When should managers use communications-driven decision support tools?

by Dan Power

Communications-driven decision support systems can remedy a number of problems associated with group communication and group decision making. The most basic systems like GoToMeeting ( or WebEx ( address the problems of reducing communication barriers and emphasize improving interpersonal communication, increasing idea generation, facilitating discussion, and sharing ideas. These tools can reduce travel costs and provide other concrete benefits. More sophisticated systems add decision support models and group decision techniques to enhance the group evaluation and choice process.

According to Mike Song, CEO of, "From publishing giant Macmillan to financial services company Capital One, America's corporations are cutting travel and entertainment (T&E) costs and going green by holding meetings online. A new forecast by Gartner Research predicts that by 2011, web conferencing will be available to 75% of corporations as a standard facility." Song argues "most professionals desperately need to upgrade their virtual meeting skills. Research shows that 65% of professionals complain their virtual meetings fail to engage participants and are plagued with distracting technical glitches."

Using computerized communications tools raises many questions for managers. They must ask questions related to how a proposed technology can support a decision group or work team. How easy is it to use? What is the cost? Let’s examine some group support technologies and various additional questions that should concern managers.

Audio conferencing. In a meeting that uses audio conferencing, how can you help participants have a sense of who is "present?" How can you sense when people have something to say so you can make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard? How many people can effectively participate in an audio conference?

Bulletin Boards and Web-Conferencing. Will managers use the technology? If so, how can you support an interesting and engaging conversation among people who don't access comments at the same time? How do you know when it's time to make a decision and how do you know when there is closure about a choice? How do you deal with conflict when everyone is participating at different times? What's the virtual equivalent of eye contact? How can participants build a culture that will support the distributed decision-making process?

Document sharing. How can you balance the need to access and process large amounts of information with the goal of developing relationships and trust among team members? Does document sharing help or hurt team building? Is document sharing different for internal and external users?

Electronic mail. Are managers currently using Email? What norms need to be established for things like response time and whether Email can be forwarded to others? What norms are important about who gets copied on Email messages and whether or not there are blind copies? How does the style of Email messages influence how people feel about the team? How can managers discourage "flaming", the sending of harsh and inflammatory messages?

Computer-supported face-to-face meetings. If we hold a meeting supported by a group support technology like GroupSystems (, how does an ability to contribute anonymous input affect the team? How can we test whether "consensus" in the group is meaningful or an artifact of the computer-supported session? How much training is needed? How often will the software be used?

Interactive Video. In a decision conference with video conferencing, how can you help participants feel comfortable with being on TV and being recorded? How can you manage a meeting with multiple remote participants at different locations to make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard?

The overriding question facing managers is "What group communication and collaboration support tools are appropriate or ‘best’ in a given decision situation?" In some ways managers can experiment, all of the above tools are converging in integrated group support products. Having an integrated communications-driven support system will let participants choose different tools during a meeting without needing to change the software meeting environment.

Intuitively we know that no one set of tools or processes is best in all group decision making circumstances. DeSanctis and Gallupe present a typology with three dimensions that they argue are crucial for designing or choosing Group Support Software. The three dimensions are task type, group size, and group proximity.

Task Type

The particular group task is an important factor to consider in CDSS and GDSS evaluation and selection. The attributes of the task determine the need for information and the communication practices in the group. Group goals and tasks include:

1. Generating ideas and actions.

2. Choosing Alternatives. Includes intellective tasks (choose the right answer) and preference tasks (select one alternative, but no "right" answer)

3. Negotiating Solutions. Includes resolving differing viewpoints as well as dealing with conflicting motives.

Group Size

Very small groups of 2 to 3 members that can meet face to face generally do not need extensive support from computerized tools. Very large groups may need much more sophisticated decision support tools than medium sized groups.

Group Proximity

"Decision room" groups that can meet at the same time and same place probably do not need as many communication and decision aiding tools as distributed groups that are meeting at different times and in different places.

Task and Media Type

As mentioned, a wide variety of tools can support group communication and collaboration. A number of studies have examined the relationship between task type and media type. The table below summarizes current thinking about which support best fits which types of decision tasks. In general, computer supported communication is a good fit for generating ideas and plans. Negotiating conflicts of interest should be done face-to-face and computer support may not be helpful.

Computer Supported Communication

Audio System

Video System

Face-to-Face Meetings

Generating ideas and plans

good fit

marginal fit
info too rich

poor fit
info too rich

poor fit
info too rich

Choosing a correct answer: an intellective task

marginal fit
medium too constrained

good fit

good fit

poor fit
info too rich

Choosing preferred answer: a judgment task

poor fit
medium too constrained

good fit

good fit

marginal fit
info too rich

Negotiating conflicts of interest

poor fit
medium too constrained

poor fit
medium too constrained

marginal fit
info too lean

good fit

Table 8.2 A Matrix of Task Types and Media Types (from Power, 2002)

The various communications-driven decision support tools can support many decision situations. Managers should inquire about the capabilities and capacity of their computing network to support voice, video and data. For many companies a hosted application may be the best way to start with communications-driven decision support.

Virtual Meeting Tips

Mike Song's five common webinar/web meeting pitfalls:

1. Participants email during your webinar.

Tip: Jazz up your visuals to distract them. Use web conferencing tools like Webex and Go to Meeting to turn graphics on instantly. Pepper your presentation with a parade of charts, slides, and competitor's websites to keep them engaged--and invite them to email comments at the end.

2. People tune out of web conference and chat on Facebook instead.

Tip: Transform your meeting into a social networking event by asking participants to use your web conferencing tool's chat function to comment in real time. You'll get great ideas, instant feedback, and lively, entertaining banter.

3. Web meeting fatigue is setting in.

Tip: Take a 5-minute surf break! Invite everyone to take visit a relevant, humorous, motivating, or topical business-appropriate website that you've bookmarked ahead of time. Examples include NASA's astronomy picture of the day site, motivational quote sites, or a site that features a fun quiz or survey.

4. Virtual distance makes relationships go cold.

Tip: Remote meetings make it harder to build warm productive relationships with colleagues. Adorn your presentation with photos of presenters and participants so people connect faces with names. Use the chat function to ask quick, fun questions of the team at the meeting's start to break the ice and get acquainted. For example: "Type the name of your favorite movie into the chat box."

5. Technical glitches slow the flow.

Tip: If it's an important web conference, shut down and restart your computer before it starts. Arrive 20 minutes early and encourage participants to get there 10 minutes early. Do a sound, mute, and visual check with a colleague. Create a virtual meeting cheat sheet that lists all web and teleconference features such as "mute all" and customer service line. A free "tech glitch cheat sheet" can be downloaded at:


DeSanctis, G. and R. B. Gallupe. "A Foundation for the Study of Group Decision Support Systems." Management Science, 33, no. 5, May 1987.

Power, D. J., Decision Support Systems: Concepts and Resources for Managers, Westport, CT: Greenwood/Quorum, 2002.

Song, M., "Virtual Meeting Skills email," from Cathy Lewis, 9/17/2009.

Zigurs, I. and Buckland, B. "A theory of task/technology fit and group support systems effectiveness". MIS Quarterly, September 1998.

Last update: 2009-09-15 03:40
Author: Daniel Power

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