Patricia Esslinger, Groupware Facilitator
Using Technology in Alternative Dispute Resolution

You can speed up alternative dispute resolution 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.

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 4 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, who was 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."


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. Over a six month period, representatives from four group homes (operated by one agency) and the referring agents from the other agency used the technology to address their issues separately and then to collaborate toward a solution.

The facilitator, Carol Lindsay, explained, "The common experience with the software, structured group process and consistent communication approach used in each separate group provided a foundation when the two groups came together. People were willing to share information using the computer that they could never have spoken orally. In addition, responding to objective questions keyed in the software helped to de-personalize a highly charged situation. Heated discussions that had previously centered around individual cases, children by name, could now center around goals of the program, objectives of treatment plans, how to jointly deliver services to children."


The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is making a major investment with their new Technology Assisted Group Solution (TAGS) system, a powerful network of computers and customized meetingware designed to improve group problem solving and decision making. They recently installed their new Internet server and are in the process of doubling their mobile capacity - from two portable networks of laptops consisting of 20 computers each. Later this year, they will install several permanent electronic conference centers around the country to support negotiation, dispute resolution, labor-management collaboration, and school violence prevention initiatives. Soon FMCS will have more than two dozen federal mediators specially trained to integrate collaborative technology with their "traditional" mediation, facilitation and training skills.

FMCS not only makes extensive use of technology to enhance the effectiveness of ADR processes, they are partnering with universities and other organizations to empirically assess data on effectiveness and actual cost savings. In one recent controlled study, representatives of a large private sector employer entered into collective bargaining negotiations with several union locals. At Location #1, they used leading edge interest based bargaining (IBB) techniques and completed a deal in eight days. At Location #2, representatives for the same employer and unions used collaborative technology tools in addition to IBB techniques to address issues identical to Location #1. According to Michael Wolf, Special Assistant to FMCS Director C. Richard Barnes, "The parties using our new technology tools successfully resolved the same issues in only two days."

Collaborative Meeting Technology Reinforces ADR Techniques

Attempting to resolve any dispute involving multiple parties, with any ADR technique, can work better and faster with collaborative meeting technology. The effectiveness and speed of dispute panels, settlement conferences, cooperative problem solving, partnering, and facilitation are all enhanced by such technology. Interest-based bargaining particularly benefits from the technology; otherwise the process, including developing and applying objective ranking criteria, can become so tedious that users opt for short cuts.

As an example of how to apply collaborative meeting technology to ADR techniques, the following scenario matches technology-assisted processes to the multi-step methodology of interest-based bargaining.

Identify all interests to define issues clearly: Participants list their interests on their own computers. When comfortable with what's written so far, each participant submits it to the "record," which displays on the "big screen," and on all the other participant and facilitator computer screens. Submissions do not identify which participant contributed them. In addition to listing interests (usually one-liners), there is room on the screen to add comments. The originator can explain the point; others can read the explanation and comment back on it, raising questions or adding points.

Brainstorm possibilities and opportunities to explore options: Technology-wise, this step is similar to the first one. The speed gained through simultaneous input and the anonymity encourage creative suggestions. Facilitated oral discussion of the brainstorming results works to clarify ideas and eliminate redundancy. (This is like using markers and flip charts--except much faster, with a better format and legibility and an editable record.) Either individually or through facilitated group discussion, the possibilities can be sorted to form options.

Establish mutually-agreed upon standards to assess the options: Similar to the process for identifying interests, participants propose standards. They individually indicate the extent of their agreement with the proposed standards, and the software quickly calculates the group results and presents statistical information. Areas of disagreement are discussed and resolved. Participants then rate each option against each standard and immediately see numerical and graphical results on screen. Weighted averages are included if the group had assigned varying weights to the standards.

Achieve consensus: In the assessment of options, degree of consensus on the ratings is calculated and highlighted. Options are sorted by (weighted) mean score so that the "best" options top the charts and the parties can clearly see the options around which they can build consensus. Reasons for disagreement among the participants are probed through anonymous input as well as group discussion. Key problems are identified. Revised proposals are suggested and assessed. The cycle can be repeated quickly and efficiently until true consensus is reached


Collaborative meeting technology reinforces the structured approach to problem solving that successful ADR techniques use.