e-Meetings: Why Groupware? Do your meetings drag on without resolution? Do certain people on your team bulldoze decisions through? If you're frustrated with your meetings, groupware may help.

Though designed for groups of up to 20, groupware can be used with hundreds of people. In a typical LAN-based (local area network - based) meeting, participants sit around a hollow, square table, each with a laptop linked to the facilitator's computer, and data projection screens everyone can see. With Web versions, participants sit at their own desktop computers, using a conference-call telephone for audio. A facilitator sets up the network and does the simple system training, and then organizes the questions, polling, and information-gathering tasks.

Why It Works I recently participated in a groupware brainstorming session for about 20 participants who were asked, "What are the top-five action items for our organization in the next year?" We were given 10 minutes to compose our lists on the laptops. Then the facilitator asked us each to highlight and send the most important item, which was immediately projected for all to see. After eliminating some duplicates by group decision, we were asked to rank the list, using our laptops to vote. Within another minute, all the items from the first submission round had been ranked. This process was repeated for the remaining items on our lists. In about 40 minutes, we produced a list of more than 90 action items.

We then did the same for the education topics for monthly meetings. Again, in less than an hour we came up with more than 100 ideas, all prioritized. The entire session took less than two-and-a-half hours, and the output of the meeting was printed and copied for each of us to take away.

Without groupware, this meeting would probably have taken the full day - and not have accomplished as much. With reported time-savings of 50 percent or more, I'm not surprised that groupware is catching on for team meetings, board meetings, and strategic planning sessions, as well as other research-based uses.

Major Players Covision's Council LAN-based tools (www.covision.com) fall into three categories: text gathering, polling, and recording. The program has been used with as many as 1,500 people on portable networks of up to 200 laptops, but groups of 20 are more common. Cost is $2,500 per day for up to 20 machines, $200 per additional machine, plus travel costs.

Enterprise Solutions' Meetingworks (www.meetingworks.com) is a LAN-based application with additional Web-based modules. The price is a free download for up to eight participants, $5,000 for 9 to 15 participants, and $5,000 for every 10 participants thereafter. Web-based versions are also offered.

GroupSystems' Workgroup Edition 2.0 (www.groupsystems.com) has a LAN-based product that's migrating to a browser-based system. Licensing, pricing, and distribution are being revised, but recent pricing was $7,500 for an annual service fee and $24.95 per user per month. Clients can also choose a one-time option.

PlaceWare also offers a Web-based system (www.placeware.com), which is free for as many as four users. For larger groups, the charge is an annual hosting fee of $300 per seat.

1. Cut collective decision-making time in half

2. Prevent the most vocal participants from dominating meetings

3. Allow everyone to vote anonymously

4. Generate more ideas in a shorter time (since everyone can input simultaneously)

5. Create buy-in and help to build consensus

6. Provide full documentation of the meeting with instant statistical analysis