Effective meetings through electronic brainstorming.

Author:Kay, Gail
 
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Groups usually meet in order to generate ideas, to share information, and to initiate action. These group meetings may not always be effective. Frequently the discussion will bypass the focal points of the meeting or, members will be apprehensive as to how other members will perceive their ideas. Electronic Brainstorming (EBS) is designed to change the behavior of groups. It is designed to help employees communicate effectively during meetings in a painless and efficient way. Members sit in front of their computers and type in their ideas anonymously. The ideas are then passed on to other members electronically and synchronously. The purpose of this article is to discuss the pros and the cons of using EBS in organizations. An analysis of EBS and its uses will furnish organizations an insight of this powerful technology.

INTRODUCTION

Electronic brainstorming (EBS) has recently been introduced into organizations as a means of generating ideas; it makes use of computers to allow members to interact and to exchange ideas. The ideas that are generated using EBS are done anonymously and thus tend to be expressed more freely and in greater quantity. Electronic brainstorming has been used to define a problem's scope, to identify possible solutions, and to develop a heuristic classifications scheme.[1]

Electronic brainstorming is used as part of a regular organizational meeting process. It gives organizations the opportunity to efficiently gather ideas, organize those ideas, and to later make decisions. It speeds the meeting process at which it is used, increases productivity, and allows the focus to remain on the ideas rather than on the people who spawned them. When members run out of ideas, they access the ideas produced by the group.

Electronic brainstorming is a form of brainstorming that makes use of computer-mediated electronic communication in order to replace verbal communications. EBS is a new concept as compared to traditional brainstorming, where a group of people sit together, think of ideas and voice their opinions to the group. The system was designed in order to change the behavior of the group, to improve group effectiveness, and to enhance satisfaction. The rationale for electronic brainstorming is that it allows groups to generate ideas anonymously. With anonymity, evaluation apprehension and production blocking may be reduced or completely obliterated; anonymity may allow the members to challenge each other which may consequently increase process gains. Anonymity may also generate a less threatening environment to individuals because less-skilled members can give their input without having to worry about being judged by higher skilled members.

EBS can improve group work because it allows members to work simultaneously. Each participant has his or her computer which permits the person to contribute his or her ideas equally. Electronic brainstorming allows the ideas that were generated in the meeting to be recorded for later use. This record may help reduce redundant ideas and may also increase synergy because members can easily refer to and build on others' ideas long after they were first contributed.[2]

Figure 1 has an explanation of some of the words used in this article.

UTILIZATION

The setting for electronic brainstorming meetings is as follows: A U-shaped conference table contains several workstations. It faces a large projection screen in the front of the room. Each member types his or her ideas into the computer without conversing with the others. The input is then anonymously shown on every workstation in the room as well as on the large projection screen.

Group members may begin with a question on the screen of their terminals. An example of a question may be: "What should be the goals of the company in regards to the next three years?" Another example may be: "How can the company reduce costs?" The focus of the meeting must rest on the task and not on the computer. Members may begin to type a response to the question on their screen. Then, by pressing a particular function key, their ideas will be sent to the rest of the group's screens. Members continue with typing and sending ideas until they have exhausted their ideas and opinions in regards to the particular question.

The person who leads the meeting is the facilitator who is usually not part of the group. His or her role is to guide the group through the meeting; such a facilitator should have strong group skills. The facilitator performs four functions: First, is provision of technical support which may reduce the amount of training required of group members. Second, is direction of the meeting by maintaining the agenda, introducing the problem, and/or announcing a question that management has raised. Third, is highlighting the meeting's objectives, that is, the reason for the group's meeting. Finally, the facilitator sets the standards for using the system.

ADVANTAGES OF EBS

Most traditional brainstorming sessions lack structure. EBS generally overcomes this dilemma by allowing the meeting to be controlled and conducted more efficiently. The group. members using EBS can easily generate, evaluate, edit, and organize their ideas without feeling inhibited. Most important, EBS renders all the participants an equal opportunity to express their views and ideas. EBS electronically helps increase productivity by enabling teams to generate ideas, prioritize alternatives, document and record the course of a meeting with no limits on the size of the group.

* Parallel Entry of Ideas: With parallel entry of ideas, since all participants enter work at the same time, individuals can immediately generate ideas without interrupting anyone. Thus, the input opportunities are evenly available among all members and production blocking is reduced.

* Anonymity: Verbal criticism is a predicament in traditional brainstorming groups. With EBS, the participants can express ideas without having to worry about being criticized. This yields a higher satisfaction with the meeting among members. The anonymity shields them from personal comments; comments are directed at ideas and not at the persons voicing them. This may also allow lower-status members to express their views without feeling the anxiety they normally would feel. They are not exposed to higher-status members who could react negatively to certain ideas. A CEO of a company said, "Because the process is anonymous, the sky's the limit in terms of what you can say, and as a result it is more thought provoking. As a CEO, you'll probably discover things you might not want to hear but need to be aware of."[3]

* Novelty: EBS is considered by most to be a new technology. Most people have never even heard of the term electronic brainstorming. Thus, because it is a novel mechanism, it tends to generate interest and curiosity. Since the members can see other participants' thoughts, it helps them process their own ideas more effectively.

* Size: When it comes to the size of the group, EBS has no limit. It can easily accommodate brainstorming meetings of groups of twelve members or more. In comparison, traditional brainstorming works best with groups of only five to twelve members.

* Proximity: Probably one of the most beneficial aspects of EBS is the fact that groups can meet synchronously while remaining physically dispersed. That is, dispersed members can still send ideas to each other's screens during the idea generation session. The members need only computer workstations, the software, and a modem.

* Memory: Suppose all members cannot meet at the same time, but they would still like to know what had occurred in a meeting. With EBS, they have the option of "viewing" the session. Since the session messages are automatically saved, the group no longer needs to utilize a person to write down a singular version of what had ensued in the meeting.

* Software/Tools: Once the ideas are generated, they must be evaluated. EBS permits the use of software tools to help sort and evaluate ideas.

* Equality: With EBS, the personal and organizational influence of a particular individual are not influencing factors. No individual can dominate another person through rank, status, or raised voice to exercise power. A person cannot look down at something someone else had said. Since members can input ideas at the same time, no individual can dominate an EBS session. This is a way to assure equality to the participants.

DISADVANTAGES OF EBS

Despite its advantages, EBS does have some drawbacks. It's very inviting to always believe that a new technology will solve any...

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