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Technology update: group decision support systems.

Successful strategic planning sessions, usually held away from the office premises, are the result of team effort (see the preceding article on page 32). The cutting-edge technology described below can solve a number of problems found in many types of group deliberations (see the sidebar on page 49).

Grop work is a fact of life for professional service firms. It is becoming increasingly critical for the survival and success of both the firms and their clients. In increasingly complex environments, many specialists and generalists are needed to cope with decision complexity. Now information technology, which can aid the group deliberation and decision-making processes, is starting to appear. Opportunities abound for creating electronic meeting rooms where computing and communications are merged. Terms such as group decision support systems (GDSS), electronic meeting systems and computer-supported cooperative work describe the technology that is available to support group activities.

The technology is usually a networ that connects a number of PCs with a file server (high-capacity disk storage shared via a local area network) and has the capability of displaying input on large-screen monitors in a room designated for the purpose. The information displayed either can come from an individual using a PC or can represent the aggregation of responses made during a group session.

These sessions may focus on any or a number of the following group tasks or processes:

* Brainstorming.

* Nominal group (group suggestions are discussed and commented on without judgmental assertions).

* Delphi (surveys of groups in which feedback based on individual suggestions or conclusions is given to the respondents and consensus is sought).

* Assumption surfacing (underlying assumptions are identified).

* Policy formulation.

* Issue analysis.

* Alternative evaluation.

* Stakeholder identification.

* Strategic planning.

Group decision rooms are located at universities, including the universities of Arizona and Minnesota, and are beginning to be found in industry settings. IBM installed six group decision rooms in 1988 and 1989. The Internal Revenue Service office in Manhattan agreed to participate in experiments using these rooms in 1989 and 1990. The systems' configurations vary from 8 to 32 PCs. The rooms are usually U-shaped to facilitate person-to-person communication when the PCs are not being used. The PCs are generally moderately powered with high-resolution graphics. The large screens in the front of the room also have high resolution. In essence, these rooms have been designed to provide a "what you see is what I see" (WYSIWIS) environment. The networking is fairly standard, with the file server and the external facilitator's PC having more power and storage than the PCs used by the participants. In other words, this technology platform can be replicated at a fairly reasonable price.

ACTIVITIES AND BENEFITS

Many activities can take place in and will benefit from use of such a room. For example, a group meeting to plan a complex project could use most of the available tools effectively. Electronic brainstorming permits each person to submit an idea, pass it to the system, receive someone else's idea, add to it and pass it on, with comments accumulating at each step in the process. The ideas and comments are passed anonymously via the computer program.

After the brainstorming has been completed, the GDSS computerized issue analyzer function permits consolidation of the ideas into focus items (critical success factors). Voting may occur next as individuals anonymously rank their preferences. If it is necessary, a number of votes can be taken to establish consensus. Finally, the computer files can be printed for further analysis.

The technology is oriented toward providing an open forum for raising issues and identifying underlying assumptions while allowing participants to rank their preferences. It also allows for person-to-person conversation, an important complement to individual workstation computing. Interaction of the participants with one another and with the facilitator is always possible; particpants therefore have the option of contributing to the interaction either anonymously (via the computer) or directly.

Group decision support for committee meetings directly addresses a number of the problems listed in the sidebar that contribute to nonproductive meetings. Committees have to deliver tangible output from a diverse set of particpants, each of whom may have his or her own agenda. With GDSS, invididuals may contribute freely and in nonjudgmental environment. Documentation of each step in the process is instantly available. Domination cannot occur without revealing that someone is attempting to impose certain beliefs on the others. Creativity is encouraged as individuals contribute and respond freely to the input of others.

Strategic planning for an organization as a whole or for functional units is likely to benefit from GDSS. The advantages are that there can be both more participants and more participation by each individual and that a client should find it valuable to have the CPA-consultant serving as the external facilitator who guides the group through a complex strategy session.

Strategic planning faces many challenges. An important one is establishing a common vision and culture in an organization at as many levels as possible. This multilevel buy-in often is cited as the characteristic responsible for the success of a strategic plan. Sometimes communications from executive management may not reach even the second and third levels of management, much less the group charged with implementing a strategy. A key reason often cited is the difficulty of getting a group of managers from several levels together in a productive meeting. Because a group decision meeting can span a number of levels, input can be obtained from a cross-section of the management group and bringing the managers together can help establish common vision and culture.

Engagement planning and review of a variety of client services also could be handled effectively in group decision rooms. For mergers,they can facilitate the integration of one unit with another. And, because the original purpose for some of these group rooms was to provide a structured way of reaching consensus on user requirements for informaton systems, they work well in an engagement to plan for a computer systems installation or expansion.

The time needed for these meetings varies but a group of 10 to 12 professionals probably can bring sufficient topics to light, consolidate key items and rank them in less than two hours. Most participants are surprised at this productivity because they are used to needing several meetings to bring participants to the stage reached after one group decision room session.

THE FUTURE

As the technology for group decision rooms moves from universities and research-oriented sites to more practical applications, these rooms should appear in numerous organizations, conference hotels and research and instrual parks. As more people become familiar with the benefits, the technology should be improved to provide group decision support at temporary sites. One possibility for such a portable group decision room would be for participants to bring their laptop PCs to a meeting site and link them to one another and to a central PC linked to a large-screen imaging device.

In addition, individuals might communicate with participants in other locations. With this approach, time-delayed group meetings could take place. In these meetings, one group would complete its portion of an overall task, pass it to another group for further deliberations and then return it to the first group or pass it to a third group.

Group decision support concepts have the potential to increase the productivity of many firms' practices. For example, consider an audit engagement planning session for either a new or a continuing client. Both the firm's expertise and information about the client can be shared and commented on instantaneously. Each member of the audit team also gets the same understanding of the process and goals of the audit. Management advisory services assignments also are good candidates for such support because ongoing reviews of projects can be handled productively in these rooms.

Client relationships may be enhanced by providing group decision support facilities for planning and other group management activities. As firms begin integrating such support into their operations, clients probably will ask for assistance for a variety of tasks. For example, the firm could arrange for a room session to get two client groups together (say, marketing and manufacturing) that haven't communicated well. If the CPA firm has no group support facilities, the firm may arrange for such a meeting elsewhere to provide for more objectivity.

Group decision support offers an opportunity to increase the productivity of all types of group meetings. These meetings may be internal, external or a mixture. The technology is available and increasingly portable. The future of group meetings will be oriented to group decision support.

TERRY L. CAMPBELL, CPA, is assistant professor of accounting and MIS at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and the director of Penn State's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Information Sciences. He is a member of the information technology research subcommittee of the American Institute of CPAs management advisory services division.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Campbell, Terry
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Words:1466
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