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Uncertainty and Technical Communication Patterns

Author(s): James W. Brown and James M. Utterback


Source: Management Science, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Mar., 1985), pp. 301-311
Published by: INFORMS
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MANAGEMENT SCIENCE
Vol. 31, No. 3, March 1985
Printed in U.S.A.

UNCERTAINTY AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION


PATTERNS*
JAMESW. BROWNAND JAMESM. UTTERBACK
School of Journalism,Indiana University,Indianapolis,Indiana 46202
School of Engineering,Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge,Massachusetts 02139
This paper examines the relationship between research and development peoples' perceptions of uncertainty in their firm's competitive environment and their patterns of technical
communication. Measures of both these attributes of six R&D groups, two in each of three
industries, are reported and analyzed here. Technical people who saw the world (competitors,
suppliers, customers, technology and regulations) outside their firm as more uncertain also
were found to seek greater contact with sources of information outside their firms. The
gatekeeper phenomenon was found to be more pronounced, but less formal and less well
defined in these firms. Gatekeepers in general were found to perceive a higher level of
uncertainty than others in all six firms.
(RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT; TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION)

Introduction
This paper examines the relationship between research and development peoples'
perceptions of uncertainty in their firm's competitive environment and their patterns of
technical communication. While there are very good reasons to believe that as a firm's
competitive context becomes less predictable and more complex, communication
between its people and the world outside will increase, few studies have examined this
issue directly. This is an important concern for a firm moving into new product areas
and technologies, as well as for firms beset by rapid changes in technology, market
demands, regulatory requirements, materials availability and rivalry on the part of
competing firms. The findings of some related past research, a set of hypotheses
derived from these, and the present study method, measurements and results will be
presented here.
Persons who serve as "mediators" in communication of technical information
between sources outside their organization and those inside have been shown to be
critical in suggesting new ideas and in bringing relevant information to bear in
technical problem solving (Allen 1970). Allen contends that while most of the information used by engineers in effective development efforts comes from colleagues within
the organization, those highly chosen as sources of information are also the individuals
who most often use external sources of information, such as journals and experts in
their field. He has termed those occupying such informal roles "technical gatekeepers,"
because they open the "gate" or barrier raised by different terminology or "coding"
(Katz and Kahn 1966) used inside and outside the organization. Allen (1970) has also
shown that gatekeepers communicate frequently with one another, thus forming an
efficient network for transmitting information within the organization. Gerstberger
(1971) found that new-hires who joined groups fortunate enough to include a member
of this network were rapidly linked into the organization's informal communication.
Those who joined other groups were less aware of whom to seek out for technical
assistance within the organization. Engineers appear to enter the gatekeeper role only
after significant experience within the organization (Taylor 1972) and to cease this
*Accepted by Burton V. Dean; received January 17, 1983. This paper has been with the authors 5 months
for 1 revision.
301
0025-1909/85/3 103/03101$0 .25
Copyright ? 1985, The Institute of Management Sciences

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302

JAMES W. BROWN AND JAMES M. UTTERBACK

function once they are no longer directly involved in technical work. While a large
proportion (40%o)of those identified as gatekeepers by Allen (1970) were also first-line
supervisors, this does not appear to be a necessary condition. To be a gatekeeper
according to Allen's findings it is sufficient to be highly chosen as a source of
information and ideas by colleagues (a technical discussion "star") and also to have a
high frequency of contact with external information sources (an external communication "star") (Allen and Cohen 1969, Taylor 1972).
The gatekeeper concept has appealing simplicity and "face validity," and the
compelling initial evidence has resulted in much further empirical study. Current and
future directions for work in this area include replication and generalization of the
above findings (Frost and Whitley 1971, Tushman 1977, Walsh and Baker 1972),
extension to include additional individual (Hall 1972) and organizational variables
(Taylor 1972, Morrow 1981), and longitudinal studies (Callahan and Salipante 1979,
Gerstberger 1971, Taylor and Utterback 1975). Allen (1977) has recently written a
comprehensive summary of much of the research in this area. However, a more
comprehensive statement of the conditions under which the gatekeeper phenomenon
may arise and operate effectively seems to be required if these and other studies are
not to produce confusing and contradictory results. Crane (1970) has posed an incisive
challenge in her review. She contends that "(while) the methodological sophistication
of the studies (of technical communication) has increased; theoretical issues appear to
be more urgent." What revisions or extensions of theory might assist in the further
examination of the process of technical communication across organization boundaries? This paper argues that perceived environmental uncertainty is a useful concept to
explain some contradictions in the literature regarding the gatekeeper phenomenon, in
differing organizational environments, and in making theoretical extension in the
process of technical communication.
Uncertainty in organizations' environments has appeared in a number of investiga,
tions to be a major contingency in explaining variations in effective structures.
Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) describe firms in the less certain environments, defined as
consisting of market, product and production technologies, as requiring a greater
degree of use of integrating roles and departments for effective performance. Firms in
more certain environments were able to rely on formal hierarchy and procedures.
Burns and Stalker (1961) describe a firm in a rapidly changing environment as
"organic" in structure in contrast to the "mechanistic" structure of a firm in a
relatively stable commercial and technical environment. Galbraith (1973), from a
comprehensive review of literature and case studies, concludes that the information
processing capacity required of an organization for effective performance is a monotonic function of uncertainty in its environment, number of units, variables or clients,
and complexity of interdependencies faced by the firm. As uncertainty, number and
complexity increase, the reliance of the firm on interpersonal communication and
interactive information systems must also increase.
Blandin and Brown have suggested that uncertainty motivates the information
search process. They report data on use of formal and informal sources of information
by 70 managers in eight firms as related to their individual perceptions of uncertainty.
Managers in four electronics firms were seen to perceive their environments as much
more uncertain than did managers of four wood products firms. Significant relationships were found to exist between managers' individual perceptions of uncertainty and
their reliance on and use of outside sources of information (Blandin and Brown 1977).
Tushman examined communication and task uncertainty for 62 project groups in one
large firm. He found that high performing groups with uncertain tasks had a greater
degree of outside communication than did others (Tushman 1976). (Both of these
studies were conducted at the same time as the present research.)

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UNCERTAINTY AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION PATTERNS

303

Tushman (1977) found that projects in a changing environment, with complex


information requirements, had more boundary roles than other projects in stable
environments with more simple information requirements. Research projects had more
boundary roles than technical projects.
These statements and findings suggest that the greater the uncertainty in the
organization's environment, the more likely one will find the technical gatekeeper
phenomenon to be present. The greater the rate of change in the field the greater the
need to use information from outside the organization, and unless continual adjustments are made by persons in the organization, the greater the potential difference in
coding schemes between those in the organization and those outside.
Hypothesis 1. Research and development people in firms with higher levels of
perceived environmental uncertainty will seek greater contact with sources of information outside their firms.
Hypothesis 2. A higher proportion of R&D people will be gatekeepers in firms
with higher levels of perceived environmental uncertainty.
Thus, there would be a greater need for persons who occupy a mediating or
boundary role (Leifer and Huber 1977, Organ and Greene 1972, Tushman 1977). The
greater the uncertainty, the greater the extent to which interpersonal communication
between outside sources of information and the organization will be required. Conversely, the lower the uncertainty, the greater the use of those in roles designated by
the formal organization, such as first-line supervisors, in mediating the flow of
information into the organization.
Hypothesis 3. Gatekeepers will more often occupy formally defined roles, that is be
supervisors or group leaders, in firms with lower levels of perceived environmental
uncertainty.
Most of the research on technical communication mentioned above was done in
aerospace and other rapidly changing fields. In cases where technical work is highly
structured, and in cases where it is highly market oriented, one would find less external
communication. The gatekeeper role will be less frequently developed, and the flow of
communication will more likely be mediated by those in roles designated by the formal
organization in more stable environments.
If gatekeepers act to simplify and order the flow of information between the firm
and the environment, might they also act as a buffer when perceptions of uncertainty
in the environment are involved? March and Simon (1958) suggest the people in
contact with particular parts of an organization's environment tend to absorb uncertainty by summarizing and assessing their own direct perceptions and transmitting
them to the rest of the organization. If so, we would expect gatekeepers to perceive a
greater degree of uncertainty in the world outside than would others in the firms'
R&D group.
Hypothesis 4. Gatekeepers in general will perceive a higher level of uncertainty
than will others in their firms.
Uncertainty appears to be greater in more rapidly changing industries and technical
fields (Duncan 1972). Uncertainty appears to be greater in environments which are
more complex in terms of the numbers of factors or variables to be considered and in
which solution requirements are less well defined. Finally, uncertainty appears to be
greater in cases involving "state of the art" or relatively recent technology, and in
which information is less well developed or less widely known.
Study Method
Three industries which were expected to have widely varying degrees of uncertainty
(food products, paper and computer manufacturing) were selected for study, and two

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304

JAMES W. BROWN AND JAMES M. UTTERBACK

firms in each agreed to cooperate in the research. All the firms were in the same large
metropolitan area. Only individuals in the firms' R & D divisions were asked to
participate in the study. The number of respondents was 124 in all, representing one
R&D unit per firm. The research missions of the firms were as closely matched as
possible within each industry. This was not possible with the two computer firms, one
was focused upon hardware development and the other upon software development.
Of course, the research missions across industries were not directly comparable.
In order to make the present results as comparable as possible with past work, it was
decided to use existing, repeatedly tested research instruments. Allen's (1977) questionnaire was used to determine frequencies of communication with various external
sources and to identify external and internal "discussion stars."' The individuals who
qualified on both counts were identified as "gatekeepers." Similarly, Duncan's (1972) questionnaire was used to measure uncertainty of different aspects of the
firm's environment as will be discussed in the following section.2
Measurement of Uncertainty
Examination of organizational environments for signs of change is now commonplace (Bright 1970, Utterback and Brown 1972). Utterback and Burack (1974) have
suggested that the emergence of various methods to forecast technological change is a
function of uncertainty in the environment and the salience of technology in an
organization's strategy for growth.
Few attempts have been made to analyze the concept of uncertainty in a contingency theory. Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) developed a measure of environmental
uncertainty which includes scores for three dimensions of the environment: clarity of
information, uncertainty of cause and effect relationships, and time span of definitive
feedback. They found a relationship between environmental uncertainty and organizational structure. Tosi, Aldag, and Storey (1973) found the Lawrence and Lorsch
instrument did not correlate with volatility measures of the environment as ought to be
the case in a contingency theory of organizations. That is, the degree of perceived
uncertainty is a function of environmental characteristics. Downey and Slocum (1973)
and Downey, Hellriegel, and Slocum (1975) suggested the uncertainty measured by the
Tosi et al. volatility measures is more appropriate for the finance function of an
organization, not sales, marketing, or R&D.
Leblebici and Salancik (1981) did not find volatility related to information routinely
collected for decisions by loan departments of banks. However, the greater the
diversity of a bank's environment, the greater the number of items requested on the
loan application form. They argued that researchers have failed to be precise about
uncertainty and its specific implications for an organization and that a limited, but
precise, definition for uncertainty is obtained by combining dimensions of environmental uncertainty with the cause-effect dimension of the decision situation.
Gifford, Bobbitt and Slocum (1979), in a laboratory decision-making exercise, found
that message characteristics including knowledge about states-of-nature, alternative
courses of action and payoffs are associated in a predictable manner with uncertainty.
Downey and Slocum (1973) argued that uncertainty should be examined as a
perceptual process. That is, organizational and individual environments do exist and
have real attributes, but individual responses to environments and uncertainty should
' The authors wish to thank Thomas J. Allen who kindly gave his permission to use his research
instrument. Criteria for selection of "Stars" were those used by Allen and his students.
2The authors wish to thank Robert Duncan who kindly gave his permission to use his research
instrument. Procedures for computing component and total uncertainty scores were those devised by
Duncan. A correction was made in Duncan's computational procedure as noted in Brown (1977).

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UNCERTAINTY AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION PATTERNS

be treated as perceptions. Duncan's (1972) uncertainty instrument is based on individual perception of the environment. It is theoretically well constructed, but few attempts
have been made to validate the measure by other researchers.
Duncan (1972) has measured uncertainty in terms of complexity, dynamism and
managers' perceptions. Duncan's measure included three dimensions: (1) lack of
information regarding environmental factors associated with a given decision-making
situation, (2) lack of knowledge about the outcome of a specific decision in terms of
how much the organization would lose if the decision were incorrect, and (3) ability or
inability to assign probabilities as to the effect of a given factor on the success or
failure of a decision unit in performing its function. Downey, Hellriegel and Slocum
(1975) found that the Duncan total uncertainty scale and two of its three subscales met
accepted standards for reliability of research instruments. The present study sought to
validate Duncan's measure in new environments.
Duncan (1972) defined an organization's environment as the totality of physical and
social factors used in decision making. In this context, a number of factors within the
boundaries of the organization should be considered as part of the total environment.
Duncan's measure, then, considered relevant physical and social decision factors both
internal and external to the organization that are taken into consideration in decision
making. (Listings of these factors and procedures for calculating component uncertainties using Duncan's three dimensions are found in Brown 1977.)
Detailed and total uncertainty measures for the six R & D units of the firms studied
are shown in Table 1. The two paper producers are quite similar in their peoples'
perceptions of a relatively placid environment.
The two food products firms likewise report similar perceptions, surprisingly that
TABLE I
Respondents'Perceptionsof the Uncertaintyof Various Components
of Their Firm's External and Internal Environments
Firms Ranked
by Total
Uncertainty Level
High

Low

Food B
Food A

Customer

Suppliers

Competitors

SocioPolitical

Technological

0.43
0.42

1.03
0.32

2.10
1.34

0.87
0.51

0.18
0.64

Computer A
Computer B

- 0.24

0.34

0.13

0.06

0.02

Paper B
Paper A

- 0.06
- 0.62

0.03
- 0.45

- 0.29
- 0.08

- 0.53
- 0.82

FirmsRanked
Firms
Roanke
by Total
Uncertainty Level
High Food B
Food A
Computer A

Low

External Environmental Components

-0.56

0.98

Internal Environmental Components


_________________
Personnel
0.13
0.82

Staff
0.37
1.06

Organizational

TOTAL UNCERTAINTY

0.45
0.43

1.032
0.797

0.23

0.09

Computer B

-0.13

- 0.22

0.23

- 0.181

Paper B
Paper A

-0.15
-0.86

- 0.18
- 1.07

- 0.74
- 0.78

- 0.713
- 1.228

0.22

0.309

Larger and positive numbers in the table indicate higher levels of uncertainty. The numbers are
obtained by summing standardized scores from Duncan's three uncertainty dimensions. The range
of total uncertainty was -6 to + 5.

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JAMES W. BROWN AND JAMES M. UTTERBACK

theirs is the most turbulent environment of those studied. However, these firms had the
highest amount of security in the research laboratories and those individuals who
approved their firm's participation in the study carefully reviewed the study questions
and did not approve any questions pertaining to brief descriptions of participants'
work. The other four firms did not want to review the questionnaire. These measures
suggest that the obtained rank ordering of firms on total perceived uncertainty was,
indeed, appropriate. (The two food research units also experienced the greatest
complexity and dynamism of the environment as measured by Duncan's instrument.)
The two computer firms are quite different in their reported views. One firm (B)
which focused upon software development sees a placid world, while the other (A),
focused upon hardware development, sees the world as complex and changing.
A firm's internal structure is expected to reflect the environment in which it
competes. Measures of perceived rates of change in skill requirements, staff functions
and organizational structure, objectives and goals are also given in Table 1 following
Duncan. These can be seen to be highly correlated with perceptions of change in
external environmental components as expected. (Only the two food producers are
reversed in the ranking based on external and internal measures.) Total uncertainty
scores, combining perceptions of internal and external factors are, of course, highly
correlated with both. The firms studied are ranked from highest to lowest in Table 1
with respect to respondents' perceptions of uncertainty in their external environments,
and of course in terms of perceptions of internal change and total uncertainty as well.
The external and internal environment components follow Duncan's measure. These
eight component uncertainties might not be expected to have equal effects in forcing
communication. For all six firms the highest component uncertainty was found in the
external environment. This is an important observation which lends credibility to
Duncan's (1972) instrument. It should be expected that uncertainty would be highest
in those areas of an organization's domain where the least amount of control can be
exercised. Organizations typically have minimum control over elements in their external environment.
The two food companies found their highest uncertainty in the competitor component. Environmental factors in this component involved competition for supplies and
customers. The computer A firm found the highest uncertainty in the supplier
component (this unit was developing equipment) and the computer B firm experienced
the highest uncertainty in the customer component (this unit developed software). The
supplier component was the highest level of uncertainty for the Paper B firm.
Interestingly, the socio-political component was highest for the Paper A firm. This
component is composed of factors such as government's regulatory control over the
industry, public attitude toward industry and its particular product, and the relationship with trade unions with jurisdiction in the organization. The paper industry has to
deal with a raw material, trees, about which public controversy is common. With the
public's growing awareness of environmental issues in recent years, regulations have
been passed that affect previously unchallenged management decisions. Environmental impact statements must be prepared and approved, before logging can occur in
certain areas. Thus, the socio-political component is a logical area of high uncertainty
in the paper industry.
Reliability of the eight component uncertainties was assessed within the six firms.
Cronbach's alpha ranged from 0.87 to 0.96; the component uncertainties are highly
correlated. Of particular interest is the relationship between perceived uncertainty in
the technical component and total perceived uncertainty. Technical uncertainty was
measured using the following factors: (1) meeting new technological requirements of
own industry and related industries in production of product or service, and (2)
improving and developing new products by implementing new technological advances

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UNCERTAINTY AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION PATTERNS

307

in the industry. The data from all six firms show that perceived uncertainty in the
technical environment is correlated with total perceived uncertainty at least at the
p <0.01 level.
These components might be logically weighted differentially in computing the total
uncertainty score. A factor analysis was performed using the eight component uncertainties and combining the data for all six firms. All of the component uncertainty
variables loaded quite high on the first factor extracted. Thus, the total perceived
uncertainty score is a representative measure of the various component uncertainties
and there is no justification for differentially weighting the component uncertainties.
Uncertainty and CommunicationOutside the Firm
Research and development people in less certain environments will seek greater
contact with sources of information outside their firms (Hi). This was expected to be
true of all types of contact and to be especially true of use of the literature and
colleagues outside the firm as sources of information. Table 2 shows that this
hypothesis holds in general. External communication is significantly greater (p <
0.001) in three of five categories for those firms facing greater uncertainty. The
surprising aspect of Table 2 is that the weakest relationships are seen in the two
categories of informal communication, symposia attendance and contacts outside the
laboratory, which were expected to be among the strongest. Perhaps this is so because
all of the firms in the sample face relatively more certain environments than the
electronics and aerospace firms and military laboratories which were the settings of the
earlier studies cited. The next section shows that there were relatively few individuals
identified as gatekeepers in the six firms studied in contrast to earlier research settings.
TABLE 2
Individual's Use of External CommunicationSources in Different Firms
Ranked in Terms of Perceived Uncertainty
External
Communication
Symposia Attended
x >y
x < y
Papers Presented
x>y
x < y
Papers Published
x>y
x<y
Periodicals Read
x>y
x < y
Contacts Outside Lab
x>y
x < y

Low Uncertainty
Paper A & B
Computer B

High Uncertainty
Food A & B
Computer A

27
31

24
42

p<0.15

4
54

32
34

p<0.001

4
54

33
33

p<0.001

15
43

37
29

p<0.001

21
37

36
30

p < 0.10

Note: x = Number of people in a given category. y


variable for a given category.

Chi Square
Statistic

Median of external communication

Uncertainty and the Gatekeeper Role


We expected to find a higher proportion of R&D personnel to be gatekeepers in
firms with higher levels of perceived environmental uncertainty (H2). Table 3 shows
this to be so, but not significantly so. Only ten of the 124 respondents were identified

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308

JAMES W. BROWN AND JAMES M. UTTERBACK


TABLE 3
The RelationshipBetween Supervisorand GatekeeperStatus
and Level of Perceived Uncertaintyin Firms
Firms Ranked
on Perceived
Uncertainty

High

Low

Gatekeeper

Supervisor

Supervisor
Named a
Gatekeeper

Yes

No

Yes

No

Yes

No

2
0
4
0
1
3

9
14
37
30
8
16

2
2
7
4
1
3

9
12
34
26
8
16

1
0
1
0
1
2

1
0
3
0
0
1

Food B
Food A
ComputerA
Computer B
Paper B
Paper A

as technical gatekeepers using Allen's strict criteria. Six of these were in the three "high
uncertainty" firms and four in the three firms ranked lower. The firm with most (four)
gatekeepers is in the high uncertainty category, but the second firm with three
individuals named is the lowest on perceived uncertainty.
Gatekeepers were expected to more often be occupants of formally defined supervisory roles in the "low uncertainty" category of firms (H3). Five of the ten gatekeepers
were supervisors, a finding consistent with all earlier research (Brown 1979). Three of
the five supervisors named gatekeepers were in the low uncertainty firms while four of
the five who were not supervisors were in the high uncertainty firms. A comparison of
the proportion of nonsupervisory gatekeepers between the high and low uncertainty
firms is interesting. The three high uncertainty firms have 3.5 times the proportion of
nonsupervisory gatekeepers (7% versus 2%o).Thus, hypothesis (H3) is supported.
Still, these results were most disappointing. How could firms so different in perceived uncertainty be so similar in communication patterns? We suggested earlier that
in less certain environments a large number of individuals would have a welldeveloped network of external contacts. Thus, the gatekeeper phenomenon would be
less well defined, the volume of communication flowing across the organizational
TABLE 4
Comparisonof Perceived Uncertaintywith the CommunicationRoles
of External CommunicationStar and Technical Discussion Star
Firms Ranked on Perceived Uncertainty
External
Communication
Star

Paper
A

Yes
No

5
14

Low Uncertainty
Paper
Computer
B
B
2
7

High Uncertainty
Computer
Food
A
A

3
27

Food
B

5
9

16
25

4
7

Chi Square Statistic = 6.49 (p < 0.01).


Firms Ranked on Perceived Uncertainty
Low Uncertainty
High Uncertainty

Technical
Discussion
Star

Paper
A

Paper
B

Computer
B

Computer
A

Food
A

Food
b

Yes
No

3
16

2
7

4
26

7
34

0
14

2
9

Chi Square Statistic = 0.0088 (n.s.).

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UNCERTAINTY AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION PATTERNS

boundary would be greater, and this flow would be only partly mediated by gatekeepers in uncertain environments. Looking at the data in more detail shows that this
is indeed the fact of the matter. There are many more external discussion stars than
internal discussion stars in the high uncertainty firms studied. This is in sharp contrast
to the low uncertainty firms.
Table 4 shows clearly that a much higher proportion of all respondents (38%) in the
three high uncertainty firms were classified as external discussion stars than was true
(17%)of the low uncertainty firms. This difference is significant (p < 0.01).
The last hypothesis to be examined is that gatekeepers in general will perceive a
higher level of uncertainty than will others in their firms (H4). No one to our
knowledge has previously examined differences between gatekeepers and their
colleages in terms of level of perceived uncertainty. With relatively little theoretical or
empirical justification, we originally hypothesized that gatekeepers would have significantly lower levels of perceived uncertainty than their colleages. The reasoning was
that gatekeepers, having many sources of information, would use these sources to
reduce their own uncertainty. But the data showed that gatekeepers were significantly
higher in uncertainty than their colleagues. Realizing that the sample of gatekeepers
was relatively small, uncertainty levels of those in other communication roles were also
compared with the uncertainty levels of their colleagues as shown in Table 5. This
intriguing finding may be the most important of this study. The gatekeepers and the
external communication stars had a higher level of perceived uncertainty than their
internal discussion star colleagues. The individuals occupying the roles of gatekeeper
and external discussion star are in a greater position to see and access the true
complexity of the environment. Indeed, the high uncertainty firms in the study ranked
highest on both complexity and dynamism measures used by Duncan. (The communication roles in Table 5 are not mutually exclusive. That is, gatekeepers are by
definition both external communication and technical discussion stars, but the reverse
is not necessarily true.)
Certainly some summarizing of information must take place when gatekeepers serve
as interpreters of environmental stimuli in their discussion with colleagues. These
individuals may serve as buffers, protecting colleagues from environmental turbulence
(Tushman 1979). The data of this study suggest that those who occupy key communication roles tend to reduce or absorb uncertainty for those who ask them for advice.
This finding adds a new dimension to the importance of gatekeepers in an organizaTABLE 5
Comparisonof Gatekeepers,External CommunicationStars, and Technical Discussion Stars
with Their Colleagues on Total Perceived Uncertainty
Communication
Role
Gatekeepers
Non-Gatekeepers
External Communication Stars
Non-Stars
Technical Discussion Stars
Non-Stars

Number
of Cases

Total Mean
Uncertainty

Standard
Deviation

Standard
Error

10

0.7545

1.122

0.355

114

- 0.0662

2.269

0.213

35

1.0815

1.295

0.219

89

- 0.4523

2.348

0.249

18

0.6307

1.329

0.313

106

- 0.1071

2.312

0.225

T
Value

One-Tailed
Probability

1.98

p < 0.05

4.55

p < 0.001

1.91

p<O.10

The uncertainty numbers were obtained by summing standardized scores from Duncan's three uncertainty
dimensions. The range of total uncertainty was -6 to + 5.

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JAMES W. BROWN AND JAMES M. UTTERBACK

tion. For many individuals, lower levels of uncertainty should improve the quality and
quantity of work output. High levels of uncertainty regarding environmental stimuli
pertinent to one's own research emphasis could impair quality. Weed and Mitchell
(1980), in a laboratory setting, found that higher levels of environmental uncertainty
led to more errors, lower accuracy and job satisfaction.
March and Simon (1958) caution, however, that through the process of uncertainty
absorption the recipient of a communication is severely limited in his ability to judge
its correctness. They contend that the recipient must repose his confidence in the
editing process that has taken place, and, if he accepts the communication at all,
accept it pretty much as its stands. His interpretation in the view of March and Simon
(1958) must be based primarily on his confidence in the source and his knowledge of
the biases to which the source is subject, rather than on direct examination of the
evidence. Indeed, the uncertainty absorption may take the form of not passing
information along to others within the firm (Boulton et al. 1978).
It is a fortunate and robust characteristic of organizations that relatively more
individuals communicate intensively with outside sources when they perceive a high
degree of uncertainty. While direct individual's performance measures were not
obtained within the scope of this research, interviews with the various directors of
research reinforced the importance to the firms of those identified as occupying key
communication roles. Future research should directly measure individual performance
in assessing effectiveness of communication roles.
Implications
As firms move into new product areas, changes in production technology, changes
in regulatory requirements, or other areas of change, information from the technical
environment becomes crucial to success and survival in competitive markets. An
individual's perception of uncertainty in the environment is significantly associated
with information acquisition from the environment. People in R&D units having
higher levels of perceived uncertainty made significantly more use of external communication channels than did those in units having lower levels of perceived uncertainty.
Technical gatekeepers were found to perceive significantly higher levels of uncertainty than do those whom they influence. People in the two other communication
roles of technical discussion star and external communication star also perceived
significantly greater levels of uncertainty than others in their R & D units. This finding
suggests that those occupying these key communication roles serve an important
function in reducing the degree of uncertainty faced by others in their groups.3
3This article is based on a Ph.D. dissertation submitted to Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

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