Using Technology to Support Alternative Dispute Resolution

By Esslinger, Patricia; Lindsay, Carol | The Public Manager, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Using Technology to Support Alternative Dispute Resolution


Esslinger, Patricia, Lindsay, Carol, The Public Manager


A county-level decision support coordinator and an independent groupware facilitator formerly with the federal government link computer-assisted decision tools to improved results.

You can speed up alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and get better results by using collaborative meeting technology. Long used in planning and decision-making meetings, this high-tech approach uses a computer for each member of the group. One-at-a-time, sequential, oral comments and facilitators' flip charts are largely replaced by simultaneously-typed comments and electronic "big screen" displays. Such technology has advantages that are important for ADR:

* parties' representatives generate more ideas in a short time;

* they stick to the agenda and follow ground rules;

* their comments are anonymous--which encourages them to be frank and to participate more fully than usual;

* they quickly reach consensus--real agreement rather than railroading and surrender--and the degree of consensus is measurable; and

* they produce results--a written record of the deliberations as well as the resulting agreement.

Success Stories in Using Technology for Conflict Resolution and Partnership Efforts

In the following examples, the benefits of collaborative meeting technology played a critical role in facilitating solutions. The anonymity of input encouraged participants to respond frankly and openly to questions; the facilitator could then lead discussions of critical issues presented by all parties. Time spent in meetings was greatly reduced. The ability to keep and share an accurate record of group work during the whole process, especially using the participants' own words, was critical. The technology, with its anonymity, leveled the playing field to allow focus on issues instead of on the "we-they." It helped to surface hidden agendas and neutralize distrust.

National Guard

In establishing a partnership council involving four different unions as well as management representatives of the Directorates of the Air National Guard, Army National Guard, and Joint Staff, the National Guard Bureau (NGB) used collaborative meeting technology to identify areas of common interest and formulate a charter and ground rules. Explained Paula Shipe, the labor relations specialist coordinating the effort:

The technology not only provided structure to the process, but most importantly it helped to neutralize the distrust factor. While many people are aware that differences in interests may result in distrust between management and labor organizations, they may not be aware that labor organizations often have a significant distrust of each other, since they often compete for the same membership. With so many parties with competing interests, use of the electronic group decision technology helped neutralize the distrust between the parties by allowing ideas to be presented without attribution. In this environment, the parties focused on the issues and not each other.

Steve Nelson, then the director of human resources for NGB, stated, "It worked effectively, and my opinion is that without the [technology] we would have been at it for weeks rather than the three days we spent on it."

Navy

The Navy Department used the same technology to facilitate the collaboration of representatives of the national unions, the military, and human resources staff in developing implementation of a new policy on performance management. According to HR staffer Ben James, the technology was "particularly helpful in isolating interests and in brainstorming potential solutions to meet those interests."

Fairfax County

Fairfax County, a frequent user of collaborative meeting technology, applied it to conflict resolution when a new state law significantly impacted the relationship between two county agencies providing services to children placed in court care. …

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