A Manager's Guide to Group Decision Support Systems

John H. Saunders, Ph.D.

Group Decision Support Systems
     The Controlled Atmosphere
     The Defined Process
     The Bag of Tools

Group Decision Support Systems

The Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon separated "good" decision making into three separate stages - intelligence, design and choice - IDC. But if we were to examine the group decision process that most organizations follow we would likely find that it could be defined as BOGGSAT - a Bunch of Guys & Gals Sitting Around Talking. Think of the some common characteristics of decision meetings we have all attended;

- most of the meeting was spent pursuing irrelevant tangents,
- one or two people dominated the meeting,
- there were times when everyone was speaking at the same time,
- minutes were taken from a singular point of view, leaving out important comments or issues,
- people with bright ideas feared speaking up in a politically charged atmosphere,
- the actual decision was reached hurriedly in the last 5 minutes of the meeting,
- many of the right people didn't attend,
- more new issues were surfaced than those that were resolved,
- there was no way to organize the issues at hand, and
- in the end nobody really knew whether there was a final consensus on the decision or not.
These are frightening factors when you think about the potential consequences of decisions made by groups. Is there any way that we can reducing or eliminate these problems? Yes, there is. New methods and tools for controlling most of these challenges are available. They are called group decision support systems (GDSSs). GDSSs utilize a controlled atmosphere, a defined process, and a bag of tools for supporting groups making major decisions.

The Controlled Atmosphere

Common sense dictates that a meeting where participants seek to accomplish a reasonable set of objectives should be held in a controlled atmosphere. This is a neutral environment where the meeting may proceed without interruption, where critical data is readily available, and where participants can effectively see, hear and respond to the each other. For generations the traditional conference room has fulfilled this need. The introduction of information technology to add speed, corporate memory and networking capability to the organizational meeting has promulgated the growth of a new atmosphere termed "Decision Rooms." These are rooms where tables with embedded computer screens and keyboards are arranged in a U shape. In the same room, multiple projection devices allow interface with simultaneous information sources such as a video teleconference, a database of opinions, and web pages. Visit the web pages at http://www.groupsystems.com/services_meetingroom_rooms.html  to get a look at examples of these centers around the world.

The Defined Process

One of the principal problems with traditional meetings is that frequently the meetings are entirely ad-hoc. There are no defined objectives, no specified times for moving among topics, no methods for assuring that all that needs to be said, is said, nor even a way to assure that the correct parties are participating. In a GDSS environment the meeting process is much more well defined. There is time for diverging, time for converging, time for deciding how to decide. In addition to the "right" participants, the defined process requires three key players: the process owner, a facilitator, and a technographer. The process owner is the person or persons who must go forth with the decisions made in the decision room session. They must have the power to enact the recommendations. The process owner collaborates with the facilitator to establish a timetable and an agenda well in advance of the actual meeting. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting moving, staying on the agenda, assuring equal time for participants, and encouraging discussion. The facilitator must be a neutral, impartial party. The technographer is an individual trained in the technical workings of the software. It is their job to move the data around as unobtrusively as possible during the actual meeting. In this manner the participants can focus upon the session content.

The Bag of Tools

GDSS's, also frequently referred to as Electronic Meeting Systems (EMSs) are characterized by tool sets that provide capability for the group to set an agenda, and then to do brainstorming, filtering, classifying, and prioritizing of the issues at hand. These tool sets overcome most of the challenges discussed in the first section above. They provide anonymity, complete record keeping, parallel data entry from all individuals, a smooth sequence for the meeting, forced focus upon the issues surfaced, fast issue organization, and multiple methods for establishing priorities. A rather fascinating phenomenon happens in these environments - the focus of the discussion moves away from attaching the worth of an idea to its originator, to judging the idea based upon its own merit. The table below provides a list of product vendors in this arena. 

Product Vendor Cost Capability
Tucson, AZ
approx $1000/user
brainstorming, evaluation, group drawing, outlining, 
voting includ.matrix,
MeetingWorks MeetingWorks 
$895 for 8 users internet based tool capabilities similar to groupsystems
TeamEC Expert Choice, Inc 
Pittsburgh, PA
$12,000 for 20 users uses radio keypads to do surveys and evaluation
QuestMap Softbicycle.com 
Washington, DC
$950 for 10 users Using diagraming of goals, issues, and pros/cons 
Consensus Anywhere Softbicycle.com 
Washington, DC
$895 for 25 users internet based tool capabilities similar to groupsystems

As with the other dimensions of groupware, there are thousands of examples where groups have benefited from the use of GDSSs. The U.S. Army's Information Systems Command was able to gain a consensus on which of the thousands of IS's worldwide should be combined or eliminated. Millions of dollars were saved as a result. At the National Defense University previous college rivalries for end of year funding were alleviated when a GDSS was put into place. The GDSS process provided for a higher level of understanding of project funding priorities by providing the decision makers a structured process for discussing all the issues surrounding the line items. And the anonymous prioritization of projects allowed individuals to vote for the good of the university without fear of reprisal from colleagues within their own or sister colleges. At the US Marine Corps training base in Camp Pendleton, California the system was used successfully to gather honest information from Marines about the quality of the field training they were receiving.