#269 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 4          April 1997

Electronic Brainstorming
by Keng L. Siau, Ph.D.

Dr. Siau is professor of management in the Department of Management, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 209 College of Business Administration, Lincoln, NE 68588-0491.  Email: klsiau@unlinfo.unl.edu www.ait.unl.edu/doc2/faculty/siau/

Group sessions are important for solving many of today’s problems.  Sometimes the leader, alone, cannot handle the complexity of the problems.  Other times, meetings are necessary because the expertise added by others will increase the chances of finding better solutions.  In most meetings, the idea-generating sessions are unorganized free-for-alls.  And these usually lead to less-than-satisfactory outcomes—the solutions to the problems are not satisfactory and the participants are not satisfied with the process.  Several techniques have been designed to improve the process and the outcomes of these meetings.

One of the most common techniques that claim to produce high-quality ideas is brainstorming.  Basically, a brainstorming session follows these four rules:

1. Rule out criticism

2. Encourage "freewheeling"

3. Go for quantity

4. Seek combination and improvement on ideas

These rules are meant to overcome motivational and social factors that frequently inhibit idea generation.  What is interesting, however, is that much of the research on this popular technique shows that it is not always effective in increasing group creativity.  In fact, some studies show that individuals working alone can produce better ideas than those same individuals working together in a brainstorming session.

What’s Wrong with Brainstorming ?

Researchers have proposed several reasons why brainstorming may not be very effective:

1. Production blocking.  Only a single member of the group can talk at a given moment; the others have to listen.  While they listen, they may think of relevant ideas but, by the time it is their turn to contribute, the ideas may be forgotten.  It’s also possible that, as the session goes on, the ideas appear less relevant, or the discussion has taken a new direction.  Another possibility is that, over time, the individual becomes distracted.  However, these unexpressed ideas—if they would have been offered—might have stimulated someone else to build upon them, perhaps leading to a better solution to the problem at hand.

2. Evaluation apprehension.  It’s easy to understand why some people may not offer an idea because of fear that others will criticize it, or criticize the individual for forwarding the idea.  While criticism is not allowed in a brainstorming session, unspoken—as a slightly raised brow—criticism cannot be forced upon participants.  Also, a lower-level participant may feel uncomfortable speaking out on an idea that he or she believes the supervisor would not support, or an idea that may be openly ridiculed after the meeting.

3. Free riding.  Individuals have a tendency to put less effort into a group project than they would if they were working independently.  For instance, some people feel more comfortable offering an idea only after they have had the time to think it through.  Meetings usually have the pressure of time hovering over them; thus, certain ideas, thought up during the meeting, will not be forthcoming.

You can see now how a person’s potential contribution can be diminished in a group session.  Several studies have shown that electronic brainstorming can overcome some of these barriers.  (I've recently reviewed them in the article, Electronic Creativity Techniques for Organizational Innovation, Journal of Creative Behavior Vol. 30, 283, 1996).

Brainstorming via Email

One form of brainstorming is via email.  A facilitator is recommended for this technique.  Once the problem is defined, it is sent out to the "group" via email.  This allows participants to contribute ideas independently by sending emails back to the facilitator.  The facilitator will compile the list and send it out to the group.  An "electronic facilitator" could be programmed to perform the tasks of compilation, and sending and receiving emails.  The list could be sent out once a day.  In this way, the participants can follow up on other’s ideas.  Since ideas are recorded electronically, they won’t be forgotten, and they can be thought about at any time.  Participants can dwell on the problem in the comfort and privacy of their desks and even their homes. They can examine inputs directly from the computer, or from printouts.  Thus, the major barriers to production blocking are now overcome.

Also, only the facilitator (if a human facilitator is used) knows the identities of the contributors.  The ideas in the list are not associated with any individual.  Because the ideas are anonymous,

participants who are reticent due to evaluation apprehension will now be more likely to contribute.  Social loafing will be reduced since an individual can work through his or her ideas independently before offering them to the entire group.

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, electronic brainstorming has the advantages of transcending space and time constraints.  Many times, it’s difficult to set up a meeting.  One or more of the desired participants may not be able to attend.  Sometimes the number of participants is restricted by the size of the room.  When planning face-to-face meetings, there’s always a tendency to keep the group to a reasonable size; thereby eliminating some people at the fringe of the problem.  However such "outsiders" often make major contributions and bring new insights.  By using an email system, the size of the group no longer has to be restricted.  The participants need not be all present at the same time and at the same place.  When a creativity session involves people from various sites and localities, the electronic mechanism becomes even more valuable as it eliminates travel time and expense.

Consider using brainstorming via email to increase both the quantity and quality of ideas.  The non-face-to-face environment allows everyone to focus more on the creativity task at hand, and less on the personal and social aspects of interaction.  Your success and the success of your organization depend on good ideas, so experiment with ways to get the better ideas.

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