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No more wasted meetings.

Groupware holds the promise of making meetings more productive and democratic. For financial executives, that could translate to better ideas and less wasted meeting time.

Imagine reducing a two-day meeting to two hours. Or contemplate a budget-cutting session where the room is calm and quiet and where everyone's ideas get equal weight. How would you like to tell your boss her idea stinks, without fear of retribution?

These scenarios are all possible with a range of new products called groupware, the newest innovation in meeting management. Groupware products give individuals in a group the ability to express ideas simultaneously and anonymously. Meeting participants often feel the meetings are fairer, more efficient and less dominated by one personality.

In the last few years, companies like Sears, Roebuck & Co., J.P. Morgan & Co., Procter & Gamble, the Marriott Corp. and RJR Nabisco have used various groupware products. The 3M Meeting Management Institute found that meetings conducted with groupware are often more productive than traditional meetings.

Groupware products range in sophistication from portable keypads to full-blown meeting support rooms. Although groupware can apply to small or large groups, it's probably most useful for 10 to 30 participants. Typically, the systems allow group members to respond to questions or evaluate alternatives using an electronic medium. Systems with full keyboards also allow participants to "talk" through their computers. A host personal computer processes the participants' input and provides a summary or analysis. Hardware and software can range from several thousand to several hundred thousand dollars. Or, if you're interested in a test drive, you can rent systems for several hundred to several thousand dollars per day.

Some groupware systems display overall results (averages), scatter graphs of individual responses, diversity among responses (graphic presentation of variance) and comparisons of subgroup responses. You can print the output and then save it to a hard disk. Also, you can generate a variety of reports, tailored to your needs, and distribute them to the participants. For example, in a capital budgeting decision, the CFO may want a printed copy of a participant's anonymous comments on all the alternatives as well as the degree of consensus on each of the top three projects. On the other hand, the other meeting participants may need only the rank ordering of the top three projects. Other groupware capabilities include: planning and monitoring meetings; brainstorming and organizing ideas; evaluating ideas or alternatives; group writing and editing; and communicating within an organization.

For example, Marriott's Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters used a groupware brainstorming module to generate ways to better satisfy guests. Then the company used the idea-organization module to condense the methods into similar categories. Finally, it used the idea-evaluation module to evaluate the condensed list on a five-point scale. The module enabled the company to pare a very large list of ideas down to a much smaller list of affordable, effective suggestions.


One of groupware's major advantages is anonymity, which helps foster a supportive atmosphere where ideas are more likely to be evaluated on merit alone. This helps minimize meeting politics and prevents individuals from becoming inhibited about sharing their ideas.

However, anonymity can also be a disadvantage. When the comments are anonymous, it's difficult to reward a participant for a good idea. And in some organizations, the position of the person commenting makes a difference. What's more, it may be important for participants to know precisely what the CFO thinks about the issue under discussion. A cost analyst for a Denver utility company believes that sometimes it's politically wise to determine how his colleagues feel about a budget decision before the meeting and to let them see how he votes on the issue during the meeting.

Groupware can help increase the volume of ideas produced at a meeting. Most groupware systems can collect a great deal of information quickly, because everyone enters their ideas at the same time. As a result, "More ideas were brought out than we would have gotten in a normal meeting setting," says David Grosenheider, director of process improvement at Monfort, a subsidiary of ConAgra, a food-products company. This, in turn, affects the decisionmaking process. Grosenheider believes that the volume of ideas "opened a few minds during the session and generated some positive discussions that could not have taken place without this format."

However, too many ideas can also be a problem, because the sheer volume can be overwhelming. Sometimes, participants can get information overload, and then they can't make a decision.

Also, when participants are entering or evaluating ideas using groupware, individuals who write well have an advantage. If the idea expressed is clear and understandable, group members are more likely to accept it. With traditional meetings, the passionate speaker can persuade others. In groupware, the eloquent writer has a leg up on the eloquent speaker.

Despite some drawbacks, many executives are convinced that groupware systems can save an organization a tremendous amount of time. Ken Bell, director of total quality management for Monfort, reports that the technology allows participants to accomplish in a matter of hours what used to take them several days.


Organizations from Fortune 500 to small nonprofits have used groupware in their strategic and tactical planning processes. This includes developing a corporate plan and location or site plan, as well as designing a budget. Financial managers can look at return on investment and shareholder's equity in relation to plan criteria. Charles E. Emery, Jr., chief information officer of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, uses groupware to brainstorm and evaluate cost-containment activities, analyze make-versus-buy decisions and evaluate vendor proposals. One vendor reports that some of its commercial customers' top uses for groupware include quality or process improvement, strategic planning, requirements analysis, business planning and control, and project management.

Groupware products have already been applied to many traditional CFO roles, but they are also useful for decisions related to nontraditional responsibilities. Many CFO decisions require a variety of feedback. The groupware process can improve the quality and quantity of the feedback and the quality of the outcome, resulting in more creative and productive meetings.


Does groupware really change meeting dynamics? Not everyone thinks so. For example, one CFO says his executive committee would act the same at meetings with or without groupware. He claims these individuals have strong personalities and will say what they think, regardless of the meeting environment.

However, some scientists have examined business professionals in real-decision environments and concluded that groupware produces more speed, higher-quality decisions, greater group consensus and more satisfied participants. These studies suggest that the freedom of expression afforded by anonymity and the rapid influx of ideas made possible by simultaneous inputs are behind these results. Other studies dispute these conclusions.

Because of the complexity of the group decision process, much more research needs to be conducted before science can reach a definite conclusion. (For a detailed review of research conducted through 1990, you might want to read "A Comparison of Laboratory and Field Research in the Study of Electronic Meeting Systems," Journal of Management Information Systems, 7(3), Winter 1990-91, pages 107-135.) Nevertheless, most studies agree on one point: Groupware does change the group process in some way. This may be a good enough reason to give it a try.

Mr. Donelan is an assistant professor of accounting at the College of Business Administration, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colo. Ms. D'Albergaria is an instructor of marketing and Mr. Reed is an associate professor of accounting at the college.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Financial Executives International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The CFO's Guide to Information Management: Groupware; includes related article
Author:Reed, Ronald O.
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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