Ambiguity models stress uncertainty and unpredictability in organizations. These theories assume that organizational objectives are problematic and that institutions experience difficulty in ordering their priorities. Sub-units are portrayed as relatively autonomous groups, which are connected only loosely with one another and with the institution itself. Decision-making occurs within formal and informal settings where participation is fluid. Ambiguity is a prevalent feature of complex organizations such as schools and is likely to be particularly acute during periods of rapid change (Bush, 2003):
Ambiguity models assume that turbulence and unpredictability are dominant features of organizations. There is no clarity over the objectives of institutions and their processes are not properly understood. Participation in policy making is fluid as members opt in or out of decision opportunities. (p. 134)
Ambiguity models are associated with a group of theorists, mostly from the United States, who developed their ideas in the 1970s. They were dissatisfied with the formal models, which they regarded as inadequate for many organizations, particularly during phases of instability. The most celebrated of the ambiguity perspectives is the “garbage can” model developed by Cohen and March (1986). March (1982) points to the jumbled reality in certain kinds of organization:
Theories of choice underestimate the confusion and complexity surrounding actual decision making. Many things are happening at once; technologies are changing and poorly understood; alliances, preferences, and perceptions are changing; problems, solutions, opportunities, ideas, people, and outcomes are mixed together in a way that makes their interpretation uncertain and their connections unclear. (p. 36)
The data supporting ambiguity models have been drawn largely from educational settings, leading March and Olsen (1976) to assert that “ambiguity is a major feature of decision making in most public and educational organizations” (p. 12).
Ambiguity models have the following major features:
There is a lack of clarity about the goals of the organization. Many institutions are thought to have inconsistent and opaque objectives. It may be argued that aims become clear only through the behaviour of members of the organization (Cohen & March, 1986):
The organization appears to operate on a variety of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences. It can be described better as a loose collection of changing ideas than as a coherent structure. It discovers preferences through action more often than it acts on the basis of preferences. (p. 3)
Educational institutions are regarded as typical in having no clearly defined objectives. Because teachers work independently for much of their time, they may experience little difficulty in pursuing their own interests. As a result schools and colleges are thought to have no coherent pattern of aims.
Ambiguity models assume that organizations have a problematic technology in that their processes are not properly understood. In education it is not clear how students acquire knowledge and skills so the processes of teaching are clouded with doubt and uncertainty. Bell (1980) claims that ambiguity infuses the central functions of schools.
Ambiguity theorists argue that organizations are characterized by fragmentation. Schoolsare divided into groups which have internal coherence based on common values and goals. Links between the groups are more tenuous and unpredictable. Weick (1976) uses the term “loose coupling” to describe relationships between sub-units. “Loose coupling . . . carries connotations of impermanence, dissolvability, and tacitness all of which are potentially crucial properties of the `glue”' (p. 3) that holds organizations together.
Client-serving bodies, such as schools, fit the loose coupling metaphor much better than, say, car assembly plants where operations are regimented and predictable. The degree of integration required in education is markedly less than in many other settings, allowing fragmentation to develop and persist.
Within ambiguity models organizational structure is regarded as problematic. Committees and other formal bodies have rights and responsibilities, which overlap with each other and with the authority assigned to individual managers. The effective power of each element within the structure varies with the issue and according to the level of participation of committee members.
Ambiguity models tend to be particularly appropriate for professional client-serving organizations. The requirement that professionals make individual judgements, rather than acting in accordance with managerial prescriptions, leads to the view that the larger schools and colleges operate in a climate of ambiguity.
Ambiguity theorists emphasize that there is fluid participation in the management of organizations. “The participants in the organization vary among themselves in the amount of time and effort they devote to the organization; individual participants vary from one time to another. As a result standard theories of power and choice seem to be inadequate.” (Cohen & March, 1986, p. 3).
A further source of ambiguity is provided by the signals emanating from the organization's environment. In an era of rapid change, schools may experience difficulties in interpreting the various messages being transmitted from the environment and in dealing with conflicting signals. The uncertainty arising from the external context adds to the ambiguity of the decision-making process within the institution.
Ambiguity theorists emphasize the prevalence of unplanned decisions. The lack of agreed goals means that decisions have no clear focus. Problems, solutions and participants interact and choices somehow emerge from the confusion.
The rational model is undermined by ambiguity, since it is so heavily dependent on the availability of information about relationships between inputs and outputs between means and ends. If ambiguity prevails, then it is not possible for organizations to have clear aims and objectives. (Levacic, 1995, p. 82)
Ambiguity models stress the advantages of decentralization. Given the complexity and unpredictability of organizations, it is thought that many decisions should be devolved to subunits and individuals. Weick (1976) argues that devolution enables organizations to survive while particular subunits are threatened (Bush, 2003):
If there is a breakdown in one portion of a loosely coupled system then this breakdown is sealed off and does not affect other portions of the organization . . . A loosely coupled system can isolate its trouble spots and prevent the trouble from spreading. (p. 135-141)
The major contribution of the ambiguity model is that it uncouples problems and choices. The notion of decision-making as a rational process for finding solutions to problems is supplanted by an uneasy mix of problems, solutions and participants from which decisions may eventually emerge. “In the garbage can model, there is no clear distinction between means and ends, no articulation of organizational goals, no evaluation of alternatives in relation to organizational goals and no selection of the best means” (Levacic, 1995, p. 82