With the advent of new technologies for sharing information, you might think employees would rather take a few minutes to share ideas by computer than sit through yet another meeting.
So far that's not the case, according to research from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.
In numerous research studies, electronic brainstorming has been found to be an effective means of generating many good-quality ideas. But according to a study published by two IU researchers in MIS Quarterly (Vol. 28, No. 1), it has not displaced, or even joined, verbal brainstorming -- often done face-to-face -- as a widely accepted practice in many companies.
Alan Dennis, the John T. Chambers Chair of Internet Systems, and Bryan A. Reinicke, a doctoral student in information systems in the Kelley School, surveyed a group of managers and professionals enrolled in the Kelley School's part-time MBA program in Indianapolis and asked them about how they prefer to brainstorm ideas.
In the final survey sample of 131 professionals, most did not see any qualitative benefits to using electronic brainstorming tools, including people who had used them.
Electronic brainstorming often employs special software that collects employees' ideas and shares them with other group members to promote faster collaboration.
"The number and quality of ideas are not all that the individuals on the team are looking for," Dennis said. "When we went back and looked at previous research and sat down and talked with our colleagues and people in industry, there were two other things that stood out: the opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with others and the opportunity for individual learning and growth.
"Obviously, from the perspective of the corporation or the team leader, the number and quality of ideas is important," he said. "But the opportunity to build relationships with other people on the team is also very important -- getting to know people better, understanding who they are and even building individual understanding."
Dennis said people look for opportunities to grow as individuals and develop skills important to working with others. "The perception among the people we talked with in the survey was that it was much easier to develop and grow by working in a team face-to-face," he said.
"One might argue that if you're the team leader and your goal is to produce results, you might value the number and quality of ideas. But if you're someone new to the organization, what you might value more than anything is the opportunity to build relationships," he said.
The apprehensions about electronic brainstorming were not limited to respondents who were early in their careers.
"If you're someone who's been in the organization for a while, you might want to preserve the current power structure," Dennis said. "One thing we know about electronic discussion is that it tends to disrupt the power structure … it changes the relationships and gives other people opportunities to participate."
As a result, there are different kinds of potentially conflicting goals among members of the team. While some people are interested in overall performance, others are focused on relationships or individual growth.
"What this research shows is that people don't recognize the potential benefits we've seen from using the technology. But there are other things beyond performance that matter," Dennis said.
"The bottom-line implication to me is that it makes sense to use these technologies for one part of the process. If you really want to get creative, innovative, high-quality ideas, then electronic discussion is clearly better than verbal discussion," he said. "On the other hand, if you want to build a good team, strengthen the relationships and allow for opportunities for mentoring and individual growth, verbal discussion is better."
Dennis said the best solution for companies is to employ both kinds of brainstorming in the process.
Even in the title of the paper, "Beta Versus VHS and the Acceptance of Electronic Brainstorming Technology," the authors cautioned that previous findings have been somewhat myopic.
"Much as Sony focused on the quality of the picture on its Beta format, we as IS researchers have focused on the number of ideas generated as the dominant measure of electronic brainstorming effectiveness," they wrote. "When VHS killed Beta, Sony discovered that image quality was a secondary consideration for most VCR users. Despite the compelling research on its performance benefits, electronic brainstorming has not yet displaced -- or even joined -- verbal brainstorming as a widely used idea generation technique."
While the paper's focus is on the adoption of electronic brainstorming, Dennis also sees it as a microcosm of much larger issues surrounding the adoption of technology in general. "We often have been quick to adopt a new technology that provides immediate performance benefits to the organization, without carefully considering the longer-term -- and perhaps more important -- impacts on the employees', managers' and customers' needs for relationships, personal growth and factors other than pure task performance," he said.