The differences between face-to-face brainstorming and virtual brainstorming depend on the virtual medium you use. Immediacy provides direct interaction between participants, which makes face-to-face brainstorming effective. The more immediate the virtual medium, the lower is the risk of inadequate results. A videoconference is more immediate than a telephone conference, for example.
Virtual brainstorms that rely on less-immediate media, such as email, wikis, or proprietary "joint authoring" platforms, have multiple problems.
- Joint authoring platforms are usually asynchronous
- With asynchronous media, people might not interact simultaneously, which creates difficulties for monitoring everyone's level of effort. For all their faults, synchronous connections, such as video or telephone conferences, at least let you know that the participants were connected for a definite period of time.
- Joint authoring platforms dampen excitement
- Although The more immediate the
virtual medium, the
lower the risk of
inadequate resultsthey do support participant interactions, they don't transmit momentum or excitement very well, because they tend to mask the pace and frequency of contributions. Excitement and rapid pace are helpful in brainstorms, because they tend to limit self-censoring, making the ideas flow.
- Joint authoring platforms are usually text-based
- Text-based systems disadvantage participants who favor spoken interaction, and favor the more skilled writers or faster typists, which can bias results.
- Less-immediate connections can produce toxic conflict
- Less-immediate connections are more susceptible to the online disinhibition effect, which increases the likelihood of deviations from behavioral norms, such as suspension of judgment.
So what can we do about this? Some suggestions:
- Use telephone or video
- Even if you use a text-based medium, provide synchronous audio or video connections. Teleconferencing simultaneous with text-based authoring might be difficult, but alternating between the two can be workable: 15 minutes of teleconferencing, followed by 15 minutes of text work, for example.
- Schedule multiple sessions
- Because things take longer in virtual environments, multiple sessions might be required.
- Focus on maintaining attention
- Face-to-face sessions are less vulnerable to distractions than are virtual sessions, because the action draws attention. Keep virtual sessions short. To focus attention, display accumulating contributions on virtual flipcharts.
- Provide equal access
- We can try to apportion talking time fairly in face-to-face sessions. We might encounter difficulties occasionally, when some individuals dominate, but skillful facilitators can address that. In virtual sessions, the problem is more difficult to manage. The "group-of-groups" geometry, in which several different face-to-face groups are connected electronically, is known to be problematic. A central site with most people face-to-face and a few people participating by phone or video isn't much better, because the "remote" individuals tend to have difficulty hearing or participating.
- Anticipate these issues. Structure sessions to give everyone equal access to the virtual floor. Favor bridge lines with all participants connected equally. Poll everyone for contributions, in fixed order, round robin style.
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