of linkages among a defined set of persons, with the additional property that the characteristics of these linkages as a whole may be used to interpret the social behavior of the persons involved," (pg. 2). Finally, to Nadel (1964) a network refers to the interlocking set of relationships whereby the interactions in one relationship determine those occurring in others. Of importance in these last two definitions is the notion that to understand behavior, it is insufficient to look at single dyadic relationships Instead it is the patterns of the linkages that provide an explanation of social behavior.

Buying Networks

To summarize the discussion thus far, two major arguments have been presented. First, the group concept does not adequately capture the nature of organizational buying behavior. Second, the concept of a network would address issues not covered by the group concept. The purpose of this section is to introduce the Buying Network concept as an alternative conceptualization of the buying center

A Buying Network may be formally defined as the set of individuals involved in a purchase process, over a specified time frame, and the set of one or more relations that link (or fail to link) each dyad. The precise content of these relations may vary with the Buying Network as defined by the particular research problem. They remain unspecified in the general definition, but might include such relations as influence and communication. In addition to having metaphorical properties, the Buying Network is an analytic tool for explaining organizational buying behavior (Mitchell 1969). That is, the Buying Network fits into a general model that views organizational buying as organizational behavior, and it hypothesizes that Buying Network properties are a function of a set of organizational and purchase decision characteristics. Then, purchasing decisions, including their outcomes, are explained as a function of Buying Network properties.

Network properties are usually considered in terms of two dimensions - interactions, and structure or morphology With minor modifications Buying Network properties draw on Harary, Cartwright and Norman's (1965), Mitchell's (1969), Boissevain's (1974) and Tichy and Fombrun's (1979) schemes. Before further detailing these two dimensions, two general comments about Buying Networks are appropriate. First, the boundaries drawn around networks are somewhat artificial. Social Anthropologists often incur major conceptual and methodological difficulties in determining where to bound their systems Network analysts can draw semi-artificial organizational boundaries but, even 80, are often faced with unwieldy amounts of sociometric data. Fortunately the problems are less severe in Buying Networks since the system is limited by definition to a subset of the organization and a smaller number of relations. However, the issue does arise as to whether it is appropriate to include Buying Network members beyond organizational boundaries. For example a lawyer, consultant, or accountant from outside the firm might have decision involvement, directly or indirectly. Conceptually, they are members of the network.

Secondly, nodes can represent roles, rather than named-individuals. An organizational role is defined by structural role theory as the position(s) and task(s) assumed by a particular actor (Oeser and Harary 1962, 1964) Thus, we have come full circle to the purchasing roles discussed above Since network terms and characteristics are discussed elsewhere in this session, we will proceed directly to examples.


The notion of a Buying Network and some of its properties can be clarified with a hypothetical and qualitative example. Admittedly the networks are simplistic and the issues of date collection are ignored for the purposes of the illustration None the less, the example should help to indicate the concept's potential.

Consider the following problem. A manufacturer of personal computers is aggressively developing a market for its management information system (HIS). While the sales representative in a particular territory knows of several companies who intend to purchase an MIS, competition is intense. For this example, consider two potential buyers who are quire dissimilar. Firm A has a well defined purchasing policy in which the purchasing department controls the organization's seller-contact while Firm B has no stated purchasing policy. How can the sales representative decide how to most effectively apply his or her firm's marketing communication strategy to A and B? To understand the roles assumed in the process, the information flows, and the influence patterns, the representative identified and analyzed the firms' Buying Networks.

First, the communication networks are considered (see top of Figure 1). While many communication networks are bi-directional, the relationships involving the sending and receiving of source information are often uni-directional. Figure 1 illustrates Firm A's and B's respective communication networks. Visual inspection indicates that a seller-communication directed at a particular functional role, for example the purchasing agent, is likely to follow different paths. In A, the information could be passed along to the user (in the corporate planning office) as well as the other network members. In B, it would to no further than purchasing. On the other hand, a communication to engineering could reach every other member except marketing which is totally isolated. Thus, in terms of network member reachability from purchasing, all other points in A can be reached by one step except RED while no point in B is reachable from purchasing.

Although the points in the influence network (see bottom of Figure 1) are in the same relative positions for comparison purposes, the patterns differ significantly from the communication networks. For these purposes, influence was defined relative to choosing a source for the MIS. Whereas in A, the purchasing agent has informational or gatekeeping control of the process, the influence network reveals that the purchasing agent has no ability to dominate the sourcing decision. It appears that marketing is the key player. In addition, both manufacturing and engineering are influenced by both marketing and R&D, and are able to influence the purchasing agent. From the seller' perspective, there are clear diagnostics. Although initial contact must go through the purchasing agent, it will benefit the seller to gain the interest and support of marketing and R&D by appropriately tailoring the marketing communications. Notice that these diagnostics are not available without the network analysis.

Not surprisingly, the purchasing agent is strongly influenced in B. The purchasing agent is also the decision maker so that his/her decision will be a function of the other's preferences. In order for the seller to be successful, he or she must gain the support of the user and engineering, if not marketing and R&D. In comparing A and B, it becomes obvious that both the communication targets and the messages must be adjusted to their individual processes and characteristics.

It may seem that the graphic representations, although visually pleasing, are cumbersome. However, the diagrams can also be all represented by matrices and thus are amenable to matrix manipulations. There are also several computer algorithms available for analyses of networks It may also seem that the process of constructing individual networks is tedious, but an ultimate goal of employing networks is to incorporate them into a larger model of buying behavior so as to achieve some amount of generalizabllity and decision prediction based upon an understanding of the process. In time, it is hoped that certain types of Buying Networks can be identified and used for both academic and managerial purposes We have presently engaged in such a program of research. At present, the senior author's doctoral thesis contains a model of organizational buying influence based on network concepts which will be empirically tested.



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