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Computer-aided decisions.

Group-driven software offers new options for making key decisions.

The best management decision is usually one reached through discussion with all affected parties. Gathering information from all parties usually requires holding several rounds of time-consuming meetings.

One means to more efficient meetings and decision making is group decision-support software, designed to boost meeting participation and productivity while reducing the amount of time spent in meetings.

Group-driven systems are useful for internal association functions, such as board and committee meetings, task forces, and so forth. They can also be used to help build a vision; achieve consensus on strategic plans; develop goals and objectives; evaluate association policies, plans, and procedures; and examine management and administrative functions.

The National Business Travel Association, Washington, D.C., for example, recently conducted a computerized brainstorming session at the Marriott Group Decision Center, Washington, D.C. NBTA sought the input of travel managers, travelers, and senior executives on the issue of overhauling its six-year-old certified corporate travel executive program.

Two types

The two forms of networking systems currently in use are commonly referred to as chauffeur-driven and group-driven.

With chauffeur-driven systems, participants use electronic keypads or dials to respond to a given set of questions; live television audiences are often polled in this manner. Participants have limited electronic-response capabilities--yes, no, or multiple choice. A system operator tallies results and can group them according to various demographic categories.

The standard group-driven meeting--the focus of this column--is conducted in a special facility equipped with individual computer work stations connected to each other to allow varying levels of interaction among participants. A facilitator may be necessary depending upon the software being used.

Participants using IBM's TeamFocus, for example, can record anonymous ideas, see on their screens the anonymous comments made by other participants (by pressing a function key), and add further comments. The group modifies or eliminates information with the assistance of an on-line voting system that helps participants rate ideas based on their importance.

TeamFocus options include electronic brainstorming, idea organization, issue analysis, policy formation, alternative evaluation, voting, access to an on-line data dictionary, and a group questionnaire.

Using decision-making software has several advantages over the traditional meeting format, according to industry reports and user feedback. The anonymous framework of the exercise allows participants to concentrate on the issue(s) at hand instead of getting distracted by such factors as hierarchy, race, personality, and disabilities.

Greater input

It also allows people who have valuable contributions to make, but who are too shy or afraid to speak out, to share their insights. According to Fortune magazine, only about 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the talking in a standard meeting. People who participate are more likely to buy in to decisions and demonstrate greater enthusiasm about their role and the organization's objectives.

Other benefits include automatic, complete records of meetings. They also reduce the time spent in meetings--as much as 75 percent, according to IBM.

As Carl DiPietro, a group decision support system consultant and former director of human resources for the Marriott Corporation, explained it, a one-hour computer-networked meeting is equal to one day of a traditional meeting. A group can generate about 120 ideas in 20 minutes. Last but not least, users report software decision making is fun.

Disadvantages include the cost of buying or renting a system. A complete licensed system can cost $25,000-$50,000. Renting a room equipped with the appropriate hardware and software for four to eight hours costs $2,000-$4,000 depending upon the amount of preplanning and degree of facilitator assistance required.

Another potential drawback is that efficient use of the system requires some degree of keyboard literacy; lack of this skill may require advance training. Executives also may be leery of being the recipients of anonymous criticism or of openly discussing organizational difficulties and problems.

Steps to take

The first step in using this technology is to determine what you want to achieve: Do you want to simply poll a large group about certain issues or do you want to hold a meeting to discuss key issues in depth? Knowing the answer to this question will help you determine whether group-driven and full user participation or chauffeur-driven and limited group-response capabilities is the most appropriate kind of electronic meeting system.

Next, spend considerable time planning your electronic meeting--know what you want to accomplish so that you can identify decisions that have to be made. Set up training for users who require it and make sure everyone knows how to use the system. And don't forget to use your successful meeting know-how.

"If you have poor meeting skills, |the software programs~ won't educate you," observes Ben Martz, vice president of research and development for Ventana Corporation, Tucson, Arizona, the corporation that worked with IBM to develop TeamFocus. "You have to know how to hold meetings," he says.

If your group is new to the electronic meetings scene, you may require the assistance of a facilitator or at least an operator familiar with the software program to help you preplan and oversee your meeting.

New innovations that are currently being added to group systems include:

* tools that can be used to assess the effects of a proposed policy or plan;

* a system for reviewing stored data that are relevant to a group analyzing organizational functions;

* a function that allows group users to independently work on different portions of a document simultaneously;

* enhanced topic organization; and

* tools that illustrate relationships among various topics to participants.

No matter how advanced group electronic decision making becomes, however, it is still only a tool. These systems cannot salvage a poorly planned meeting.

Before enlisting the aid of this technology, you have to first know where you're headed in problem solving. Then it's up to you and your organization to harness the tool's power and abilities for the purposes you deem most important.

Joseph S. Cavarretta is section newsletters editor for the American Society of Association Executives.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:technology at work; includes list of software
Author:Cavaretta, Joseph S.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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