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1.The anonymity and proximity factors in group decision support

Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
Short note
The anonymity and proximity factors in group decision support
M.C. E r a , , , A.C. Ng b
a ICS Dept, KFUPM, Box 1779, Dhahran 31261, SaudiArabia
Dept of Commerce, La Trobe University, Bundoora 3083, Australia
A group decision support system (GDSS) is an interactive computer-based information system which combines
the capabilities of communication technologies, database technologies, computer technologies, and decision technologies to support the identification, analysis, formulation, evaluation, and solution of semi-structured or unstructured problems by a group in an user-friendly computing environment. Following the completion of GDSS facilities,
preliminary results on the effects and effectiveness of GDSSs on the group decision making process have been
reported. This paper sets forth to critically evaluate recent literature on anonymity of proponents and proximity of
group members in connection with the use of GDSSs in group meetings. It questions the assumptions made and
research methodologies used in laboratory experiments. Some of the experimental results are found to be
inconclusive and contradictory. It points out why some of the experiments are unrealistic, and thus the experimental
results cannot be generalized. It is argued that group dynamics, organizational settings, social contexts, and
behavioral aspects are all important ingredients in shaping the outcomes of using GDSSs at group meetings, and
therefore cannot be ignored by GDSS researchers.
Keywords: Group decision support system (GDSS); Anonymity; Proximity; Group decision making process; Com-
puter-mediated communication; Impact of information technology
1. Introduction
The advents of information technologies and
transnational communication networks have on
the one hand made the world smaller, and on the
other hand globalized businesses and markets.
The fierce competition for business survival and
advantages means that many business decisions
* Corresponding author.
have to be made more frequently, more promptly
and with better quality. The rapid falling prices of
information technologies and the increased performance of low-cost personal computers have
opened up untried avenues for information systems planners to extend the capabilities of information systems to support top-level executive decision making. In the last two decades, the emphasis of information systems has been shifted
from supporting routine transaction-based information processing to supporting semi-structured
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M.C. Er and A.C. Ng / Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
or unstructured decision making at top-level
management, as reflected in the change of terminology from management information systems
(MISs) to decision support systems (DSSs) [10].
In large corporations, important decisions, such
as strategic plans, are seldom made by a single
person; more commonly, they are made by a
group of senior executives. It is natural that group
decision support systems (GDSSs) have been developed in the past one decade in response to the
needs of executive decision makers [21].
Although the concept of computer-aided group
decision making had been around for quite some
time [19], physical constructions of modern facilities for supporting group decision making only
occurred five years ago [13,23]. Extensive experiments on the effects and effectiveness of group
decision support systems on group behaviour only
carried out in the past few years; this explains the
rarity of experimental results [2,6,9]. Even so,
most experiments are concentrated on some very
small aspects of GDSS, such as anonymity of
participants and computer-mediated communications. Within such a small set of experimental
results, some contradictions of findings already
exist. For instance, in [5], it was found that a
GDSS used in a face-to-face decision making
context resulted in higher quality decisions compared with those not supported by a GDSS; but
such a finding was not supported by a subsequent
experiment [6]. In another example, Lewis [14]
and Steeb and Johnston [22] found that GDSS
group members were more satisfied than nonGDSS group members in face-to-face meetings,
but the results were contradicted by Gallupe [5]
and Watson [24], who found that the use of a
GDSS led to less satisfaction when compared to
non-GDSS group.
The contradictions add more confusion to the
current state of the field of group support decision systems. This paper sets forth to critically
examining the current literature on group support decision systems dealing with the issues of
anonymity and proximity at group meetings, and
offers suggestions and criticisms to experimental
assumptions and research methodologies used. It
also summarizes the current state of knowledge,
and pinpoints future research directions in GDSS.
In particular, it is argued that research on the
effects and effectiveness of GDSSs on the group
decision making process cannot be carried out in
isolation - group dynamics, organizational settings, social contexts, and behavioral aspects are
all important ingredients in shaping the outcomes
of using GDSSs at group meetings.
2. Group decision support systems
Part of the inconclusive experimental results
stems from the confusion about the definition of
group support decision systems. Some of the experimental setups have nothing to do with GDSS
at all.
A group decision support system is defined as
an interactive computer-based information system which combines the capabilities of communication technologies (LAN, WAN, telecommunication), database technologies (relational, hierarchical, and network models), computer technologies (mainframe computer, minicomputer, microcomputer, personal computer, VLSI system, supercomputer), and decision technologies (linear
programming, integer programming, goal programming, compromise programming, multi-objective linear programming, sequential optimization, dynamic compromise programming, AHP,
Electre, multi-attribute utility theory, Q-analysis,
risk analysis, simulation, forecasting, statistical
analysis, decision tree, etc.) to support the identification, analysis, formulation, evaluation, and solution of semi-structured or unstructured problems by a group. A schematic diagram of GDSS is
shown in Fig. 1. It is clear that a group decision
support system is more than just a communication system; it involves decision modelling as well.
Decision modelling, of course, requires utilizations of a model base and a database for alternative assumptions and choice analyses.
One of the key factors in GDSS, apart from
decision modelling, is to facilitate the exchange of
information, ideas, opinions, and options leading
to decision making during group deliberations.
Such communications can be verbal and computer-mediated, within the constraints of communication technologies. For face-to-face meetings
M.C. Er and A.C. Ng / Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
identifying problematic symptoms, analysing
causes of a p r o b l e m from its symptoms, g e n e r a t ing possible solutions to the p r o b l e m , e v a l u a t i n g
alternative solutions, deciding which solution to
adopt, a n d f o r m u l a t i n g a strategy to i m p l e m e n t
the a d o p t e d solution. D u r i n g this complex process of g r o u p decision making, m a n y forms of
i n f o r m a t i o n s e e k i n g / g i v i n g a n d o p i n i o n exc h a n g e take place, such as initial exploration,
analysis of proposals, expression of p r e f e r e n c e ,
a r g u m e n t a t i o n , solution d e v e l o p m e n t , a n d implem e n t a t i o n n e g o t i a t i o n . Some a u t h o r s [1,3] p r e f e r
to take an i n f o r m a t i o n exchange perspective to
this phase.
However, a g r o u p m e e t i n g is m o r e t h a n a
formal way of solving p r o b l e m s a n d m a k i n g decisions. It is also a f o r u m for achieving a n d m a i n t a i n i n g p e e r r e c o g n i t i o n s in a n o r g a n i z a t i o n . Participants n o t only carry out collective tasks of
g r o u p p r o b l e m solving, b u t also fulfil the p e r s o n a l
n e e d s of social i n t e r a c t i o n s with peers. This aspect is p e r h a p s the most n e g l e c t e d o n e in the
G D S S literature. W e shall r e t u r n to a discussion
of this later.
I Decisi°n
User Interface
Fig. 1. A schematic diagram for a group decision support
of a group, or m e e t i n g s within close proximity, a
local-area network, c o u p l e d with electronic mail
facilities, is the s t a n d a r d technology used for
achieving g r o u p c o m m u n i c a t i o n .
T h e m a i n p u r p o s e of G D S S s is to facilitate the
so-called collective i n t e l l i g e n c e d u r i n g group
meetings. T h e g r o u p p r o b l e m solving p r e c e d e s
the g r o u p decision m a k i n g , b o t h are c o m p o n e n t s
of the g r o u p decision m a k i n g process. Specifically, the g r o u p decision m a k i n g process involves
Table 1
The pros and cons of making participants anonymous
Enhance equal participation
(especially of junior or shy members)
- Expression of unpopular, novel, heretical
is addressed at ideas, not person
- Sensitive issues can be
group meetings with the help of GDSSs
Deindividuation leads to deviant,
harmful, or socially undesirable behaviour
Social consequences are less positively
or negatively experienced
- Controversial views may surface but
would otherwise subdue
d i s c u s s e d
on unworkable ideas which
have known from experience
W a s t e
- A decision is based on merit rather than
Flaming - uninhibited comments, and
use of strong language
- Lack of social-emotional support
- Don't know who favours what
Avoid embarrassing
Avoid hostility
- Avoid conformity to pressure
- Avoid fear of punishment
- Avoid dominance
Avoid extreme influence of high-status
- Avoid lack of acknowledgment of lowstatus member
Avoid low tolerance of minority
M.C. Er and A.C. Ng / Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
For theories and conceptual frameworks of
GDSSs, the reader is referred to [3,18,8,15].
and open expression of opinions at group discussions, which would be healthier than those without the assistance of GDSS technology.
3. Anonymity of participants
(ii) Avoiding dominance by some members
Groups meetings generally dominated by
high-status, more experienced or senior members.
As a result, group meetings tend to endorse their
proposals. It is suggested that the extreme influence of high-status members can be avoided if
contributions of ideas and opinions are made
anonymous. Furthermore, this approach makes
group members don't know who favours what,
thus reducing the pressure to conform at group
meetings. To some extent, it also reduces the
danger of group-think.
One of the widely studied aspects of GDSSs is
the anonymity of proponents and its impact on
the outcomes of group decision made [5,2,23,9].
The results are inconclusive and contradictory.
The pros and cons of making participants
anonymous at group meetings may be summarized in Table 1. The details are discussed below.
3.1. The pros of having anonymity
Those who propose the use of GDSSs take a
positive view of the anonymity of proponents at
group meetings that are supported by GDSS
technology. Typically anonymity at group meetings (including face-to-face meetings) is achieved
via the use of electronic mail on a local-area
network. At the time of electronic brainstorming,
idea generation, or idea solicitation, the association between an idea or an opinion and its proponent can be suppressed by a computer. The perceived or suggested b e n e f i t s / a d v a n t a g e s can be
summarized as follows.
(i) Enhance equal participation
The e n h a n c e m e n t of equal participation by
group members, regardless of seniority, at a group
meeting has been cited as one of the key ingredients of GDSS [3,16]. This is especially so for
junior or shy members, who are nervous about
speaking at a group meeting, for fear of embarrassment or punishment because of saying something wrong or offensive. Sometimes saying something wrong in public can be traumatic to junior
members, whose performance and competence
are being judged at all time. On the other hand,
the lack of acknowledgment of an idea attributed
to a low-status m e m b e r can be avoided as its
source is no longer traceable, as a good idea may
be mistaken to come from a senior member. The
anonymity of proponents thus contributes to the
improved atmosphere of free exchange of ideas
(iii) Criticism is addressed at an idea, not a person
If the link between a person's name and an
idea or an opinion is suppressed, criticisms at an
idea or an opinion can be levelled without hurting the feelings of the proponent. It thus allows
free expression of unpopular, novel, or heretical
opinions without fear of hostility subsequently. In
some cases, sensitive issues can be discussed before a corporation's authority. It opens up more
opportunities for discussing sensitive issues, which
would otherwise not discussed at all. Furthermore, it also avoids the low tolerance of minority
at a group meeting.
(iv) Secret voting encouraging decisions based on
Electronic voting is a direct implementation of
the p a p e r ballot system. If the name of a voter,
but not the vote itself, is suppressed, secret voting
in respect of an issue can be achieved. Secret
voting is considered paramount important in
achieving voter independence, which is a pre-requisite for encouraging decisions based on merit.
A GDSS with its computer communication facilities can support rapid vote tallying, and thus can
have more frequent preliminary votes to have a
feel about the majority of group members' feelings before the final decision, assisting a more
rapid convergence toward consensus based on
M.C. Er and A.C. Ng / Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
3.2. The cons of having anonymity
The impact of a GDSS with anonymity of
proponents on the group decision making process
is not always positive, unfortunately. Some of the
noted bad influences can be summarized below.
(i) Deindividuation
Deindividuation occurs when an individual
loses his sense of self-identity and self-awareness
in a group context, and becomes submerged in a
group. It can lead to deviant, harmful, or socially
undesirable behaviour, including lynch mobbing
and " m a s s hysteria". Sometimes it manifests as a
problem of flaming, i.e. uninhibited comments,
and use of strong language at a group meeting.
Flaming can divert the attention of a group meeting from its original objectives to a war of words,
even though group m e m b e r s communicate to each
other anonymously. If a war of words would break
out, the atmosphere of a group meeting would
become hostile, thus damaging any prospect of
fruitful discussion. A reduction of normal inner
restraints due to deindividuation generally leads
to undesirable social behaviour.
(ii) Controversial views and unworkable ideas may
Due to the lack of individual identity under
the anonymity situation, controversial views may
surface but would otherwise be subdued. Sometimes a group may waste time on unworkable
ideas which have been known from past experience of some senior members that they were
unworkable, but they must now be explained at a
group meeting because some junior m e m b e r s raise
the issues. These are some of the side-effects of
entertaining the anonymity of proponents.
social interactions with peers. Furthermore, social consequences are less positively or negatively
experienced with the use of anonymity mechanism at group meetings.
3.3. Critical evaluation of research methodologies
Following the completion of GDSS facilities
[23], experimental results start to emerge from
the use of the GDSS technologies. Two recently
reported experiments [2,9] involve the use of
anonymity factor with a GDSS in group decision
settings. In both cases, students were used as
subjects to solve the university's parking problem.
The reason given for using student subjects was
that "it was difficult to recruit executive groups
to participate in a field experiment" [9, p. 269].
Although the reason given was genuine, the experimental results obtained were too restrictive
that their validity cannot be generalized. Students
were called upon to a group meeting for the sole
purpose of experimentation, they were temporary, low-stake, and generally stranger-to-stranger
type of relationship. Several shortcomings can be
identified, and are summarized below.
(i) No personal relationships
A random assembly of students means that
personal relationships among them do not exist.
The lack of such a social web of personal relationships also means that the experimental results
cannot be generalized to a corporate context in
which such working relationships generally exist
among group members. Furthermore, the lack of
personal histories in a specific context means that
the experimental results obtained are not realistic.
(ii) No political power structures
(iii) Lack of social-emotional support
People come to a group meeting to complete
some tasks assigned to the group. However, people are not machines; they need social and emotional support as well, either to share the same
thoughts or to comfort one's feelings. The use of
electronic mail and anonymity of proponents at
group meetings takes away the satisfaction of
In an organizational context, the hierarchical
relationships among employees mean that there
exists a power structure among group members.
Within a random assembly of students, such a
power structure generally does not exist. Thus the
commonly seen activities within a group, such as
political agenda setting, personal interests, etc.,
also do not exist. It is known that power relation-
M.C. Er and A.C. Ng /Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
ships sometimes can alter group decisions made.
The lack of power structure again means that the
experimental results obtained are not realistic.
(iii) Alliances among group members
On real contentious issues that come with personal attachment, people generally try to influence other group members formally or informally, perhaps to form an alliance with a view to
tipping group meetings to their favour. Thus
group decisions are sometimes influenced by tasks
undertaken. The use of university's parking problem as a task for the group problem solving
purpose may not be representative enough for
the experimental results to be generalized to other
task situations. In other words, the issue of tasks
is an added dimension for consideration.
4. Proximity and computer-mediated communication
The proximity of participants in using group
decision support systems with or without computer-mediated communications may be further
classified into the following three categories: (i)
face-to-face meeting using a GDSS without computer-mediated communication; (ii) face-to-face
meeting using a GDSS with computer-mediated
communication; (iii) dispersed group meeting using a GDSS with computer-mediated communication. The first two types are known as decision
room or legislation session, whereas the third one
is known as local-area decision network or computer-mediated conference [3]. The experimental
results are less controversial, but still some contradictions have been noted [6,9]. The findings
are summarized below.
(i) Face-to-face meeting using a GDSS without
computer-mediated communication
Face-to-face group meetings supported by
GDSS technology without computer-mediated
communication are more apt to reach consensus,
but no relationship between decision quality and
consensus is found. Group members working in
this context tend to agree more explicitly.
(ii) Face-to-face meeting using a GDSS with computer-mediated communication
At face-to-face group meetings supported by
GDSS technology with computer-mediated communication, members tend to participate more
equally and also more inhibitedly. The contents
of computer-mediated communications are more
of opinion-giving type. The impersonal communications among group members, however, increase
the perceived distance among them. In respect of
high quality decision made, contradictory empirical results were obtained [5,6].
(iii) Dispersed group meeting using a GDSS with
computer-mediated communication
For dispersed-group meetings supported by
GDSS technology with computer-mediated communication, interpersonal conflict was found to
be increased [20]. Communication is less efficient
because of the need to type messages at keyboards, but the perceived distance among group
members is decreased. Generally, decision takes
longer to reach in this context than those of
face-to-face group meetings supported by GDSS
technology with computer-mediated communication. As a result, overall participants' satisfaction
declines. Surprisingly, it was found that a GDSS
did not significantly aid the dispersed-group situation in decision making [6, p. 10]. Finally, in
respect of choice shift, contradictory experimental results were obtained [12,6].
The computer-mediated communication used
in GDSSs is not without its faults. It is known
that written texts, either via the electronic mail or
other means, formalize interpersonal exchange.
The use of electronic mail at a group meeting
shifts the attention to tasks with increased impersonal communication, because social cues are lost
which would otherwise be present in a direct
face-to-face voice communication. As a result,
the emphasis is moved towards high quality decisions, but less towards social-emotional type of
5. Combination of anonymity and proximity
A combination of anonymity and proximity
factors at group meetings using GDSS technolo-
M. C. Er and A. C. Ng / Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
More critical
Most but short
Least but long
More critical
Fig. 2. Experimental results on a group decision support
system with a combination of anonymity and proximity factors.
gies has also been tried out [9]. The experimental
results are summarized in Fig. 2.
Under the anonymous and dispersed conditions, group meetings generate most but short
comments, which are concerned with problem
definitions and clarifications. In contrast, under
the identified and face-to-face conditions, group
meetings generate least but long comments. On
the other hand, under the anonymous and faceto-face conditions, group m e m b e r s utter more
critical comments; likewise for the case under the
identified and dispersed conditions.
Generally, group m e m b e r s who were present
in the same room were more satisfied with their
experience, and the anonymous group saw a
GDSS as a more effective tool than the identified
group felt [9, p. 276]. It is however not known
how the task complexity would affect the group
6. Concluding remarks
The needs of business organizations and other
entities to solve problems and make decisions
involving more than one person naturally result
in group meetings, which provide the required
collective wisdom. The emergence of group decision support systems is a direct response to the
needs of group meetings in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the group decision
making process. On the one hand, GDSSs with
their computer technologies can rapidly search
and retrieve information from internal and external databases to assist group m e m b e r s in reaching timely and informed decisions. On the other
hand, the provision of various decision technologies in the form of software does formalize some
of the decision procedures. Thus GDSSs offer a
unique opportunity, unprecedential in history, to
impact on the quality and timeliness of decisions
The preliminary experimental results on the
effects and effectiveness of the group decision
making process, as reported in the literature, are
still sketchy, not to mention about some of the
inconclusive and contradictory findings. Among
many other outstanding and unsolved issues in
connection with GDSSs, we point out the following notable ones, which require research attention.
- The popular approach of using student subjects in laboratory experiments should be abandoned. The use of student subjects carries with
it many unrealistic experimental parameters:
no prior personal relationships, no complex
personal histories, no power structures, no social web of interconnections, no alliances, no
political agendas, no hierarchical relationships,
no organizational contexts, no real contentious
issues with personal attachment, no conflict of
interests, etc. All in all, it makes the results
impossible to generalize, and in some cases,
proving nothing.
- One of the key factors repeatedly ignored by
all researchers .is that people do talk before
and after group meetings outside a meeting
room. These extra channels of communication
can sometimes alter decisions made at group
meetings. Furthermore, these extra channels
also made anonymity in small-group meetings
not possible.
- The Hawthorne effect of assessing the impact
of GDSSs cannot be overlooked. Subjects learn
how to operate GDSSs afresh and thus carry
with them the initial excitement and enthusiasm. R e p e a t e d and long-term use of GDSSs
may yield different results. Self-reported assessment has been known to be unreliable, as
it lacks objective measure for many performance criteria of real-world interests.
M.C. Er and A.C. Ng /Decision Support Systems 14 (1995) 75-83
- R e s e a r c h e r s have overlooked the fact that
stake-holders can decide whether or not to use
GDSSs at all. If one's influence and interests
are eroded as a result of using GDSSs, one can
try to influence the adoption of GDSSs at
group meetings.
- The group dynamics aspect has been entirely
ignored by GDSS researchers. Issues such as
norms, leadership, power, role model, group
cohesion, group stability, personal attraction,
social and emotional support, motives, attitude, etc., which are well-known in organizational behaviour literature [4], have not been
addressed by GDSS researchers.
- The use of anonymity of proponents at group
meetings to reduce the dominance of highstatus members may not be appropriate. Sometimes it is the experience, expertise, knowledge, information and clever argumentation
that win the dominance of an individual member at group meetings, not his seniority in an
- Anonymity of proponents at group meetings
can lead to undesired effects, such as social
loafing (free riding) [11,7] and cognitive loafing
(subjects who expect their works to be pooled
with other's contribute less mental effort than
others at group discussions).
- GDSSs with their access to databases can provide more information at group meeting. However, more information does not imply better
consensus reached by the group. To the contrary, more information sometimes can result
in fewer agreements reached, more conflict at
group discussions, less satisfaction experienced
by group members, though it can generate
more and better solutions to diagnostic and
problem-finding tasks. It should be noted that
consideration of more alternatives and more
in-depth analyses of those alternatives can lead
to the reverse effect: group members are less
sure that they have made the best decision
after a long deliberation. In general, high decision quality does not imply high user satisfaction.
- Some trivial matters also require special attention. The use of electronic mail at face-to-face
meetings in order to achieve anonymity neces-
sitates that executives type at the keyboards for
messages to be sent. In some circles, typing is
considered as a secretary's job [17]; and thus
executives may view this activity as distasteful
and down-grading, not to mention that some
executives have no keyboarding skills - the
whole process can be time wasteful. Furthermore, for those group members who are computer illiterate, the pressure and demands to
learn GDSSs may lead to techno-stress.
From the above discussions, it appears that a
change of research methodology is required in
order to assess the impact of GDSSs on real-world
group decision making. To obtain realistic results,
a longitudinal study involving real executives in
actual organizational settings will be mandatory.
Nevertheless, the critical evaluation of recent experimental results as discussed in this paper does
shed some light on future research directions that
should be undertaken.
The use of K F U P M ' s and LTU's facilities in
undertaking this research and in preparing this
paper is gratefully acknowledged.
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[24] R.G. Watson, The Impact of a Computer System on
Individual Behaviour and Collective Decision Making in
a Group Meeting, PhD Dissertation, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (1987).
M.C. Er is a full professor at KFUPM.
An author of more than 100 refereed
journal papers, Dr. Er is active in
research in artificial intelligence, neural networks, algorithms, software engineering, information systems, decision support systems, and strategic
planning for information systems. He
is currently an editor of Journal or
Information Science and Technology.
A.C. Ng teaches at La Trobe University, where she joined in 1991. Dr. Ng
is active in research in human information processing, decision making,
prediction of corporate failure, decision support systems, accounting information systems, and use of computers in accounting curriculum. She
is a Fellow of the Australian Society
of Accountants.