Final Project Report for "Coordination in Distributed Group Support Systems"

NSF IRI 9408805 (March 1995- March 1998) NJIT

Starr Roxanne Hiltz, PI

(with Jerry Fjermestad, Ajaz Rana, Rosalie Ocker, Murray Turoff and Others)


Distributed Group Support Systems use asynchronous computer mediated communication to support anytime/anywhere group discussions and decision making. New Jersey Institute of Technology's project is an integrated program of theory building, software tool development and assessment, and empirical studies (both controlled experiments, and as opportunities arise, field studies). The project investigates the effectiveness of different types of tools and procedures for various types of tasks and groups, within the distributed environment. Specific studies also contrast the distributed mode of communication with other modes.

1. Theory Development and Integration

At the present time, the field of Group Support Systems (GSS) suffers from a plethora of theoretical frameworks and from contradictory findings from controlled experiments. In order for progress to occur, it is necessary to find a means to integrate the theoretical fragments and to make sense of the findings of all the published experiments.

Our first step was to integrate existing theoretical frameworks to find a comprehensive but common core of variables that have been deemed important to study, even though they may have been given different names by different investigators. This integrative framework was then used to create a data base of all published experiments on Group Support Systems, which records methods, independent and dependent variables, and findings in a common set of categories. This is a very rich data base, and we are still updating it with studies published through early 1997. However, we have been able to begin to see patterns and to use this to suggest what kinds of studies would be most fruitful in the future (Fjermestad & Hiltz, 1997)

2. Experiments

A specific GSS is a particular combination of communication mode(e.g., Face to Face or Computer Mediated Communication (CMC)), tools , and structuring of process (via a facilitator or procedural instructions/agenda). The effects of a GSS on the process and outcomes of collaborative work depend upon how well it fits with the task (type and complexity) and group (size and composition) contingencies.

The first five experiments completed through 1995 were all 2 x 2 factorial designs that examined the effects of combinations of medium, tools, and structures for a specific task type (See Hiltz et. al., 1997). Almost all of our attempts at a mechanistic process intervention had no significant positive effects on outcomes. For example, there were no significant differences in the major dependent variables measuring outcomes, between an "imposed sequential" process and a no-process or parallel process groups for a preference task, or for an intellective task. Likewise, for a creativity task, there was no difference between groups that followed an imposed procedure, and those that did not; and for a planning task, there was no difference between groups that used Dialectical Inquiry and those that used a consensus approach.

On the other hand, the presence of "tools" that a group can use when it is ready to, does seem to improve the perceived richness of CMC, and can improve process and outcomes. The tools that we have provided in various experiments include the ability to build a common list, a set of voting options, the "question-response activity" that structures the exchange of ideas and opinions similar to Nominal Group Process, the possibility of anonymity, and a "polling" tool which can allow a group to construct any sort of questionnaire type item, and display results of the polling.

The final controlled experiments planned under this research have been completed during the last year. We are focusing an increasing proportion of our efforts on supporting software design by teams. The abstract of Ocker et al., (HICSS 1997) summarizes the most recent experiment and findings:

A Comparison of Four Modes of Communication for Determining Requirements: Preliminary Results on Creativity, Quality and Satisfaction

Previous research has indicated that groups can benefit from the combination of face-to-face and asynchronous computer-mediated communication for conducting work. This experiment compares the effectiveness of four different modes of communication for groups working on the upstream phases of software development: (1) face-to-face (2) synchronous computer conferencing (3) asynchronous computer conferencing (4) combined -- FtF and computer conferencing. Teams of graduate students determined the requirements for an automated post office as a course assignment, over a two-week time period. The creativity and quality of solutions produced by groups in the combined condition were higher than those of the remaining three communication modes. Combined groups were also more satisfied with their solutions, although no differences among conditions were found regarding satisfaction with the process used to accomplish work.


3. Software Tools Enhancement for Group Support

With the change in prevailing interface technology, the process was begun of converting the system used for studies to a Web-based browser interface. This should ultimately allow the integration of many "off the shelf" tools as well as additional tools that we may develop in the future.

Ph.D. candidate V. Balasubramanian developed a hypertext-based tool to aid in the design of user interfaces.

Ph.D. candidate G.R. Rao is working on support tools for collaborative medical decision making.

PUBLICATIONS resulting from this grant

It should be noted that the leading annual conference for work on Group Support Systems is HICSS; this IEEE-ACM sponsored conference has a large "track" and an entire volume of its proceedings for papers on collaborative systems and has published the results of more experimental studies in this area than the next four sources combined (57 of the 212 published papers on GDSS experiments through mid 1997.) HICSS papers are submitted in June, and if accepted, published the following January. This provides a way to speedily get the main results of a study to researchers in the field. The usual pattern is for those HICSS papers which seem the strongest and receive nominations for "best paper" to be subsequently revised and expanded for submission to a journal. The Journal of Management Information Systems (JMIS), with 20 papers on GDSS experiments published thus far, is the most frequently chosen by researchers in this area.


a. . Refereed journal articles and conference proceedings

Ocker, R., Hiltz, S.R., Turoff, M. and Fjermestad, J., "The effects of distributed group support and process structuring on software requirements development teams: Results on creativity and quality," J. Management Information Systems, 12, 3 (Winter 1995-1996), 127-153.

Rana, A. R., Whitescarver, J., Godala, S. & Aljallad, F. (1996) From Isolation to Collaboration: A WWW based Peer Review System. Proceedings of 2nd Americas Conference on Information Systems (AIS), Arizona, August.

Rana, A. R., Turoff, M. & Czech, R. (1996) Inquiring Systems Validation Approaches as Determinants of Media Richness for Technology Supported Group Work. Proc. AIS.

Rana, A. R., Wooster, J., Whitescarver, J. & Hiltz, S. R. (1996) From Virtual Classroom to Hypermedia Virtual Classroom. Proc. AIS.

Fjermestad and Hiltz, (1996) "An Assessment of GDSS Methodology,", Proc. AIS, 16-18.

Rana, A. R., Turoff, M. and Hiltz, S.R., "Task and Technology Interaction (TTI): A Theory of Technological Support for Group Tasks". Proceedings, HICSS 1997.

Fjermestad, J. and Hiltz, S.R., "Experimental Studies of Group Decision Support Systems: An Assessment of Variables Studied and Methodology," Proceedings, HICSS 1997.

(This received a "best paper" nomination from its mini-track on group decision support systems).

Ocker, R., Fjermestad, J., Hiltz, S.R. and Turoff, M. An exploratory comparison of four modes of communication for determining requirements: Results on creativity, quality and satisfaction," Proceedings, HICSS 1997.

Benbunan-Fich, R. "An Interaction Meta-Model for Groupware Theory and Research". Proceedings HICSS 1997.

Rao, G.R., Suresh, B.A. and Turoff, M. "A group decision support system framework for medical decision making incorporating cognitive-aid structures and cognitive appropriation." Proceedings, HICSS 97.

In Press

Hiltz, S.R., Dufner, D., Fjermestad, J., Kim, Y., Ocker, R., Rana A. and Turoff, M. Distributed Group Support Systems: Theory Development and Experimentation. For Olsen, B.M., Smith, J.B. and Malone, T., eds., Coordination Theory and Collaboration Technology. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assocs.

b. Dissertations: (from joint Rutgers/NJIT Ph.D. in Information Systems Management)

Rosalie Ocker, Requirements Definition using a Distributed Asychronous GSS System: Experimental Results on Quality, Creativity, and Satisfaction." Degree awarded October 1995.

Youngjin Kim, "Sequential and Parallel Processes in Distributed Group Support Systems," Spring 1996.

Cesar Perez, "Coordination in Asynchronous Group Support Systems: Dealing with Uncertainty via Standardization of Process vs. Standardization of Outcomes," May 1996.

Raquel Benbunan, "Effects of Computer-Mediated Communications Systems on Learning, Performance, and Satisfaction: A Comparison of Groups and Individuals Solving Ethical Scenarios." (Spring 1997)

V. Balasubramanian, "Supporting the User Interface Design Process with Hypertext." Spring 1998.