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1251549 Buying Center Bonoma Essay

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The Buying Center: Structure and Interaction Patterns
Author(s): Wesley J. Johnston and Thomas V. Bonoma
Source: Journal of Marketing, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 143-156 Published by: American Marketing Association
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This article reports a first step toward developing some
quantifiable dimensions of the industrial buying task group, called the buying center. Group composition and interaction
processes were examined for purchases of capital equipment
and industrial services in 31 firms. Data were analyzed to
test the soundness of a communications network perspective
on the buying center and the managerial implications of such a perspective. Equipment and service purchase measures
differed reliably across several indices suggested by our
theoretical orientation. Organizational structure and purchase situation attributes correlated in generally expected directions with the dimensions of the buying group.



concept of the buying center refers to all
those members of an organization who become
involved in the buying process for a particular
product or service (Robinson et al. 1967). While
the major buying roles (e.g., initiator, influencer)
remain constant over all purchases, the participants
can and do change over purchase types and categories. The buying center notion has been one of the most important conceptual contributions made
in the study of industrial buying behavior. Yet
progress in moving from the abstract buying center
concept toward a research topic or management
aid has been slow (Wind 1978b; Gronhaug and
Bonoma 1980).

Wesley J. Johnston is Assistant Professor of the Faculty
of Marketing, The Ohio State University. Thomas V.
Bonoma is Associate Professor, Graduate School of
Business Administration, Harvard University.
Journal of Marketing
Vol. 45 (Summer 1981), 143-156.

It has been argued that the best way to incorporate and understand all the complex interactions taking place in industrial buying is via a systems approach (e.g., von Bartanlanffy 1968, Johnston
1979, Nicosia and Wind 1977). However, systems
theory is currently considerably stronger on concept
than on method and has offered little to the industrial
marketing researcher or manager that is implementable. Nonetheless, the need to examine the group and other social aspects of the buying center
remains a central one:
* To the extent that the buying center includes
more than one member, any analysis . . .
should include an explicit examination of the
relevant characteristics of the group, i.e., the
cohesiveness of the buying center, the leadership pattern, and the formal and informal network of communications among the center's members (Wind 1978a). * The development of organizational (as distinct from individual) characteristics (such as

The Buying Center: Structure and Interaction Patterns

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/ 143

group cohesiveness, autonomy, intimacy,
polarization, stability, flexibility, etc.) is the
least advanced area of organizationalstudies
(Wind 1978c).
Useful knowledge has been gained from studying
the purchasing manager as an individual (see Bonoma et al. 1977 for a review, and as he/she engages in selected (often simulated)interactions with salespeople, Tosi 1966 or Strauss 1962.) For the most part researchers have been unable to capture the

real life complexity of the buying interactions that
occur in a company, much less the influences coming
from selling representatives and the environment
(competitors, government). The stumblingblock has
been suitable interaction theory, and just as important, suitable methods. This paper develops some structuraland interaction-based system concepts to examine the functioning of corporate buying centers from a small group perspective, to develop compatible methods

that can be used to measure these relational concepts, and to conduct an investigation of the buying center as a small social system in a number of
organizations. The practical implicationsof this kind
of approach to the buying center are numerous from
an industrial marketer's perspective. They include
understanding the involvement and interaction of
organizational members in the buying decision
process, information transmission and processing
in the buying center, and the importance of purchasing management in the buying center. Previous Research on the Buying Center
Although the term buying center was first used by
Robinson et al. (1967), the first citation recognizing
that a numberof managersother than the purchasing
staff were regularly involved in buying decisions
was Cyert et al. (1956). Since then many articles
examining the buying center have appeared. For
example, Weigand (1968) showed that the industrial
buying process is complex and involves many people
at all levels in a firm. Later, Brand (1972) conducted
a study based on 232 semi-structured interviews
with managers involved in buying activities in 43
U.K. companies. He examined the participation of
key interviews with these managers and the participation of key departments and managers in the different stages of the buying process. He found
that general management and technical personnel
were perceived as equal or more important than
purchasing management in most of the buying
stages, and in all of the companies.
The frequency of buying involvement of different functional areas in the firm like engineering,

production, and purchasing has been investigated
on a number of occasions (Buckner 1967, Scientific
American 1969). These studies typically employed
a large cross-sectional survey of industrial firms,
from which aggregatefrequencies of functional area
involvement were computed on an industry or
product basis. No attempt was made in any of these
studies to group or systematically investigate
characteristics of organizations or groups with similar buying involvement. Other researchers tried to discover what aspects
of an organization or the purchase situation draw
different participants into the buying process.
Gronhaug (1975) found that the number of buying
participantswas affected by the degree of routinization of the buying problem, the perceived product importance, and the resources availablefor handling
buying problems. Patchen (1974) examined the effects of the locus and basis of participants' organizational influences on the buying process. He found that the importance of a person's stake in the

decision had an effect on that person's participation
in the process.
More recent research has turned to the perceived
influence of various functional roles in the buying
process (Fortin and Ritchie 1980, Grashof and
Thomas 1976, McMillan 1973, Patchen 1974). The
results of these studies show that there are significant differences in the perceived influence of major participants in the buying process, but that every
participant or group reports that it is one of the
most important and central. Little or no consensus
on who is the most influential party has been
obtained (Silk and Kalwani 1979). However, when
the question is restricted to who participates in the
buying center, high consensus is achieved (Gronhaug 1977, Kelly 1974, Patchen 1974). Apparently, it is quite easy to identify buying center participants
in any given purchase situation, but quite difficult
to understand their dynamics and power relationships.
Power, politics, and influence may be central
social variables in the buying center. Strauss (1962)
found the work behavior of purchasing agents to
be strongly influenced by lateral negotiations, or
formal and informal interactions with peers to
influence the terms of purchases. In another study,
Pettigrew (1975) examined the communications entering and exiting the buying firm. He found that certain individualsacted as gate-keepers to structure
the outcome of the purchasingsituation in the buying
firms through control of information. Martilla(1971)
found that word-of-mouth communication within
firms is an important influence in the later stages
of the adoptionprocess. Opinion leaders were found

144 / Journal of Marketing, Summer 1981

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to be more central to the verbal communication
network than were other buying influentials in the
The results of the research conducted to date
depicts the buying center as a complex, multiperson
group within the buying organization. The characteristics of this group, its structure, operation, and dynamics, remain largely unknown.
The Buying Center from a Systems Perspective
While researchers have conceptually examined the
buying center from a small group or systems perspective (Anyon 1963, Bonoma and Johnston 1978, Bonoma et al. 1977, Choffray and Lilien 1978, Cyert
and MacCrimmon 1968, Cyert and March 1963),
and others have called for work in the area (Nicosia
and Wind 1977), only a very limited amount of
empirical work has actually been done.
Only a few studies that actually take a system
or small group perspective could be found in the
industrial buying behavior area (Choffray 1977,
Corey 1978, Hillier 1975, Wind 1978b, Spekman
1978, Spekman and Stern 1979). Choffray found
that companies exhibited different vector involvement patterns in the purchase of industrial cooling systems. He had difficulty, however, in correlating
this involvement measure with any other easily
measurable variables. The vector involvement pattern is simply a list of departments within a firm with binary (yes or no) scoring for participation
in the buying decision process.
Wind (1978b) examined purchases of scientific
and technological informationby 171companies and
found that 274 persons were involved in these
purchases. He developed unidimensional scales that
graphically presented the relative importance of
various functional positions in each phase of the
purchase decision. He concluded that "recognition
of the complexity of the organizational buying
center, and empirical identification of its boundaries, can help. . . the entire purchasingprocess." (p. 29)
Spekman (1978) used a macrosociological approach to examine the decision making potential of 52 industrial buying centers in 20 manufacturing
firms. He examined the effect of perceived environmental uncertainty on four structural dimensions of the buying center: centralization, rules and
procedures, participation in decision making, and
division of labor. There was some support found
to indicate than an increase in environmental uncertainty leads to a decrease in the buying center's degree of division of labor and to an increase in
the level of participation in decision making.
Hillier (1975) developed a group model of the

purchasing process called the decision atom

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