In fitting ‘form’ to ‘context’, ambiguity and uncertainty play a central role (Debackere, 1998; Schrader, Riggs & Smith, 1993; Van Looy, Debackere & Bouwen, 2001). Although both concepts are related, they are not completely overlapping.
Reducing levels of uncertainty has been the primary concern in many management approaches regarding the new product development process. Uncertainty is characteristic of a situation in which the problem solver considers the structure of the problem (including the set of relevant design variables) as given, but is dissatisfied with the knowledge available on the value of these design variables. This is in line with information theory and decision theory that have both defined uncertainty as characteristic of situations where the set of possible future outcomes is identified, but where the related probability distributions are unknown, or at best known subjectively.

Research on organisations has broadened those definitions to better fit with the organisation’s setting. Galbraith (1973) defines uncertainty as the difference between the information an organisation has and the information it needs. This coincides with the early definitions of uncertainty provided by researchers on the psychology of problem solving (e.g. Miller and Frick, 1949), as derived from the mathematical theory of communication (Shannon and Weaver, 1949). Duncan (1972) defines uncertainty as follows:

‘(1) The lack of information regarding environmental factors associated with a given decision-making situation, (2) not knowing the outcome of a specific decision in terms of not knowing how much the organisation would lose if the decision were incorrect, and (3) inability to assign probabilities with any degree of confidence with regard to how environmental factors are going to affect the success or failure of the decision unit in performing its function.’

The first two components are quite similar to the broad definition by Galbraith (1973), while the third component is similar to the more narrow definitions that stem from information and decision theory. The common theme behind all those definitions is that uncertainty is related to asymmetry and lack of information. Consequently, if problem solvers want to reduce uncertainty, they should gather information on design variables that are known to them.
This finding has been at the heart of many models and instruments designed to manage the new product development process, which is in essence a process of uncertainty reduction through problem solving activity (Allen, 1977; Brown and Eisenhardt, 1995). Uncertainty reduction has therefore been a central theme in many seminal writings on the need for cross-functional integration and intensive information exchange during new product development endeavours (Allen, 1977; Wheelwright and Clark, 1992).
‘Effectiveness’ in uncertainty reduction imposes a need for reducing information asymmetries between the different partners involved in the new product development effort (suppliers, customers, owners of complementary assets, and the different intra-company functional groups such as R&D, marketing and manufacturing that need to coalesce during the innovation effort).

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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