I originally wrote this as a post to a private bulletin board. The question was what did research have to say about virtual meetings and creative outcomes.

Research and Distributed Meetings -- It Depends
Submitted by Terri Griffith on Fri, 01/26/2007 - 10:32am.

My summary of the research is that the management of the process probably has a bigger impact in many cases than does where the people are. I don’t say in all cases because if you are working with physical objects it gets more difficult if everyone can’t touch the object. I have a hard time thinking about how an IDEO “deep dive” would work without everyone in the room during the team discussion phases. That said, the “group support system” research has shown that computer-supported brainstorming in distributed groups can work quite well if your goal is a lot of ideas.

Of course in the real world, just having a lot of ideas isn’t enough. The following abstract is from a paper highlighting these issues. It also provides a good overview of the electronic brainstorming research:

This paper argues that much of the past research on electronic brainstorming has 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. 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. This paper presents arguments that users may not be primarily concerned with the number of ideas generated when planning a brainstorming session, but rather may equally desire group well being and member support. We present theoretical arguments and empirical evidence suggesting that electronic brainstorming is not as effective as verbal brainstorming at providing group well being and member support. We believe that these arguments may also apply to other group and individual research areas and may also call for a reevaluation of the technology acceptance model (TAM). Finally, we suggest further research that may help electronic brainstorming avoid the fate of the Beta format.

Dennis, A. R. & Reinicke, B. A. 2004. Beta versus VHS and the acceptance of electronic brainstorming technology. MIS Quarterly, 28(1): 1-20.

Closer to home, Greg Northcraft, Mark Fuller, and I did an old-fashioned lab experiment after seeing that some organizations had a “go to your room” policy – if everyone couldn’t be in the room, then no one would be in the room. The results we saw in the lab and later with executive groups in a knowledge sharing task using audio only (we were using groups of four, so take care generalizing to different sizes) were:

  • Face to face always wins. Recall that this was audio only so all groups were hampered by only one person being able to talk at once.
  • Groups of three together and one person away did pretty well, and both the group of three and the “solo” did equally well. In the real world we’ve noticed that it’s harder to forget the one person; much easier to forget to tell a larger, more diffuse group that you’re going to lunch – or to forget to ask the diffuse group for their contributions.
  • If you break the group into two and two, you end up with two separate meetings. This type of group is always on the bottom of sharing all the information. Neither side has any urgency to connect with the other, they feel (incorrectly, generally) that they are self contained and social forces push them to focus on those who are physically near them).
  • Fully distributed groups vary quite a bit. They are either fully aware that they are going to have to work very hard to share – and so do about as well as the three and one configuration, or they are completely at a loss and do no better than the two-two configuration.

Clearly facilitation, training in group process, knowing who’s holding key information (leader, expert), all matter – a lot. But, if none of that is available or managed, sadly the case in many business instances we see, we are confident with the above results. We published the lab results in:

Northcraft, G.B., Griffith, T.L., & Fuller, M.A. (2006). Virtual study groups: A challenging centerpiece for “working adult” management education. In S.P. Ferris (Ed.), Teaching and learning with virtual teams. Hershey, PA: Idea Group. 131-157.

Having seen these basic results, we are now involved in understanding exactly why these configuration effects occur and how to better manage the process. We are especially interested in whether off-shored members of a team make their expected contributions. Our main focus is on how proactive management of technology tools and practices can “trigger” more effective knowledge sharing. We are still at the ideation stage of our own thinking, but have presented the following to an academic audience (so beware the jargon):

Griffith, T.L., Fuller, M.A., & Northcraft, G.B. (2007). Neither here nor there: Knowledge sharing and transfer with proactive structuration. Proceedings of the 40th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS'07)

Bob Sutton (Stanford) and Andy Hargadon (UC Davis) have an interesting perspective on brainstorming overall. I don’t know if they’ve looked specifically at location.

Thank you for the opportunity to see if my own thoughts would coalesce.