Brainstorming Electronically

Electronic brainstorming (EBS) allows working groups to generate an abundance of ideas anonymously. Our experience with electronic brainstorming in several settings has shown it to be useful for large and small groups, for a variety of topics, for groups that meet face to face and for those that are dispersed, whether throughout a building or around the world. This evidence suggests that electronic brainstorming is a better way to generate ideas than both traditional brainstorming and nominal groups (individuals working alone).

Traditional brainstorming has been used for several decades. Whether formal or informal, the process is the same: think of as many ideas as you can and say them out loud; leave the evaluation of the ideas until later; build on and combine others’ ideas; be as imaginative as possible — the wilder the ideas the better. Sometimes brainstorming works just like that. When it does, ideas flow freely from an interplay that may never have occurred if the group hadn’t brainstormed together. Unfortunately, what often happens is quite different.

Two problems have plagued traditional brainstorming: production blocking and evaluation apprehension. Production blocking happens when we have an idea, but someone else is talking. When it’s our turn, we’ve forgotten the idea, we think our idea is redundant or not that good, or, particularly if the group is large or dominated by talkative people, we lose interest and don’t say what we think. Fewer good ideas are generated than might have been without production blocking.

Evaluation apprehension refers to our anxiety about what others will think of us if we say what we think. We censor our ideas. Instructions to be creative and novel aside, we don’t want to say things that may get us labeled as odd. This can be a particularly strong inhibition when our ideas may be construed as critical of current practice or when the group includes our boss and other people who may affect our fate. Under these conditions, we don’t produce as many new (and potentially useful) ideas. We keep them to ourselves, thereby defeating the purpose of brainstorming. As a result of these problems, traditional brainstorming hasn’t worked nearly as well as it’s supposed to.1

In this paper, we describe the use of networked computers to help groups generate, disseminate, evaluate, and act on ideas.

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1. For a review of the evidence, see:

B. Mullen, C. Johnson, and E. Salas, “Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-analytical Integration,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 12 (1991): 3–23.

2. The most influential case for using traditional brainstorming can be found in:

A. Osborn, Applied Imagination (New York: Scribner, 1957).

3. A. Delbecq, A. Van de Ven, and D. Gustofson, Group Techniques: A Guide to Nominal and Delphi Processes (Glenview, Illinois: Scott Forsman, 1975).

4. This is a composite scenario of an EBS session in our Decision Centre. It is typical of over one hundred sessions we have experienced. The names are pseudonyms.

5. For a discussion of these problems, see:

M. Deihl and W. Stroebe, “Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53 (1987): 497–509.

6. For representative studies, see:

R.B. Gallupe, L.M. Bastianutti, and W.H. Cooper, “Unblocking Brainstorms,” Journal of Applied Psychology 76 (1991): 137–142; and

R.B. Gallupe et al., “Electronic Brainstorming and Group Size,” Academy of Management Journal 35 (1992): 350–369.

7. Gallupe et al. (1992).

8. Ibid. Figure 3 combines results for Experiments 1 (Queen’s) and 2 (Arizona).

9. For a discussion of the importance of the richness of oral communication, see:

R.L. Daft and R.H. Lengle, “Information Richness: A New Approach to Managerial Behavior and Organization Design,” Research in Organizational Behavior, ed. B.M. Staw and L.L. Cummings, vol. 6 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1984).

10. For thoughtful analyses of groupthink, see:

I.L. Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982); and

G. Whyte, “Decision Fiascoes: Why They Occur and How to Prevent Them,” Academy of Management Executive, August 1991, pp. 23–31.

11. T. Connolly, L.M. Jessup, and J.S. Valacich, “Effects of Anonymity and Evaluative Tone on Idea Generation in Computer-Mediated Groups,” Management Science 36 (1990): 689–703.

12. A.B. Van Gundy, Techniques of Problem Solving (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981).