The goal of this paper is to integrate the previous research on Electronic Brainstorming (EBS) and draw conclusions about the effects of e-Brainstorming. The paper begins by examining the important theoretical underpinnings of e-Brainstorming and then examines each of the important ways in which EBS may change traditional approaches to creativity. Communication is a fundamental element of group creativity.
Researchers have long considered how to improve communication to improve group creativity, but unfortunately the general conclusion of this research is that due to problems in the communication process, people generate fewer ideas when they work together in groups than when they work separately and later pool their ideas (i. e. , in “nominal groups;” see (Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991; Paulus, Larey, & Ortega, 1995). Over the last decade, a new form of computer technology called a group support system (GSS) has emerged. With a GSS, group members communicate by exchanging typed messages, instead or in addition to speaking verbally.
GSS have proven useful in improving group performance (Dennis, Wixom and Vandenberg, 2001), particularly for creativity tasks such as idea generation. What are GSS? GSS research began in the early 1980’s at a variety of universities in the United States and Canada. These early systems were designed to support system analysts and users in the construction of information systems. They were designed as a series of networked micro-computers arranged in a U shape, or in a tiered legislative style. At the front of the room were a meeting leader/facilitator and a large screen video display.
GSS support a variety of tasks but many groups using GroupSystems followed a similar sequence of events. A group leader would meet with a GroupSystems facilitator to develop an agenda for the meeting and to select GroupSystems tools to be used. Then, as the group meeting began, the participants typed their comments into their computer and the results were integrated and displayed on the large-screen in the front of the room, as well as being available on each workstation. All participants saw the comments from the group, but without knowing who contributed what because all comments were anonymous.
Although many systems were originally designed to be used with all participants meeting in the same room at the same time (e. g. , GroupSystems), they have evolved to the increasingly popular and ubiquitous Internet enabled applications such as Groove, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Chat, ICQ and Lotus Notes, that enable users to communicate with other group members over the Web. Each of these different software packages offers a slightly different set of features. Most enable the simple sharing of ideas and comments among team members. Some enable the ideas and comments to rearranged and organized using headings.
Some systems enable participants to vote or to use sophisticated multicriteria decision making tools. Electronic Brainstorming While GSS can be used to support many different tasks, much of the research has focused on creativity tasks such as idea generation or brainstorming. Virtually all GSS tools enable participants to exchange ideas and comments, and some provide special purpose tools to support what has come to be called Electronic Brainstorming (EBS).
The initial research on EBS suggested that EBS groups could generate more ideas than verbal brainstorming groups (Gallupe et al., 1992) and as many or more ideas as nominal groups who work in the presence of each other but do not exchange ideas (Dennis & Valacich, 1993). Recent research has challenged these early studies, suggesting that any productivity gains compared to nominal groups are an “illusion” (Pinsonneault, Barki, Gallupe, & Hoppen, 1999). This challenge has sparked a new debate over the “illusion” or “pattern” of EBS productivity compared to other approaches, a debate that has led different researchers to different conclusions (cf.Dennis & Valacich, 1999; Pinsonneault & Barki, 1999).
Much of the prior GSS and EBS research has been guided by the processes gains and losses framework (Hill, 1982; Steiner, 1972). Simply put, communication among group members introduces factors into the brainstorming process that act to improve performance (process gains) and factors that act to impair performance (process losses) relative to individuals who work separately without communicating but later pool ideas (called nominal groups).
Several dozen plausible sources of process losses and gains in verbal and electronic brainstorming have been proposed (see Camacho & Paulus, 1995; Mullen et al. , 1991; Pinsonneault et al. , 1999). Two process gains (synergy, social facilitation) and five process losses (production blocking, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, cognitive interference and communication speed) have received the most research attention and are the ones that we believe are most important (Dennis & Valacich, 1999; Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Pinsonneault & Barki, 1999; Pinsonneault et al. ,1999).
is the ability of an idea from one participant to trigger a new idea in another participant, an idea that would otherwise not have been produced (Dennis & Valacich, 1993; Lamm & Trommsdorff, 1973). Synergy — or the “assembly bonus” (Collins & Guetzkow, 1964) — is perhaps the most fundamental potential source of process gains. Synergy can be expected to increase as the size of the group increases because there is likely to be a greater range of ideas with the potential to trigger new ideas (Dennis & Valacich, 1993; Gallupe et al. , 1992; Valacich, Dennis, & Connolly, 1994).
However, there is not a necessary, direct relationship between group size and synergy. Two important variables have been shown to effect the development of synergy in group creativity: diversity and attention. The diversity of team membership has been shown to be related to higher-quality team decision making (Gruenfeld, 1995; Jackson, 1992), but it is of little benefit to group creativity (Bantal & Jackson, 1989; Jackson, May, & Whitney, 1995; Williams & O’Reilly, 1998). Diversity seems to have some effects on synergy, but the exact nature of the effect is still unclear.
The second variable that affects synergy is attention to ideas. Recent research indicates that even small EBS groups can experiences process gains from synergy when participants receive instructions to focus their attention and memory on the ideas presented by others (Dugosh, Paulus, Roland, & Yang, 2000; Paulus & Yang, 2000). Each of these studies serves to emphasize the value of synergy in EBS while simultaneously suggesting additional moderating variables on the effect of group size on synergy. is the ability of the presence of others to affect one’s performance (Allport, 1920; Levine, Resnick, & Higgins, 1993; Zajonc, 1965).
If individuals are experienced in performing a task, or expect that they can perform the task well, working in the presence of others improves performance (Robinson-Staveley & Cooper, 1990; Sanna, 1992). However, if individuals have low expectations about performance, working in the presence of others impairs performance (Robinson-Staveley & Cooper, 1990; Sanna, 1992). For relatively simple tasks such as those commonly used in brainstorming, social facilitation is typically seen as a potential process gain (Pinsonneault et al. , 1999) but one with only a small effect (Bond & Titus, 1983).