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  • Thoughts on a Group Support System

    This is Chapter 10 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Decision support systems have come a long way since the Sixties and Seventies. Time was when Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon could announce with a straight face: "There is every prospect that we will soon have the technological means, through [heuristic programming] techniques, to automate all management decisions." /1/ From battlefield strategy to commercial product development, machines would increasingly take charge.

    While I suspect there is more truth to Simon's prediction than most observers allow -- after all, only a person whose own thinking processes were already largely "automated" could have ventured such a statement -- history has contravened his expectation. Now, some thirty years later, neither the battlefield commander nor the CEO is in foreseeable danger of obsolescence.

    We still hear about decision support systems, of course, but they mostly attempt to offer a relatively humble suite of logistical services to the human decision maker. The buzzwords flitting about the research publications tend toward the more modest end of the spectrum: electronic meeting systems, groupware, computer-mediated deliberation, and so on. What these denote can range from simple electronic extensions of the chalkboard and the paper memorandum to ambitious, if relatively crude, gestures in the direction of Simon's original vision.

    Brainstorming, analyzing, and voting

    I will look briefly at reports of one particular "group support system." Developed by researchers at the University of Arizona, /2/ this system was designed to facilitate meetings. The meeting room contains a microcomputer for each of four to ten participants, and a large projection system for displaying either an individual's work or the combined results of group work.

    The typical meeting under this system has three phases. Using Electronic Brainstorming software and typing at their separate terminals, all members of the group record their ideas regarding the questions posted on the meeting's agenda. Although these contributions are anonymous, everyone can see the complete and growing list of ideas. Next, a vaguely described Issue Analyzer helps the group "identify and consolidate key focus items resulting from idea generation." Information from other sources can be imported during this phase. Finally, a Voting tool provides various methods for prioritizing the key items. Again, voting is anonymous, but the results are easily displayed for all to see.

    The Arizona researchers report on the experimental use of this system at IBM. In one case a manager, frustrated in her attempt to iden