It has not been long since the use of information technologies and systems has pervaded group processes inn organizations. There is a vast amount of literature that suggests that software tools are beneficial to groups, although there are still questions about what appropriate combination of tool/ human support is required to achieve efficiency and efficacy in electronically-mediated meetings (DeSanctis & Gallupe, 1987; Dickson, Partridge, & Robinson, 1993; Niederman, Beise, & Beranek, 1996; Nunamaker, Dennis, Valacich, Vogel, & George, 1991). (Un)fortunately in this literature, one can find several terms of the technology available, including group decision support systems (GDSS), group support systems (GSS), groupware, computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), Web-based meeting tools, blogs, wikis, RSS, and so forth. The current availability of technology tools (i.e., browsers, electronic forums, discussion groups, chat rooms, etc.) and their increasing pervasiveness at work creates opportunities to share information and help people to perform their jobs either individually or collectively. For those individuals and groups using collaborative technology, there are opportunities and challenges that need to be considered in relation to aspects like the creation and dissemination of information, decentralized authoring, and centralized control (Castells, 2001; Evans & Wolf, 2006; Wilkins, 2006). To date, an important number of tools have evolved from their name as “GDSS” (as they were named during the 90s) and can be described as collaborative, as they provide support group activities across departments and geographical locations. Often, these activities aim to achieve a particular outcome in a business (e.g., a decision, a product). In this regard, technologies being offered still have many of the features of group support systems or electronic meeting systems (EMS) (Nunamaker et al., 1991), because they enable people to come together “whether at the same place at the same time, or in different places at different times” (p. 41) and (re)generate ideas and organize and priorities them (Ibid). For the purposes of this chapter, we will focus on the support that can be available by collaborative technology to group meetings and facilitation. Whether these meetings result in decisions being implemented or goods being designed or manufactured is out of the scope of our discussion. To begin with, we now show different dimensions of support that collaborative technologies can offer to individual and group interactions.
Dimensions Of Support Of Collaborative Technologies
De Sanctis and Gallupe (1987) provide a comprehensive description of collaboration which combines communication, computer, and decision technologies to support problem formulation and/or problem solving in group meetings. The nature and type of support has several dimensions, some of which can be matched with the capabilities offered by the tools themselves. A first dimension to consider is the type of group activities that are to be conducted and their objectives. As De Sanctis and Gallupe (1987) argue, a common question that those designing, studying, or using collaborative technologies is that of “what is the purpose of using them?” This means that careful planning and assessment of what is to be achieved with collaborative technologies, as well as a discussion of the benefits these can provide, needs to be done before engaging with their use.
With the variety of tools available and now with Web-based technologies that make easier the authoring and updating of information, a second dimension to consider is the embedded facilities that the tools offer. De Sanctis and Gallupe (1987) provide a classification of different levels of support that collaborative tools can offer with a view that they influence (positively or negatively) the ways in which people interact. Table 1 presents the three (3) different levels of support that collaborative technologies can embed.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Facilitation: Structured activity or sets of activities that support someone (i.e., a group) in reaching an objective (perform a task or socializing). Facilitation involves removing barriers that could exist for effective and efficient group work, and acting upon changing circumstances (e.g., changes in group objectives and dynamics).
Group Support Systems: Technology and software to enable individuals to work together in a number of tasks.
Groupware: Technologies that allow collaboration between individuals engaged in completing a task together. Some e-mail systems can be classified within this category, in particular those that allow keeping track of messages, responses, dates, and feedback to one or several participants.
Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS): Technology and software that enables groups of individuals to interact electronically, to analyze information, and suggest possible ways to decide or decisions. Their orientation is towards enabling decisions to be taken, and support can be automated to suggest several courses of action at every step of a decision.
Electronic Meeting Systems (EMS): Technology and software that enable communication between individuals using electronic boards, messaging, and data repositories.