Help or hindrance? Causal ambiguity and supplier involvement in new product development teams

Antony Potter, Benn Lawson

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Suppliers are increasingly being involved in interorganizational new product development (NPD) teams. Successful management of this involvement is critical both to the performance of the new product and to meeting the project's goals. Yet the transfer of knowledge between buyer and supplier may be subject to varying degrees of causal ambiguity, potentially limiting the effect of supplier involvement on performance. Understanding the dynamics of causal ambiguity within interorganizational product development is thus an important unanswered empirical question. A theoretical model is developed exploring the effect of supplier involvement practices (supplier involvement orientation, relationship commitment, and involvement depth) on the level of causal ambiguity experienced within interorganizational NPD teams, and the subsequent impact on time to competitor imitation, new product advantage, and project performance. The model also serves as a test of the paradox that causal ambiguity both inhibits imitation by competitors, but adversely affects organizational outcomes. Survey data collected from 119 research and development-intensive manufacturing firms in the United Kingdom largely support these hypotheses. Results from structural equation modeling show that supplier involvement orientation and long-term relationship commitment lower causal ambiguity within interorganizational NPD teams. The results also shed light on the causal ambiguity paradox showing that causal ambiguity during interorganizational NPD decreases both product and project performance, but has no significant effect on time to competitor imitation. Instead, competitor imitation is delayed by the extent to which the firm develops a new product advantage within the market. A product development strategy based upon maintaining interfirm causal ambiguity to delay competitor imitation is thus unlikely to result in a sustainable competitive advantage. Instead, managers are encouraged to undertake supplier involvement practices aimed at minimizing the level of knowledge ambiguity in the NPD project, and in doing so, improve product and project-related performance. © 2013 Product Development & Management Association.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)794-808
JournalJournal of Product Innovation Management
Issue number[ABS 4 Journal]
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013


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