A study of perceptions of individual participants of a client group undertaking a series of meetings supported by a Group Support System (GSS).
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A longitudinal field study was conducted to provide interpretation and understanding as to how perceptions of a group of participants changed with repeated use of a Group Support System (GSS). This is a more in-depth and participant-orientated focus than some past research. Past GSS research has been dominated by single occasion usage with settings often involving student subjects. Longitudinal research is necessary because changes take place over time and groups, teams, and meetings are ongoing. Research in field settings is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of real world GSS activity and improve the relevance of findings to GSS practice and research.An original and significant aspect of the research was that the inquiry process was conducted in an interpretivist paradigm where emphasis was placed on participants' constructions of the GSS experience. An inductive approach was adopted where findings were grounded in, and generated from, qualitative data. The criteria for assessment of the relevance and rigour of the research were credibility, transferability, confirmability and dependability (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). The primary research data came from in-depth interviews with participants.The field setting concerned a group of seven participants from a local government organization, meeting face-to-face, and undertaking a strategic planning task. The process of the strategic planning task involved five GSS sessions held at the GSS Facility at Curtin University in Perth. Active process and technical facilitation was provided by an experienced two person facilitation team, who were external to the client organisation.There were two major findings. The first was a process finding of familiarisation that occurred over the first two GSS sessions. Participants were initially confronted with a foreign environment including unfamiliar people, roles, task, process, and technology. As participants experienced the GSS session, their feelings changed from fear and nervousness, to comfort and confidence. Associated with the improvement in comfort, there was improved participation, manifest as broader and greater participation at the second GSS session. The recommendation for GSS practice is to prepare participants in advance for the unfamiliar environment so as to realise the benefits of GSS more rapidly. Based on the identified changes in perceptions and behaviour, the recommendation for GSS research is to study contexts beyond single occasion usage.The second finding was a process finding of emerging confusion. Despite familiarisation with the environment, participants, when confronted with a radical change in process, as well as a difficult task about which they had preconceptions, became confused about the task, the goal, and the process. The behaviour of a participant, identified as playing the role of the farrago (Stohl & Schell, 1991), led to further confusion. Consequences included a perceived lack of achievement, and negative feelings. The recommendation for GSS practice is for facilitators to clarify the goals, the task and the process for participants. Further research is needed to ascertain what form that clarification might take. A suggestion is that it can be facilitated by maintaining familiar processes, and preparing participants in advance for difficult tasks. There are two recommendations for further GSS research. The first is to study in a field setting in order to uncover complex phenomena that are relevant to GSS practice. The second is to employ research methodologies and designs that permit discovery of emerging theory which is grounded in data.In addition to the two major findings, tentative but powerful, was the identification of ways in which the GSS ideal of even participation could be compromised. Firstly, an uneven distribution of verbal participation in an established group seems likely to persist in the GSS environment. Furthermore, the GSS facilitator may struggle against the existing group norms to alter the distribution of participation. Secondly, in groups where participants differ in their level of computer skills, computer experienced participants may be able to dominate written participation compared to computer novices. Computer novices may also suffer from computer anxiety further compromising their ability to participate. Thus equal access to GSS resources may not be sufficient to ensure even participation. The tentative nature of this finding is a signal for further research.
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