We believe that the use of electronic brainstorming can play a key role in enhancing group creativity, particularly for larger groups that suffer from the process losses inherent in verbally interacting groups. Several conclusions can be drawn from EBS research. First, it is clear that EBS and GSS can improve group creativity in certain situations. The advantages of synergy and social facilitation as well as the ability to bridge time and space make GSS an invaluable tool for many groups.
We recommend that large groups seeking to generate ideas choose first to work together using electronic brainstorming, either in special-purpose meeting rooms equipped with computers or over the Internet using Web-based brainstorming tools or simply electronic mail. For smaller groups, the use of nominal groups or their organizational cousin (Nominal Group Technique: (Delbecq, Van de Ven, & Gustafson, 1975; Van de Ven & Delbecq, 1971) still seems appropriate.
However, given the ubiquitous use of computing technology in modern organizations, most nominal groups will most likely use computer-based tools to record ideas thus making the sharing of ideas very simple using electronic brainstorming tools or electronic mail. Second, it appears that group size is the critical factor in determining the effectiveness of GSS to support productive group creativity. As group size increases the benefits of synergy and reduced production blocking and cognitive interference are more noticeable.
Smaller groups however (especially those with 2-3 members) will receive fewer benefits from using GSS over verbal or nominal techniques. Third, GSS seem to create group environments that have some fundamental differences from those of traditional verbally interacting groups. For instance, unlike verbal groups, GSS groups produce more ideas when participants are critical of the ideas generated by other group members (Valacich & Schwenk, 1985).
More research is required to explain why these changes occur, but their presence is well indicated by existing research. We speculate that the anonymity provided by GSS acts to separate ideas from their contributor so criticism is more easily recognized as criticism of ideas, not of people. Anonymity may also shield participants from the faults of an idea as well as the negativity associated with criticism. Therefore participants are more likely to share both ideas and criticisms.
Finally, with the rise of the Internet, GSS tools are increasingly ubiquitous. As tools like Lotus Notes, MSN Messenger, ICQ and others are diffused throughout society people become more accustom to using the computer as a tool for communication. This familiarity should allow them to use GSS tools more effectively. While we believe our conclusions are reasonable and appropriate, there are also clear needs for future research. One area that we believe is most promising, both for theoretical and applied research is the development of new tools.
Most current EBS software tools simply automate existing techniques. However, computer technology enables the creation of a variety of new ways to interact that would not be possible without the computer. For example, Dennis, et al. , (1999) investigated the impact of a very simple dialogue structure: participants were simultaneously given three separate windows in which to enter ideas, each focusing on different aspect of the problem.
This structure enabled participants to contribute ideas on different aspects of the problem simultaneously, something not possible in verbal brainstorming, in which every participant must listen to every other participant. This simple structure improved performance by about 50%. The use of electronic brainstorming enables the development and testing of a variety of far more complex structures which may have greater or lesser impacts on performance.
We need additional research to develop and test new ways in which groups can work together to generate ideas. The use of modified forms of electronic brainstorming to test the effects of production blocking, evaluation apprehension, etc. also creates opportunities to test other theoretical effects. Because new electronic brainstorming tools can be created to simulate a variety of different interaction patterns, it is possible to create tools that can act as a test bed for more fundamental theoretical concepts as well.
For example, it is possible to create a simulator that acts in the same manner as a real electronic brainstorming tool; participants believe themselves to interacting with the other participants in the “group” but instead of receiving comments and ideas from the other participants, they receive pre-scripted comments and ideas from a database developed by the experimenter. In this way we can create experimental conditions in which participants receive very stimulating ideas or non-stimulating ideas, receive supportive comments or critical comments, receive ideas that induce cognitive inertia (one topic focus) or a diversity of topics.
Likewise, such a simulator could be used to deliver identical thoughts and ideas to members of a decision making group but to present the results of pre-scripted group “vote” that purports to show that the participant is a member of a group majority or group minority. Such a test bed could enable far more precise tests of theories of minority and majority decision making, among others. While this chapter has focused on group creativity, the implications of GSS, EBS and their impact on creativity goes beyond simple idea generation.
The essence of creativity is the development and exchange of ideas that ultimately find their way into later stages of organization processes such as decision making or planning. GSS can play important roles in improving performance in these stages as well (Dennis, Wixom, & Vandenberg, 2001), by improving the sharing of information during group discussions (Dennis, 1996). Continued research into the use and usefulness of GSS will provide a richer understanding of how technology can enable more efficient and effective group processes and creativity.