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Investigation of Possible Explanations

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Investigation of Possible Explanations
Hence, there are two explanations of how formal procedures affect group output: (1) group discussion is important, (2) group discussion is not important. Which is correct? To help them choose, scientists must perform complete "input-process-output" studies.

Formal procedures and critical functions. As you can recall from Chapter 8, Hirokawa (1985) focused on what he called "critical" discussion functions. His research led him to conclude that if groups want to make decisions successfully, they must:

1. Discuss the problem thoroughly.

2. Examine the criteria for an acceptable solution.

3. Propose a set of realistic alternative solutions.

4. Assess the positive aspects of each proposal.

5. Assess the negative aspects of each proposal.

As you can see, Hirokawa's list looks very much like the Reflective Thinking procedure. Reflective Thinking includes all the critical functions as part of its methodology. Thus, it would make sense for Hirokawa to examine how procedures such as Reflective Thinking relate to his critical functions. Hirokawa wanted to know whether procedures such as Reflective Thinking change group discussion and actually cause groups to perform more critical functions than free discussion groups do.

Findings of study. Hirokawa's findings suggest that the procedures do not help groups perform critical functions. He examined free discussion groups, Reflective Thinking groups, and groups that followed two other formal procedures. He looked at the number of critical functions that the groups performed and at the quality of the decisions they made. He found no difference among the groups. All groups performed similar amounts of critical functions and made decisions of a similar quality.

This finding stands in contrast to the research we discussed earlier. In those other studies, scientists found that formal procedures lead to relatively higher quality decisions.

What did Hirokawa's study show? Why did the procedures not help his groups perform better? The answer is not clear. If we examine Hirokawa's research methodology, we can find faults. His groups received little instruction and no practice. They also made decisions that did not affect them. However, this was also true for most of the studies we reviewed earlier. Hence, these faults cannot account for Hirokawa's research findings being different from the other studies.

Thus, research into this question is not conclusive. Most studies show that groups that follow procedures perform better than free discussion groups. We do not know, however, why this should be so. For our purposes, let us assume for the time being that group discussion does affect group performance. This allows us to ask further questions about formal discussion procedures.

Question 2--Does the Order of Steps in Formal Procedures Matter?

Comfort Level in Groups
As we discussed earlier, formal procedures such as NGT and Reflective Thinking are linear models. As such, they consist of sequential steps. Advocates of the procedures insist that groups always perform these steps in the proper order. As we saw in Chapter 8, however, free discussion may actually be closer to a "reach-testing" process than to a linear one. This may mean that people are most comfortable when they use a "reach-testing" discussion method. The order of steps could affect the comfort level of group members.

The issue of comfort has different aspects. As we noted at the beginning of this chapter, one strength of formal procedures may actually be that they cause discomfort among group members. A formal procedure is an unnatural process and therefore may be uncomfortable to follow. This can perhaps shake up members in a positive way and get them to reexamine their normal ways of doing things.

It is nevertheless still useful to know how the order of procedural steps affects members. Do members do better following a linear method or a "reach-testing" method? Is their level of comfort part of the equation?

Hirokawa Study
A study by Hirokawa (1983) relates to this issue. In his experiment, Hirokawa used a coding scheme to analyze task-oriented discussion of free-discussion decision-making groups. His scheme categorized decision-making functions, with each category representing a group action. The coding scheme was as follows:

Category 1 = Analyze the problem

Category 2 = Establish evaluation criteria

Category 3 = Generate alternative solutions

Category 4 = Evaluate alternative solutions

Category 5 = Establish operating procedures

Hirokawa first analyzed his test groups using the scheme above. He then divided the data into phases to discern when groups performed each function. With some exceptions, the results generally showed consistent differences among the decision processes of the groups. Groups that made decisions that Hirokawa judged "good" followed certain processes; groups that made "bad" decisions followed other processes. When Hirokawa divided the group discussions into three stages, he discovered the findings shown in Table 13.5.

Table 13.5


"Good" Decision Groups

"Bad" Decision Groups


Categories 1 and 3

Categories 3 and 4


Categories 3 and 4

Categories 1, 3, 4, and 5


Categories 1, 3, and 4

Categories 3 and 4

As you can see, the free discussion of "good" decision groups more closely approximated the Reflective Thinking procedure. In particular, the "good" groups analyzed the problem early in the discussion and evaluated the possible solutions later. In contrast, the "bad" decision groups first worked on possible solutions and then went "backward" to establish an operating procedure and analyze the problem. Finally, they returned to possible solutions.

Despite these different results, the "good" and "bad" decision groups had many similarities. Both kinds of groups generated and evaluated solutions pretty much throughout their discussions. Thus, the difference in process between the high- and low-quality groups was not very large. Groups may not have to follow a linear process strictly in order to make high-quality decisions.

Alternative Version of Reflective Thinking
One can imagine a version of Reflective Thinking that is not completely linear. Group members first analyze the problem and determine criteria. They then "reach-test" through proposal sequences. Each sequence follows a pattern. Immediately after the members propose a solution, they evaluate it against the criteria and give it a tentative evaluation.

Scientists would have to use research to determine whether this alternative method leads to the same kind of decision quality that the standard version of Reflective Thinking does. If so, the method might be preferable to the standard procedure because it more closely resembles free discussion. Group members may find it easier and more enjoyable to use than the standard method. Hence, they might be more willing to use it.

Brilhart and Jochem (1964) conducted research that lends some support to the idea that an alternative method might work well. In their study, groups used formal procedures to make decisions. Each procedure was similar to Reflective Thinking, yet not all were linear methods. The three kinds of procedures were as follows:

1. Problem-criteria-proposals-evaluation-decision

2. Problem-proposals-criteria-evaluation-decision

3. Problem-proposal/evaluation-decision

As you can see, the first method was a standard Reflective Thinking procedure, and the second was different but still a linear method. The third, however, appeared to allow groups to "reach-test."

The results showed that the third method led to fewer total proposals and fewer good ones than the other two. When the researchers looked at decision quality, however, they found no difference among the procedures. This suggests that, in the end, the order of stages in a procedure did not matter. A group did not need to follow a strictly linear pattern to do well. Further, the participants reported that the standard Reflective Thinking was the least satisfying procedure.

Question 3--Do Procedures Differ in Overall Effectiveness?

Some procedures could lead to better group performance than others. In a review of relevant studies, we found some evidence of such differences (Pavitt, 1993).

The General Procedures

The studies show that the procedure of "dialectical inquiry" may lead to higher quality decisions than the method of "devil's advocacy." In addition, both procedures seem to help groups come to higher quality decisions than Hall and Watson's consensus rules do, although they take longer to reach these decisions.

On the other hand, Hall and Watson's rules fare better when groups perform problem-solving survival games, such as "Lost on the Moon." Research shows that groups that use the consensus rules seem to come to more accurate answers than groups that use NGT although they do so slower.

The Detailed Procedures

Studies that have compared Reflective Thinking and NGT have not found any differences. The procedures appear equally effective.

One such study was by White, Dittrich, and Lang (1980). We discussed it earlier. It measured the number of times that nurses attempted to implement their group's decisions. The researchers found that, as far as this variable was concerned, there was no difference between NGT and the procedure that was similar to Reflective Thinking.

Jarboe Study
A second study comparing NGT and Reflective Thinking was performed by Jarboe (1988). Earlier, we stated that it was important to train participants adequately and to motivate them to follow the procedures well. From studies to date, Jarboe's is the only one we have good reason to believe included adequate training and motivation. The participants received a lecture and handout on the procedure. They then watched a videotaped presentation of a group using the method, and finally they practiced it under supervision.

Jarboe then had the groups make decisions about one of two issues, using either Reflective Thinking or NGT. Each issue was presented in a manner that made it either relatively simple or relatively complex. The participants were motivated to follow the procedure they were assigned, because their performances affected their class grades.

Jarboe found that NGT led to a greater number of proposals than did Reflective Thinking; however, she also found that the techniques did not differ in other ways. She judged that the methods produced proposals that were similar in uniqueness and quality. Further, the two procedures did not differ in regard to member satisfaction. No matter which method they used, members were equally satisfied regarding their group's solution, the technique their group used, and their group experience in general. We need more research in this area, however, before we can make any general claims about how NGT and Reflective Thinking compare.

Incidentally, Jarboe did more in this study than compare NGT with Reflective Thinking. In fact, this study was one of the first to respond to Hewes's challenge, as discussed in Chapter 8. Hewes demanded that researchers show that communication has an effect on output variables over and above the effect of input variables. Jarboe measured various output variables, such as group productivity and member satisfaction. She also performed content analyses of group process, using a coding scheme similar to Bales's. As described above, her input variables included discussion procedure and complexity of the issue. Jarboe found that she could most accurately predict output variables if she used the input and process variables

together. Her predictions were not so successful if she used either set alone. This can be seen as evidence that process had an impact on output over and above input.

However, critics can propose alternative explanations for Jarboe's findings. Her control of the groups could have influenced individual decision-making performances. In turn, individual performances would directly affect task output and member satisfaction. Thus, perhaps group process was not shown to be the deciding factor.

Question 4--Do Procedures Differ in Effectiveness in Different Situations?

Earlier, we presented the idea that the design of procedures could lead to differences in effectiveness in a given situation. We have, however, little research on this issue. The research that does exist has focused on NGT. We can summarize these findings to show the research in this area.

NGT and Research Findings

As we discussed earlier, it appears that NGT leads to better decision-making performances than free discussion does. Hence, apparently NGT can help with tasks that do not have objectively correct answers.

Whether NGT improves the performance of groups facing tasks that have objectively correct answers is not clear. For example, findings in studies that have looked at the accuracy of group rankings on "survival" tasks have differed. Some found that NGT leads to greater accuracy than free discussion, others found no difference in accuracy, and still others found that accuracy was greater in free discussion groups. Further, as we mentioned in our previous section, research has found that groups that follow Hall and Watson's consensus rules to work on "survival" tasks have more accurate rankings than groups that use NGT.

Thus, NGT might not be a good procedure for groups to use when they work on problem-solving tasks.

Possible Reasons for NGT Findings
We have good reason to argue that these findings make sense. It is understandable that NGT would be more beneficial in a decision-making situation than in a survival game situation.

Perhaps the greatest strength of NGT is the method it outlines for proposal making. Group members silently generate proposals and then list them in round-robin fashion. This procedure is important for decision-making tasks. Proposal generation is particularly crucial for decisions. Therefore, NGT may help groups improve the quality of their decisions.

In a survival game, however, proposal generation is unimportant. In a sense, the game has already supplied the "proposals," in the form of the list of items that the members must rank. Thus, the group needs only to discuss and evaluate them. For this reason, NGT may not be as helpful with this kind of task as it is with decision-making tasks.

Other Procedures
We can look at NGT research and hypothesize about other procedures. More generally, the design of procedures may suit some types of decision tasks and not others. Unfortunately, with the exception of NGT, scientists have done little research concerning when groups should and should not use particular procedures. For example, there are no studies that can give us insights into when Reflective Thinking is and is not helpful.

Question 5--Do Different People React Differently to the Use of Discussion Procedures?

We have discussed how a procedure may help in some circumstances and not in others. Likewise, a procedure could be good for some people and not for others. Personality traits may affect how people respond to formal discussion procedures.

Preference for Procedural Order

One trait that is possibly relevant is "preference for procedural order," or "PPO." PPO is an inherent desire to make decisions in a structured manner rather than in an unstructured manner. Hirokawa, Ice, and Cook (1988) found that groups of people who are high in PPO make higher quality decisions when they use the Reflective Thinking procedure rather than when they use free discussion. In contrast, groups consisting of members low in PPO make higher quality decisions using free discussion rather than when they use the Reflective Thinking procedure.

This suggests that people who like to make decisions in a structured manner should use formal procedures. On the other hand, people who do not like using a structured manner to make decisions should not use a formal procedure.

Communication Apprehension
A second trait that is possibly relevant is "communication apprehension," or "CA." CA is an inherent fear of communicating in situations in which others will evaluate one's performance as a communicator.

As you can recall, this issue arose when we discussed brainstorming. It is one reason that brainstorming may not help groups generate proposals as well as methods in which people generate ideas individually. Individual idea generation includes methods such as writing proposals on lists individually. In brainstorming, however, members express their ideas to the group. Despite the rules of brainstorming, some people may still be anxious that other members of their group will evaluate them negatively if their proposals seem "off-the-wall." It follows that people high in CA may be particularly sensitive in a brainstorming situation. They may be likely to withhold proposals because they are afraid of negative evaluations.

Thus, high CA people gain a greater advantage from procedures that use individual proposal generation than do people who are low in CA (Jablin, 1981).

Applications of Findings
These findings imply that formal procedures may not be for everyone. Additionally, some procedures are effective for certain types of people and not effective for others. Perhaps groups ought to use procedures only when members prefer the guidance they can offer.

We have discussed studies that have found no differences in how various procedures affect groups. We have also discussed studies that show no difference between groups that used procedures and those that used free discussion. What if these findings have more to do with the people in the groups than with the procedures? The findings could mask differences that arose due to different types of people. In other words, perhaps some types of people make better decisions when they use Reflective Thinking than when they use NGT. Others may make higher quality decisions when they use NGT rather than Reflective Thinking. Finally, some group members may reach better decisions with free discussion than with either formal procedure.


Existing research on formal discussion procedures appears problematical. It does not allow us to reach many conclusions about how procedures affect decision quality and accuracy in groups. Research has indeed raised more questions than answers.

Nevertheless, even without research support, scientists can argue in favor of discussion procedures. Overall, studies have shown that groups that use procedures tend to be more satisfied with their decisions than free discussion groups are. As a consequence, such groups are probably also more committed to their decisions than free discussion groups are.

Further, groups that use discussion procedures imply that they are committed to democratic decision making. For example, NGT forces all members to participate equally, regardless of power and status. Similarly, Reflective Thinking gives an equal opportunity to all proposals, no matter who made them. Thus, if groups correctly follow formal discussion agendas, the procedures can be a force for democracy in decision making. This alone may warrant their use in circumstances in which people value democracy.


Computer Programs to Direct Groups

In Chapter 9, we discussed computer conferencing. As we stated, computer conferencing has become steadily more popular in recent years for decision-making groups. In that earlier discussion, we focused on how people can use computers as a medium. We discussed how computers can allow people in distant locations to form groups and make decisions. The distance does not matter.

In some organizational groups, however, computers are not merely a medium. In these groups, computers not only allow groups to make decisions, they also direct the groups' procedures. In other words, these groups do not follow the normal pattern of a group member leading the group through a formal procedure. Instead, a computer program leads the group. In this case, the program is called a group decision support system, or "GDSS."

Electronic Brainstorming

For example, researchers at the University of Arizona have deveolped a GDSS that they call "Group Systems." One program in the GDSS, "Electronic Brainstorming," guides groups through brainstorming sessions. When using "Electronic Brainstorming," group members simultaneously type their ideas into a database. As they type, the program randomly selects members' proposals and displays them on everyone's screen. Members can read these proposals while typing in their ideas, and thus piggyback on one another's proposals.

Potential Advantages

As we discussed earlier, one problem with group brainstorming is "production blocking." Due to the fact that group members must take turns talking, members often forget their ideas before they have the time to present them verbally to the group. One advantage of brainstorming with computers is that members can enter their ideas right when they think of them. They do not have to take turns. Computerized brainstorming groups have the potential, therefore, to be more productive than face-to-face brainstorming groups.

Research into Electronic Brainstorming

As we described above, face-to-face brainstorming leads to far fewer and lower quality proposals than the silent generation of ideas. Early research implied that this was also the case for "Electronic Brainstorming." Gallupe, Bastianutti, and Cooper (1991) asked students to brainstorm a list of results that would take place if everybody had an extra thumb on each hand. The students performed this task either alone or in four-member groups. In addition, the students either worked face-to-face or used "Electronic Brainstorming," whether or not they were alone.

Researchers compared the results of the groups and the individuals by adding the results of four individuals to create same-sized aggregates. When students worked alone using "Electronic Brainstorming," no other proposals displayed on their screens. Hence, they could not piggyback on ideas. For that reason, the researchers expected that the groups that used "Electronic Brainstorming" would generate more proposals than the aggregates of four individuals brainstorming through computers. This did not happen. The use of computers did lead to more proposals than the face-to-face situations, but the groups that used computers did not produce more proposals than the same-sized aggregates. Instead, four students brainstorming alone through computers were as productive as the groups.

Valacich, Dennis, and Connolly (1994) were not convinced by these findings. As discussed earlier, the reason why nominal groups are more productive than real groups in brainstorming is because of production blocking; members are unable to immediately voice their ideas. In "Electronic Brainstorming group members can type their ideas as soon as they think of them. As a consequence, production blocking should not be a problem.

Valacich et al. replicated Gallupe et al.'s study, but in this case using real brainstorming groups and aggregates as large as 18. As in earlier research, they found that both the number and quality of proposals increased as the size of aggregates went up. Unlike earlier research, the number of quality of proposals also increased as the size of real brainstorming groups went up. Further, the rate of increase was faster in the real groups than in the aggregates. As a consequence, small-sized aggregates performed better than small-sized groups, but large-sized groups performed better than large-sized aggregates. In Valacich et al.'s data, real groups became more productive than same-sized aggregates when their size reached about 12 members. Of course, it is difficult to say whether the same effect will work in other circumstances. Nonetheless, this is the first situation in which brainstorming has been found to work better than individual idea generation.

Software Aided Meeting Management

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have written another GDSS for groups called "Software Aided Meeting Management," or "SAMM." SAMM includes a discussion procedure that is based on Reflective Thinking.

Poole, DeSanctis, Holmes, and their associates have performed a number of studies comparing face-to-face interactions and SAMM. They have compared the process and output of various groups with one another. Some groups used SAMM with computers, others followed SAMM's procedure face-to-face, and still others used face-to-face free discussion.

The results of this research has been very complex, but a few results are worth noting. Scientists found that group members who use SAMM tend to have more conflict and attempt to influence one another more than members who perform the same procedure face-to-face (Poole, Holmes, & DeSanctis, 1991; Zigurs, Poole, & DeSanctis, 1988). This finding is consistent with what we reported in Chapter 9, that findings have been similar for groups that use computer conferencing. The process of groups using SAMM face-to-face tends to more closely approximate the "linear phase model" (see Chapter 8) than the free-discussion or computerized SAMM groups, which leads to greater group consensus and member satisfaction (Poole & Holmes, 1995). One reason for this finding is that computerized groups seemed to have trouble using SAMM. As a consequence, they spent more time trying to figure out how the technology works, which takes attention away from their task (Poole, Holmes, Watson, & DeSanctis, 1993).

It would be interesting if the Minnesota researchers would expand their study and not focus only on how face-to-face groups compare with SAMM. Instead, they could compare computerized SAMM groups with groups that use computer conferencing to perform free discussion. This would help them determine the extent to which their results are due to the specific use of the SAMM GDSS as opposed to the use of computer technology in general.


Researchers have devised many formal procedures for groups to use when they conduct their discussions. For many reasons, scientists believe that formal procedures are advantageous and can improve the decision-making performance of groups. These advantages, however, are often the very reasons that groups do not adopt the procedures. For the procedures to work effectively, group members must receive the proper training and be motivated to follow them.

Some formal procedures are general, and consist only of guidelines. For example, Hall and Watson proposed a set of six consensus rules that are designed to help a group reach a mutually satisfying consensus. "Devil's advocacy" and "dialectical inquiry" are two other general methods. Their purpose is to help groups resist premature decisions by forcing group members to examine their basic assumptions.

Other formal procedures are extremely detailed. Their design should affect how suitable they are in different circumstances.

Reflective Thinking is a method that has much of the give and take of free discussion. Theorists designed Reflective Thinking to help cohesive groups handle major decisions. These cohesive groups should have members who can optimize and who feel relatively comfortable with one another. The Nominal Group Technique is also used for major decisions; however, it limits conversation among group members. As a result, it is best for groups that are not particularly cohesive. It does not truly assume that group members are able to optimize.

Brainstorming is a technique groups can use to generate ideas. When it is inserted into a process such as the Nominal Group Technique, it should improve cohesiveness and subsequent decision making. It does so, however, at the expense of some productivity.

Incrementalism is a satisficing procedure that is good for making routine decisions.

Researchers have performed some studies to test the consequences of using formal procedures. Formal procedures appear to help groups make better decisions than they otherwise would. What causes this improvement, however, is not clear. It could come about because of more structured and well-reasoned discussions or because of better individual decision making on the part of each group member.

Advocates of formal procedures insist that groups perform the steps in order; however, scientists are not sure whether the order really matters. Also not clear is whether procedures differ in terms of how effective they are, although different methods are likely better in different situations. Personal traits appear to affect how people like procedures. Some people perform better when they follow formal procedures than when they engage in free discussion, while other people do not.

Recently, researchers have written computer programs to guide people through formal procedures. These programs allow groups to use formal procedures while they make decisions through computer conferencing. Research suggests that groups that use computerized procedures may have more conflict and find it more difficult to make decisions than groups that use procedures in face-to-face meetings.

In this chapter, we described only a small sample of the formal procedures that are available. Readers can find more complete reviews of this topic in Scheidel and Crowell (1979) and Nutt (1984).

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