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Group decision support systems.

Committee meetings and group projects are a part of everyday life in the business world. Policies, budget plans, and many other organizational tasks frequently involve some sort of group discussions or meetings. Consequently, managers find themselves spending a great deal of time in meetings and often view them as unproductive or a "waste of time." A Group Decision Support System (GDSS) offers a viable and attractive alternative over the traditional, oral meeting environment and in many situations, has revolutionized the concept of meetings.

Interest and research in the area of GDSS is growing due to the systems' ability to enhance group productivity and interaction. They can decrease the amount of time necessary for meetings by over 50 percent, and can foster collaboration, communication, and negotiation among group participants (Dennis, et al., 1988). For many organizations, this alone is a sufficient incentive for investing in GDSS.

What is a GDSS?

DeSanctis and Gallupe (1987) originally defined a Group Decision Support System as a system that combines communication, computing, and decision support technologies to facilitate formulation and solution of unstructured problems by a group of people. There has been a general lack of consensus about what exactly constitutes a Group Decision Support System, however. GDSSs have evolved beyond their original emphasis on decision making, and new terms such as Electronic Meeting System (EMS), Computer-Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW), and Groupware are also used to describe the technology. Whatever tenn is used, a GDSS today can be defined as a computer-based system that supports groups of people engaged in a common task and that provides an interface to a shared environment. Most GDSSs are designed to help groups become more productive by supporting the exchange of ideas, opinions, and preferences within the group.

Group participants using a typical GDSS may be seated at microcomputer terminals arranged in a semi-circle or U-shape and connected via a Local Area Network (although alternative meeting styles are also available as discussed in the following section). A group leader or facilitator stands in front of the group and controls the meeting by starting and stopping the software, preparing questionnaires, and performing other administrative tasks. Meeting participants communicate with each other and the facilitator via a computer network and participate in brainstorming (see figure 1), voting, ranking, and other procedures to accomplish group tasks. In addition, the software may provide access to databases, models, statistical analysis packages, and a host of other tools.

GDSS Environmental Settings

A GDSS contributes to problem solving by providing an environmental setting that facilitates group communication. Four types of GDSS settings are used and are based on the size of the group and where the members are located. In each setting, group members can meet synchronously. That is, they can meet at the same time or at different times when all group members cannot be present simultaneously. A brief discussion of these four types of GDSS settings follows:

* Decision Room: A small group in a face-to-face meeting. A decision room supports a small group ranging in size from three to approximately 24 people who need to meet face-to-face. Some decision rooms (such as the SAMM system at the University of Minnesota) can support a group no larger than 10 people while others (such as the facilities at the University of Arizona or IBM) can support larger groups.

* Local Area Decision Network: A small group whose members are dispersed. When a few group members are unable to meet face-to-face and are dispersed in a limited geographical area, a Local Area Decision Network can be used. For example, group members may meet in different offices asynchronously using a computerized bulletin board, or they may meet synchronously using a real-time document editor.

* Legislative Session: A large group in a face-to-face meeting. When the group is too large for a decision room, a Legislative Session room is required. Although the boundary between what constitutes a "small" group and a "large" group is not rigorously defined, groups of 50 to 100 people are generally considered large. The facility at the University of Mississippi provides 55 microcomputer terminals on four tiers in an auditorium and is an example of a Legislative Session room.

* Computer-Mediated Conference: A large group dispersed geographically. Several office automation applications such as computer conferencing, audio conferencing, and video conferencing permit geographically-dispersed group members to communicate. Using a Computer-Mediated Conference, there is no need to schedule meetings in advance. Participants send their input to a central database or electronic mailbox, and other participants respond to the input and eventually a decision is made by consensus.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a GDSS

There are many advantages in using a Group Decision Support System for many types of meetings:

1. Anonymity. The ability to exchange ideas or preferences anonymously in a GDSS environment promotes increased participation by group members and consequently more information is shared. Participants no longer fear ridicule due to "foolish" comments. The provision of anonymity allows participants to avoid the pitfalls of group think and conformance pressure: that is, individuals feel less compelled to conform with the group's or the boss's opinion.

2. Parallel Communication. In oral meetings, people must listen to others speak and cannot pause to think: a GDSS allows everyone to "speak" in parallel (typing and exchanging written comments simultaneously through the computer network). In a typical oral meeting, each person has only a few minutes to express ideas rather than throughout the entire meeting as when using a GDSS. Also, a few group members may "filibuster" or monopolize the available speaking time in an oral meeting preventing others from contributing their ideas.

Parallel communication also contributes to increased participation and group synergy. Group synergy occurs because other group members will be able to use an idea in a manner that the originator did not anticipate because participants have different levels of information skills. Also, the group as a whole will be better at identifying errors in an idea than the originator of the idea. Reading a comment gives a creative stimulus to others in the group. Criticism is easier to accept because the idea is being criticized rather than the originator. All of these factors contribute to increased satisfaction and increased productivity because groups are more likely to consider an idea as the group's idea rather than an individual's because all the ideas have been merged together.

3. Automated Record Keeping. A GDSS automatically records comments, votes, and other information shared by a group onto a disk file. This automated log of the discussion supports the development of an organizational memory from meeting to meeting. Also, it is no longer necessary to take notes manually or mentally keep track of what was said. The participants in an oral meeting sometimes forget what was said earlier in the meeting and may consequently forget to make their intended comments on the subject. In a GDSS meeting, the participants simply enter their comments when they think of them. Finally, in oral meetings, participants often fail to comprehend what was said or may be unable to process the information quickly enough to participate effectively. In a GDSS meeting, participants may spend more time reading the recorded comment to better understand its meaning.

4. More Structure. A GDSS may provide more structure and focus to a meeting making it more difficult to deviate from the problem-solving cycle and make incomplete or premature decisions. GDSS groups stay focused on the issues at hand and there is minimal non-task or social interaction.

5. Other Benefits. Because of anonymity, parallel communication, and automated record keeping, other GDSS benefits have arisen. Using GDSSs, groups have experienced greater satisfaction with meetings and greater productivity by decreasing total meeting time and making better decisions. For example, meeting times have been reduced by over 50% at IBM and overall project times have been reduced by over 90% at Boeing when meetings were held using the technology.

Figure 1

A Sample Brainstorming Session

1. How can we improve the quality of our products?

2. We should investigate how our competitors are improving the quality of their products.

3. One of our major concerns should be eliminating problems on the shop floor.

4. Improving the quality of our products may increase the price.

5. I disagree, improving the manufacturing process can increase the quality and reduce the price.

6. What are the Japanese doing to improve the quality of their products?

Giving bonuses to our employees for quality work may be an effective incentive.

Although using a GDSS results in many advantages over verbal meetings, there are also some disadvantages:

1. Slow Communication. Most people type slower than they speak, and in some cases, group participants may be unable to type at all. Most people would rather talk than type. Because talking is faster than typing, it is generally more efficient to use a GDSS only for larger groups (unless some other feature such as the provision of anonymity is especially important). When groups reach a size of eight to ten people, the advantage of parallel communication tends to outweigh the disadvantage of slow typing, and the use of a GDSS becomes more efficient.

2. Resistance to Change. Another disadvantage is the human trait of resistance to change. People are sometimes intimidated by computers and feel threatened if forced to use them in a new meeting environment. Also, using the GDSS involves some training in the use of the software and some people may be resistant to learning how to use the system. Managers at 3M have reported that the technology is well-ahead of the average meeting participant. High-level executives who are not computer literate are especially likely to have a bias against using the technology in favor of the more traditional, verbal meeting. Because the technology "levels the playing field" in a meeting, some executives may be threatened by a loosening of the hierarchy.

3. Lack of Media Richness. Because a GDSS meeting relies primarily on written information, other forms of communication are minimized. For example, body language and facial expressions can help group members determine if a comment is meant to be funny or sarcastic in an oral meeting, but this media richness is lost in a GDSS meeting.

The impersonal nature of a meeting using a GDSS is also not universally popular. Participants may prefer the camaraderie and challenge of face-to-face meetings where dominance and power can be exercised. The GDSS can make meetings rather impersonal and completely issue-oriented.

4. Possible Increase in Conflict. Another concern with the use of a GDSS is that there could be an increase in conflict and animosity due to anonymity in the meeting. Participants may be unnecessarily contemptuous of some of the ideas and may be overly critical in their comments. Personal attacks may be made easier with the provisions of anonymity resulting in hurt feelings and bitterness.

5. Possible Loss of Some Key Participants. Some people who normally dominate a verbal meeting may tend to "drop out" of electronic meetings because they are unable to use their strong verbal skills, although shyer people may participate more.

6. Misuse of the Technology. One person in meetings utilizing the technology at Lante Corporation submitted multiple comments during the electronic discussion, simulating multiple participants. Thus, he was able to make it seem as if more people were agreeing with his idea than actually were. Because comments are anonymous, it is difficult to prevent such misuse.

7. Costs. A GDSS facility could involve a considerable monetary commitment and may not be cost efficient unless it gains acceptance and is used regularly and properly. The most widely-used commercial GDSS products (GroupSystems from Ventana, TeamFocus from IBM, and VisionQuest from Collaborative Technologies) range in price from $15,000 to over $50,000. Hardware, network software, and other costs may be even higher. Specially-designed GDSS meeting rooms at the University of Arizona and the University of Mississippi have cost over $250,000. Smaller-scale meeting rooms may be expected to cost at least $90,000. As a consequence of these disadvantages, most meetings should probably not completely rely upon the technology. For example, verbal discussions before and after the electronic meeting may be appropriate for participants to express themselves without the constraint of the technology.

When is the Use of a GDSS Appropriate?

A GDSS will be beneficial only for certain types of groups and tasks. For example, fairly structured tasks or tasks that are of a routine nature and do not require the dynamics of group decision making may not benefit from the use of a GDSS. In fact, it may be inefficient and time-consuming to use a GDSS in this case. However, when the task is unstructured and there is uncertainty or ambiguity, the group might benefit from using a GDSS for their meeting. A GDSS is ideal for meetings involving idea generation (a task of uncertainty), for example. A typical use of a GDSS is for generating ideas for an organization's strategic plan or budget.

As discussed earlier, it also may be inefficient to use a GDSS for very small groups (fewer than eight people) because of the disparity between typing and speaking speeds. The advantage of parallel communication outweighs the disadvantage of slow typing speeds for group sizes greater than eight to ten people. In addition, satisfaction and productivity tend to decline as group size increases in oral groups, making the benefits of a GDSS more significant.

IBM's Experience

This example describes how International Business Machines used the technology, and it illustrates the advantages of using a GDSS for meetings (Nunamaker, et al., 1989):

A plant manager was having trouble identifying problem areas that were hindering shop floor control. His subordinates seemed unable to isolate causes of the problem. A two-hour meeting of six key plant personnel had resulted in a number of arguments but no solutions to the problem.

The manager decided to use the company's GDSS in an attempt to resolve the problem and develop a plan of action including information system requirements to improve the shop floor process. The manager met with the company's GDSS facilitator to set the agenda of the meeting and to understand how the GDSS could be used to resolve the shop floor control problem. The manager and facilitator decided to use the Electronic Brainstorming, Issue Analysis, and Vote programs and to invite 10 of the plant employees, in addition to the manager and two junior analysts assigned to investigate the problem.

The manager and facilitator decided that the topic of the meeting should be "What are the key issues in improving shop floor control?"

During the subsequent GDSS session, the meeting participants used the Brainstorming program for 35 minutes and generated 645 lines of comments about improving shop floor control. At the end of the brainstorming session, the manager saw that for the first time he was able to get concrete, meaningful answers to questions associated with shop floor control issues. The two analysts realized that they were beginning to better understand the complex nature of the overall shop floor control process.

After using Electronic Brainstorming, the group participants used Issue Analysis for 30 minutes to identify key issues or focus items related to shop floor controls. They then spent 45 minutes organizing the 645 lines of comments into these key issues forming a consolidated list of requirements for effective shop floor control improvement.

Finally the Vote program was used. Each group member prioritized the list of requirements developed using Issue Analysis in terms of importance to improve shop floor control. The accumulated results were displayed to the group. After 10 minutes of discussion, the meeting was concluded with comments from the manager thanking the participants. The manager was given a printout of all of the group's comments, the consolidated list of requirements, and the results of the group vote.

Current and Future uses of a GDSS

Group Decision Support Systems are being used in many academic and business organizations worldwide. IBM, for example, has decision rooms installed at over 64 of its locations (Nunamaker, et al., 1989). IBM, Boeing, and Marriott have used the systems to reduce meeting times and total project times up to 90 percent. Other large corporations including Proctor and Gamble, Boeing, J.P. Morgan, Westinghouse, Texaco and Greyhound have purchased systems for use. However, because the installation of a GDSS can be relatively expensive, many smaller organizations can also benefit from the technology by renting decision rooms.

Although most GDSSs have been used for research in academic institutions or for business meetings by corporations, other uses can be found for the technology. A few universities are beginning to incorporate use of the technology into the classroom as a teaching tool, particularly in classroom seminars (Aiken, 1992). Other groups are using GDSSs as an aid in systems analysis and design or knowledge engineering.

Many other potential uses for the technology are being found. For example, the multilingual GDSS (which automatically translates English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Japanese comments) currently under development at the University of Mississippi opens up the potential for use in multinational companies and large international organizations such as the United Nations (Aiken, 1994). Other developments incorporating artificial intelligence into GDSSs (such as computer-aided speech-recognition and intelligent information retrieval agents) will improve the user-friendliness of the systems and broaden the systems' applicability.

Group Decision Support Systems are rapidly gaining acceptance as an effective tool for increasing the productivity of meetings. While GDSSs are not appropriate for every group in every type of meeting, many academic, business, and other organizations are purchasing the systems and building electronic meeting rooms enabling managers to have shorter meetings and make better decisions.


1. Aiken, M., "Using a Group Decision Support System as a Teaching Tool," Journal of Computer-Based Instruction, Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer 1992, pp. 82-85.

2. Aiken, M., Martin, J., Shirani, A., and Singleton, T., "A Group Decision Support System for Multicultural and Multilingual Communication," Decision Support Systems, Vol. 12, No. 2, September 1994, pp. 93-96.

3. Dennis, A., George, J., Jessup, L., Nunamaker, J., and Vogel, D., "Information Technology to Support Electronic Meetings," MIS Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4, December 1988, pp. 591-624.

4. DeSanctis, G. and Gallupe, B., "A Foundation for the Study of Group Decision Support Systems," Management Science, Vol. 33, No. 5, May 1987, pp. 589-609.

5. Nunamaker, J., Vogel, D., Heminger, A., Martz, B., Grohowski, R., and McGoff, C., "Experiences at IBM with Group Support Systems: A Field Study, Decision Support Systems, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 1989, pp. 183-196.

MILAM AIKEN, MAHESH VANJANI AND JAMES KROSP are, respectively, Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems and graduate assistants, Department of Management and Marketing, School of Business Administration, University of Mississippi, University, MS.
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Author:Aiken, Milam; Vanjami, Mahesh; Krosp, James
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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