Research Approaches to Multi-Participant Decision Processes

David T. Wilson, The Pennsylvania State University
ABSTRACT - The study of organizational buying behavior has generated a number of concepts and models relevant to multi-person decision making. The purpose of this paper is to present some of these concepts and relate them to multi-person buying decision behavior in family decision making. A second purpose is to discuss some research approaches to multi-person buying decision making which may be relevant to the study of both organizational and family buying decisions.
[ to cite ]:
David T. Wilson (1978) ,"Research Approaches to Multi-Participant Decision Processes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 639-642.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 639-642


David T. Wilson, The Pennsylvania State University


The study of organizational buying behavior has generated a number of concepts and models relevant to multi-person decision making. The purpose of this paper is to present some of these concepts and relate them to multi-person buying decision behavior in family decision making. A second purpose is to discuss some research approaches to multi-person buying decision making which may be relevant to the study of both organizational and family buying decisions.


The Buying Center

The concept of a buying center has been defined as "those members of the organization who interact during the decision process" (Webster and Wind, 1972, p. 77). Although the concept is intellectually appealing, most researchers have not operationalized it in their studies. This lack of use likely comes from the difficulty encountered in identifying the legitimate members of the buying center and measuring their individual influence in the decision process. Several distinct roles in the buying center have been identified: users, influencers, buyers, deciders and gatekeepers (Wind and Webster, 1972, p. 77). Although these roles are conceptually clear it is very difficult to sort out who is playing what role at a particular point in time as an individual's role may change during the decision process. Wind (1977) has neatly summarized the potential of the concept and the problem inherent in applying the concept of a buying center. He suggests that

"The relevance of the buying center concept is not limited to organizational buying, one could easily apply it to the study of consumer behavior. In this context, it is not the housewife--the traditional purchasing agent for the family--nor the entire family that should be the relevant unit of analysis. It is the family buying center which is relevant." (Wind, 1977)

Davis (1976, p. 248) points out that in most studies of family decision making "family" is usually just husband and wife and not children, relatives or friends. The concept of a family buying center would include all of the relevant influences on a purchase. Organizational buying studies should be useful to researchers studying decision making within the household as both groups of researchers must solve similar measurement problems. The cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches would benefit all.

Davis (1976) touches on many of the same research issues that Wind (1977) does. For example, the degree of influence, role versus people, number of respondents and organization of the center are issues relevant to both research areas. A reader of both papers (Davis, 1976; Wind, 1977) will be impressed by the similarities of the research problems. The concept of a multi-person buying center is useful to both groups.

The Buy-Grid

The organizational buying process can be categorized into three classes of buying situations. In each of these situations the decision process can be described by an eight-staged model (Robinson, Faris, Wind, 1967) which is described in figure 1.

The new task situation is analogous to the extensive problem-solving situation of Howard and Sheth (1969). It is the most complex of the three buying situations and involves the largest number of decision makers and buying influences. On the other end of the scale the rebuy situation relates to automatic purchase behavior (Howard and Sheth, 1969) in which a purchase "habit" has been established. In the middle is the modified rebuy situation which occurs when the product or service purchase in a normal rebuy situation is perceived to be no longer meeting the "buyer's" needs. Product faults or competitive market forces may produce this change in the buyer's need perception.



The eight-stage step decision process is more suitable for organizations which document their purchasing by writing specifications than for family units who operate in a more free form environment.

Some researchers studying family decisions have used a three-phase model; problem recognition, internal and external search, and final decision (Davis and Rigaux, 1974) while others have used a four-stage model; identification of unmet needs in the form of plans, choosing the best course of action, action in the form of purchase, post-purchase evaluation (Hill, 1965). Another family decision research approach has been to examine particular aspects of a major decision (Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen, 1975) without categorizing the aspects in one of the above models.

It can be seen that organizational buying and family buying models of the decision process have many points of similarity. Both groups of researchers are seeking to define a decision process involving multiple influences over time. A major difference is that in many instances the organizational buying process is better documented due to corporate or government regulations. Nevertheless, there are many areas where common research problems may benefit from the insights gained by one group or the others.

Although the buy-grid has a number of faults it does provide guidance for conceptualizing and organizing research.

A Decision Process Model

It is possible to combine the buy-grid and buying center concepts to develop a simple decision process model of the organizational buying process.

The basic structure of the model is detailed in Figure 2. The individual decision maker is the core of the model. Figure 2 depicts two individuals representing the concept of the buying center. The actual size of the buying center is a function of the buying task and the organization; in other words, its size is situation specific.



The term "decision process" is used as shorthand for the process that includes information-acquisition, processing activities, choice processes, and development of goals and other criteria used in choosing among alternatives (Webster and Wind, 1972: 2).

Each individual has an information processing system, the input to which is filtered through a perceptual system (Sheth, 1972, 1973). The external memory represents the notion that an organization buyer's information processing system is likely to be supported by some form of external memory ranging from a hand calculator to an online package of analytical programs.

The other important element in this basic structure is the conceptualization of the buying problem as a set of attributes representing the product and the vendor (Weigand, 1966: 82; Robinson, Faris, and Wind, 1967: 40; Lehmann and O'Shaughnessy, 1974: 36). This is not a new concept, but it is an important one for this model. Attributes such as design of product, cost of application, performance life, engineering help (Weigand, 1966: 82) along with the traditional attributes of price, quality, and delivery make up the set of product-vendor attributes. This attribute set may be perceived differently by each member of the buying center in accordance with the individual's goals. Lehmann and O'Shaughnessy (1974) suggest that the importance of individual attributes varies as a function of the buying situation.

The task environment in which the individual operates likely shapes the importance of the individual attributes in total product-vendor bundle. In Figure 2, the task environment represents both environmental influences and organizational influences and constraints. Webster and Wind (1972: 40) characterize the external environment as a source of information which is input into the individual's decision process. A great deal of this information is the persuasive communications of marketers.

To review, the basic elements of the model are an individual in a task environment attempting to make a choice from a number of sets of product vendor attribute sets. This model is the most parsimonious representation of a complex process. It can be operationalized to describe simple (rebuy) or complex (new task) buying behavior.


It is contended that the task environment is the specifier of the operationalization of the model. The type of buying task, rebuy, modified rebuy, or new task, and the structural properties of the corporate organization greatly influence the relationship of the individuals one to another within the buying center. In addition, Newell and Simon (1972: 788) suggest that the task environment determines, to a large extent, the behavior of the individual. Their definition (1972: 55) of task environment, "refers to an environment coupled with a goal, problem or task." They note the distinction between the demands of a task environment and the psychology of the subject. This model accepts this distinction without further amplification.

Given a task environment, the four relational concepts: quasi-resolution of conflict, uncertainty avoidance, problemistic search, and organizational learning (Cyert and March, 1963; Robinson, Faris, and Wind, 1967) suggest the forms that the model will assume as the buying task moves from a rebuy situation to a new task situation.

The Simple Case

In a straight rebuy situation the buyer has a clear understanding of the importance of the attributes in the situation and the possession of each attribute by each product-vendor set. A decision rule, the exact nature of which is not the concern of this paper, is applied, and a choice of vendor is made. This rebuy process can be relatively easily converted to a closed loop automatic purchasing process in which the buyer need only participate under the rule of management by expectations (Wilson and Mathews, 1971: 52) and only take over the control of the decision-making system when an abnormality exists.

It should be noted that a rebuy situation develops as the result of a new task situation. The four relational concepts have resulted in a stable rebuying situation as uncertainty has been reduced to acceptable levels and the coalition in the buying center has been satisfied.

A More Complex Case

The new task situation represents the other end of the scale. There are many product-vendor attribute sets to be evaluated. Uncertainty is high as to the actual possession of attributes by the individual product-vendor combination. As the complexity of the task increases, a larger buying center may be created to represent groups with conflicting goals and interests.

The model can be conceived as operating in the following manner. First, responsibility for individual attributes within the bundle of product-vendor attributes is assigned to individuals within the buying center utilizing the rules of the quasi-resolution of conflict proposition. Organizational learning may be operative in that past experience may influence the current allocation of attributes to the individuals. Also, the assignment of responsibility would likely reflect the nature of the task, the skills of the individual, and other organizational variables.

A complex task situation confronts the individuals in the buying center with a likely information overload. It is suggested that the buying center seeks to reduce the complexity of the task by the easiest means possible. Problemistic search of some sort following to the principle of "information processing parsimony" (Haines, 1972) is required to reduce the number of product-vendor sets under consideration. The actual methods that buying centers use have not been addressed in the organizational buying behavior literature. Nevertheless, some speculations can be made based on studies of consumer and choice information processing behavior.

A similar decision process model could be developed for the multi-person family decision situation. Organizational variables would be replaced by variables such as stage in the family life-cycle and intergenerational influences.

The next section of the paper examines some research approaches that may be useful in the multi-person decision process.


The complexity of multi-person decision processes in organizational and consumer buying is well documented (Davis, 1976; Wind, 1976) and has tended to retard research. Most organizational buying studies have collected data only from purchasing agents while family buying studies usually include only the husband and wife.

There is a need to develop a flexible methodology that will cut across many of the variables such as corporate size and structure. Wind (1976) has suggested that conjoint measurement may be one technique to quantify the effect of a relevant other person's preference on a decision maker. The amount of data that must be collected to deal with a large buying center may limit this approach but it does have promise for some decision situations.

Another approach is based upon the work in multi-attribute attitude theories. Organizational buying problems (and family buying problems) can be disaggregated into sub-problem and decision responsibility assigned to different individuals in the buying center. One way to evaluate the influence of members of a buying center may be through a version of an extended Fishbein model.

Individual members of the center would be questioned to ascertain their evaluation of the attributes salient to them. In addition, the evaluations of relevant others in the buying center, as well as their motivation to be influenced by these relevant others, would be measured. One problem will be in the individual combining to make an overall choice. It is likely that insights into this problem will come from work on noncompensatory models.

Most everyone can think of the numerous problems inherent in this approach. Nevertheless, it does offer the beginning of a method to collect and assess the influence of relevant others. There is developing a body of theory to guide researchers in developing their research approach. Hansen (1976) presents an excellent summary of these choice models.

There is a need for field work to test the viability of the above approach. For example, one way would be to analyze a number of buying situations to determine:

(1) the individuals involved in the buying process

(2) the attributes tacitly specified

(3) the time-frame from initiation of project to the final choice of a supplier

(4) an insight into decision rules for choice.

The second stage would involve individual and group interviews with members of the buying group to:

(1) determine their views on attributes used in choice

(2) determine the rules for the disaggregation of problems into sub-problems

(3) determine their views on the choice processes

(4) select several buying problems that have broad commonalties

The final stage would be the development of instrumentation to measure in field experiment:

(1) attribute importance or saliency

(2) attribute possession by alternative suppliers

(3) disaggregation of the attribute set

(4) choice rules for selecting of a supplier.

Such a study may begin to develop a methodology and instrument base founded on solid theory that would be useful for both organizational and consumer family buying studies.

Both organizational and consumer family buying involves a multi-person decision process which has many similar facets. There is much to be gained by an exchange of ideas and results by the two research streams.


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