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 meeting, participants sit in the "hollow square" configuration, each with a laptop linked to the facilitator's computer, and each able to see data projection screens. With Web versions, participants sit at their own desktop computers, using a conference-call setup for audio. A facilitator configures the computer 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. The 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 probably would have taken the full day - and not have accomplished as much. With reported time savings of 50 percent or more, it's easy to see why groupware is catching on for team meetings, board meetings, and strategic planning sessions, as well as for other research-based uses.

Major Players Covision's Council's 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. The price is $2,500 per day for up to 20 machines, $200 per additional machine, plus travel expenses.

Enterprise Solutions' Meetingworks (www.meeting works.com) is a LAN-based application with additional Web-based modules available. The price: 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/month. Clients can also choose a one-time option.

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

What Can Groupware Do for You? 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 offers input simultaneously)

5. Create buy-in and help to build consensus

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