With new or improved Web-based applications, you can forget the whiteboard but still come up with great ideas efficiently.February 06, 2012
When you think about brainstorming, you probably envision a room full of loquacious people, all offering their ideas, while one colleague dutifully writes it all down on a whiteboard.
But, in many cases, all those individuals may have come from far-flung locations to attend the session, requiring hefty travel costs and time-consuming scheduling arrangements. For that reason, such brainstorming sessions can be pricey for resource-strapped small businesses. And that's not to mention a problem inherent in any brainstorming powwow: You only have one shot at it.
That's what makes a new generation of online brainstorming applications, many of them cloud-based, worth noting. Some, like iMindmap Online from Cardiff Bay, UK-based ThinkBuzan.com, rely on such well-known structured approaches to brainstorming as mind mapping, and are improved versions of earlier products. Others, like Evernotes, from a Mountain View, Calif., company of the same name, help users gather and share information, while also making brainstorming possible. In some instances, companies are developing their own applications.
But no matter what, the purpose is the same: to make the brainstorming process more efficient, using online applications that can be tapped just about any time, from anywhere. "You conceivably can work with people remotely all over the world. You have a lot of flexibility. And you can add something if you think of it at two in the morning," says Todd Cherches, a management consultant in New York City who specializes in leadership and creativity training.
Take Diane Gayeski, dean of the Roy H Park School of Communications at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., who also runs her own management consulting firm. She's used an online brainstorming application called Concept Systems to do everything from developing a strategic plan for a library to creating performance metrics for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. The application relies on something called concept mapping, a graphical way to show relationships among multiple words or ideas.
Recently, for example, she worked with Cornell University's Employment and Disability Institute, which needed help determining the training needs of disabilities managers. A relatively new profession, it's still unclear to many experts exactly what skills and expertise such professionals need to be successful in their jobs.
To that end, Gayeski identified around 100 disabilities managers and their supervisors around the U.S. Then, using the online application, she asked them to answer one simple question: What do disabilities managers need to do well in their profession?
"We could never have gotten all those people together in one room," she says. "And if they'd just e-mailed us their ideas, we would have had hundreds of comments to deal with and make sense of." Plus, because the survey was online for several weeks, participants could respond when it was most convenient for them and go back later if they thought of something else.
After she'd received all the responses – – hundreds of them – – a smaller group of six far-flung experts used the application to make sense of the information by organizing it into clusters, such as "technology" and "counseling skills." Next, the system consolidated those clusters into just a few categories and arranged them in a concept map. Gayetski then was able to analyze that information further to see, for example, what veteran managers had replied versus less experienced colleagues.
"It allowed us to make sense of very large groups of data, which is what you get when you have 100 people brainstorming," she says. "And it would have been prohibitively expensive to bring all these individuals together because of travel costs."
William Kotis, Jr., who heads Restaurant Investors, a Greensboro, N.C.-based restaurant developer, relies on a very different type of brainstorming application. He uses Evernote, which lets he and his colleagues send, share and store everything from photographs to menus from their laptops, iPhones, iPads or desktop computers. Every time they send something, it goes into a specific folder. Or, they can simply tag it ("lighting," say), so they later can see all the items with a similar tag.
Consider what happened when Kotis and six colleagues recently worked on new rotisserie chicken entrées for a restaurant. Over the course of about three weeks, the chief culinary officer sent recipes, another team member included photographs of rotisserie grills, and other people sent over menus. In the end, they came up with concepts for jerk chicken and Peruvian chicken recipes, along with a design for how the rotisserie grills would be displayed.
That's not to say online brainstorming is a complete substitute for the conventional, in-person variety. Nor is it a total panacea. Kotis, for example, tends to supplement his use of Evernote with face-to-face gatherings. For his part, management consultant Cherches prefers real-time sessions because, "it's helpful to have everyone in the same room with everyone looking at the same whiteboard, feeding off each other," he says. "If you're trying to facilitate interaction on a human level and create a team environment, I think it's better for people to be together, the old-fashioned way."
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