Although the brainstorming can take place online through commonly available technologies such as email or interactive web sites, there have also been many efforts to develop customized computer software that can either replace or enhance one or more manual elements of the brainstorming process.
Early efforts, such as GroupSystems at University of Arizona or Software Aided Meeting Management (SAMM) system at the University of Minnesota, took advantage of then-new computer networking technology, which was installed in rooms dedicated to computer supported meetings. When using these electronic meeting systems (EMS, as they came to be called), group members simultaneously and independently entered ideas into a computer terminal. The software collected (or “pools”) the ideas into a list, which could be displayed on a central projection screen (anonymized if desired). Other elements of these EMSs could support additional activities such as categorization of ideas, elimination of duplicates, assessment and discussion of prioritized or controversial ideas. Later EMSs capitalized on advances in computer networking and internet protocols to support asynchronous brainstorming sessions over extended periods of time and in multiple locations.
Introduced along with the EMS by Nunamaker and colleagues at University of Arizona was electronic brainstorming (EBS). By utilizing customized computer software for groups (group decision support systems or groupware), EBS can replace face-to-face brainstorming.
An example of groupware is the GroupSystems, a software developed by University of Arizona. After an idea discussion has been posted on GroupSystems, it is displayed on each group member’s computer. As group members simultaneously type their comments on separate computers, those comments are anonymously pooled and made available to all group members for evaluation and further elaboration.
Compared to face-to-face brainstorming, not only does EBS enhanced efficiency by eliminating travelling and turn-taking during group discussions, it also excluded several psychological constraints associated with face-to-face meetings. Identified by Gallupe and colleagues, both production blocking (reduced idea generation due to turn-taking and forgetting ideas in face-to-face brainstorming) and evaluation apprehension (a general concern experienced by individuals for how others in the presence are evaluating them) are reduced in EBS. These positive psychological effects increase with group size. A perceived advantage of EBS is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. EBS also enables much larger groups to brainstorm on a topic than would normally be productive in a traditional brainstorming session.
Computer supported brainstorming may overcome some of the challenges faced by traditional brainstorming methods. For example, ideas might be “pooled” automatically, so that individuals do not need to wait to take a turn, as in verbal brainstorming. Some software programs show all ideas as they are generated (via chat room or e-mail). The display of ideas may cognitively stimulate brainstormers, as their attention is kept on the flow of ideas being generated without the potential distraction of social cues such as facial expressions and verbal language.
EBS techniques have been shown to produce more ideas and help individuals focus their attention on the ideas of others better than a brainwriting technique (participants write individual written notes in silence and then subsequently communicate them with the group). The production of more ideas has been linked to the fact that paying attention to others’ ideas leads to non-redundancy, as brainstormers try to avoid to replicate or repeat another participant’s comment or idea.
Conversely, the production gain associated with EBS was less found in situations where EBS group members focused too much on generating ideas that they ignored ideas expressed by others. The production gain associated with GroupSystem users’ attentiveness to ideas expressed by others has been documented by Dugosh and colleagues. EBS group members who were instructed to attend to ideas generated by others outperformed those who were not in terms of creativity.
According to a meta-analysis comparing EBS to face-to-face brainstorming conducted by DeRosa and colleagues, EBS has been found to enhance both the production of non-redundant ideas and the quality of ideas produced. Despite the advantages demonstrated by EBS groups, EBS group members reported less satisfaction with the brainstorming process compared to face-to-face brainstorming group members.
Some web-based brainstorming techniques allow contributors to post their comments anonymously through the use of avatars. This technique also allows users to log on over an extended time period, typically one or two weeks, to allow participants some “soak time” before posting their ideas and feedback. This technique has been used particularly in the field of new product development, but can be applied in any number of areas requiring collection and evaluation of ideas.
Some limitations of EBS include the fact that it can flood people with too many ideas at one time that they have to attend to, and people may also compare their performance to others by analyzing how many ideas each individual produces (social matching)