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Virtual Facilitator Could Help Teams Solve Problems Faster

October 01, 2005

Inefficient, unproductive meetings—like those satirized in Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” cartoon—are the bane of the modern workplace, but two University of Missouri-Rolla professors are looking to reverse that with new software to help people share ideas and stick to an agenda.

“Fairly simple interventions in a conversation can significantly improve team performance,” says Dr. Ray Luechtefeld, assistant professor of engineering management at UMR. “An experiment involving more than 100 student teams working in a problem-solving simulation showed that exposure to these interventions improved team performance by a statistically significant amount. Teams exposed to the interventions shared information more effectively and came up with win-win solutions more readily than teams not exposed to the interventions.”

The idea of using a facilitator, someone who keeps meetings moving and makes sure ideas aren’t lost, isn’t new. In fact, the UMR researchers took note of the interaction patterns used by renowned Harvard organizational theorist Dr. Chris Argyris as well as expert facilitators when they developed the software. Although they both agree that hiring a skilled facilitator is probably best, they also point out that the $1,000-per-day price tag is not affordable for most.

“Facilitation is in many ways related to therapy,” says Dr. Luechtefeld. “We help people to express ideas clearly, identify barriers, and understand the situation they’re facing. Our virtual facilitator could be used in chatrooms, e-teams, and educational situations right now.”

The virtual facilitator could also be used as a training tool to help people learn how to more properly interact by comparing their reactions to a particular situation with those of an expert facilitator.

Dr. Luechtefeld and Dr. Steve Watkins, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMR, see the virtual facilitator extending past classroom and cubicle walls and into the field, such as on the battlefield in Iraq.

“Not many facilitators are willing to travel to Iraq,” Dr. Luechtefeld says. “Soldiers are in a life and death situation there. With further development, this tool could provide them with assistance to help improve their decision making.”

The researchers believe that in a year, with $450,000 in funding, they could develop a customized virtual facilitator for specific applications, such as homeland security or soldier training and facilitation.

“The possibilities are endless,” emphsizes Dr. Luechtefeld, who has already applied for a patent on the system. Besides decision-making and knowledge sharing, application areas include conflict resolution, negotiation, team learning, change management, motivation, and leadership skills.

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