Brainstorming and consensus-building are two goals of business meetings that go by the boards once a dominant personality turns a gathering into his or her own private sounding board. Less forceful participants--and their ideas--are likely to fade into the background, depriving the business of valuable input.
A new and somewhat revolutionary computer network product is designed to make business meetings more democratic and productive. The "electronic meeting" system developed at the University of Arizona creates a freer and faster flow of ideas by enabling participants to respond electronically, simultaneously--and anonymously--on computer terminals.
"What we have found is that when people are addressing superiors, they tend to qualify what they are saying, to couch it in terms that are more palatable when in fact what they want to say is, 'This is never going to work,"' said Jay Nunamaker, the University of Arizona computer science professor who directed the system's development.
The anonymity of the system, which was developed with financial support from International Business Machines, makes such employees free to express themselves candidly, Nunamaker said. It allows ideas to be judged by others in the group on merit alone, not according to the source.
"The problem (with conventional meetings) has always been that some ideas don't get discussed by people who might be intimidated. And the dominant ones can change the focus or expand the meeting away from its original purpose," said George Easton, who with his wife, Annette, runs a system that was installed recently at San Diego State University's business school.
Both Eastons are SDSU assistant professors who helped develop software for the system at the University of Arizona as graduate students. SDSU's electronic meeting system recently became operational and is being made available to San Diego-area groups and businesses.
The system consists of a dozen or more computer terminals arranged around a table and tied electronically by local area network (LAN) software. A facilitator helps the group set priorities and to vote--also on an anonymous basis--on which ideas are best. An overhead projector displays the topics at hand and the group's decisions.
Proponents of the system say it leads to a more focused discussion and brings the group toward decisions more quickly than would a conventional meeting.
Marketing of the systems, which sell for up to $120,000, has just begun but the organizations that have used them--including Southern New England Telecommunications, the U.S. Army, Greyhound Financial Corp. and Phelps Dodge--all describe it as a highly useful management tool.
Each customer hastens to add that the systems are simply management tools and that they will never completely replace conventional, face-to-face meetings. There are settings in which verbal skills--the ability to express oneself logically and persuasively--are paramount. But the electronic systems fill the bill when a free flow of information and ideas is desired and when the decisions to be made cut across organizational lines.
For example, Southern New England Telecommunications, a New Haven, Conn.-based telephone utility and holding company, used the system to arrive at a consensus on what kind of desktop publishing and networking software to use in five of the company's departments.
A team of 10 people representing the five departments were put on the system and in one day "defined their software problem, set down specific goals and objectives and ended up with action plans that were actually carried out in 30 days," said Ray Fletcher, general manager of information systems for the utility. "All that was done in one meeting day and everyone ended up happy with the result," Fletcher said.
Had a traditional face-to-face meeting format been used, Fletcher said, four meetings would have been required for a decision and two months to carry out the plan.
Fletcher believes that the electronic meeting system's imperative of planning meetings in terms of "problems, goals and objectives" are a key to its efficiency. Also, participants usually leave the meetings with their marching orders: hard copy "output" with written goals or decisions.
The systems, which are being marketed both by IBM and a company called Ventana that is partly owned by the University of Arizona, deals head-on with the age-old management problem of how an idea can "take on more or less value according to who said it," Nunamaker said.
The professor, who is also Ventana's board chairman, said another key to the system's efficiency is its "parallel processing" feature, allowing participants to communicate at once by typing their comments simultaneously into the system, rather than waiting for a turn to speak, as is the case in conventional meetings.