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Computers Improve Efficiency of the Negotiation Process

April 1, 1993
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Related Topics: Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Labor Relations, Featured Article
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Most people don't look forward to contract negotiations. The process is time-consuming, and agreements are painstakingly hard to reach. To make matters worse, negotiations typically are conducted using turn-of-the-century technology because the marketplace has had little incentive to invest in bargaining-an ostensibly unproductive activity. As costs of technology plummet, however, it seems that electronic negotiations now may be justified.

Besides the cost factor, two case studies suggest that an electronic meeting room—a room equipped with computers for the negotiators' use-can support contract talks more efficiently. The benefits include:

  • Reducing language ambiguities
  • Reducing misunderstanding and mistrust
  • Reducing note-taking and typing chores
  • Providing convenience
  • Introducing one central point of reference for all participants
  • Tracking progress and status
  • Increasing accuracy
  • Enforcing momentum
  • Saving time between sessions
  • Saving time after the conclusion of contract talks.

Electronic bargaining tools may serve to perpetuate the status quo by supporting the modus operandi of North American labor agreements: the excessive focus on contract language, rules and restrictions, instead of focusing on trust and relationships. However, automation can facilitate the legal need for a written contract, freeing participants to focus on other aspects of the negotiations.

The idea of a Negotiation Support System (NSS)-a computer that helps settle disputes-is tremendously attractive. Negotiators have used these systems in the past to test proposals and verify solutions. A new approach, however, is to focus instead on computer support of the negotiation process.

The first such negotiations took place in an electronic meeting room, set up in the department of management information at the University of Arizona (see "Negotiations in the Round"). This room has a U-shaped seating arrangement for 16 participants. At each seat is a personal computer. The computer monitors are recessed into the table so that they don't obstruct the negotiators' vision. All the computers are connected by a local area network, which allows negotiators to share computer documents. A trained meeting leader controls the system from a facilitator's station at the front of the room. A large public screen displays the contents of the facilitator's computer screen.

Added to the hardware in this electronic meeting room is a set of software specifically designed to support and streamline meetings. Known as GroupSystems, from Ventana Corp. in Tucson, Arizona, this software focuses on text and agenda to rationalize and structure the interaction of meeting participants through various group-dynamics techniques. The software combined with the structure of the meeting room forms a class of systems known as electronic meeting systems or EMS. EMS falls within a genre that the popular press simply calls groupware.

Computers give negotiators bargaining tools.
For the negotiations in the electronic meeting room, the parties involved adapted the GroupSystems software to support the bargaining process. The bargaining tools they created are:

  • A contract log
  • An electronic bargaining book (EBB)
  • An article checklist
  • A proposal editor.

A contract log is a computerized audit trail (to borrow an accounting term). It includes the entire current contract, complete with all of its articles and sections. As negotiators call out proposals, the facilitator inserts them into the appropriate articles and sections along with a notation of the time.

During talks, the contract log appears on the public screen in the front of the room. Facilitators control all the changes to the contract log from a word processor located at the facilitator's station. Both sides trust the facilitators to act as scribes and enter all language correctly and fairly. Facilitators make all entries to the log in the presence of the negotiators. Both parties must approve all of the changes. This removes from the negotiators the onus of taking copious notes on each word. It also removes an element of mistrust between the two sides because neither must rely on the other party to capture the exact language.

The electronic bargaining book is an encyclopedia of all the information in the computer that's pertinent to the negotiations. It's analogous to a notebook that a negotiator might carry to the negotiations. It contains such items as:

  • The article checklist (which we'll discuss later)
  • The current contract
  • Letters of agreement
  • Proposals
  • Addenda.

Facilitators add the articles and proposals to the EBB by copying them directly from the contract log during breaks in the talks.

An article checklist is a table that's inserted into the EBB. It keeps track of the article categories and the status of each article. The facilitator keeps it updated.

The final bargaining tool for electronic negotiations is the proposal editor. Each negotiating team has a caucus room at its disposal containing a computer terminal equipped with the proposal editor (a word processor). The caucus room computer is connected to the network so that any text created there displays on the public screen. The facilitators instruct the teams to submit language on these terminals in the privacy of the caucus room. Once the teams complete their proposals, the facilitator inserts them into both the contract log and the EBB.

The electronic meeting system saves time.
Two sets of talks that took place in the electronic meeting room in 1990 serve as case studies. Each set of talks lasted one month. Use of the computer was completely at the discretion of the participants. The parties were free (at any time) to set aside the computer. No one did, however. The labor organizations in both cases were locals of large, nationally recognized unions. Both contracts were ratified by the union membership after the talks concluded in the electronic meeting room.

The first case involved Sun Trans, a Tucson, Arizona, bus company, and representatives from the Teamsters union. Sun Trans has a 300-member bargaining unit comprising blue-collar workers. Negotiations between the two parties historically have been successful. Neither side requested mediation for these talks. They agreed mutually on a negotiation agenda and stuck to it. Management and union representatives met in the electronic meeting room for nine sessions, totaling 30 hours. The contract talks were tough and businesslike, but generally were conducted amicably.

The second case involved El Rio (a nonprofit health facility located in Tucson, Arizona) and the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME). El Rio's bargaining unit, comprising 120 people, ranged from blue-collar workers to salaried workers. The union and management teams had had a recent history of difficult negotiations. Occasionally, personal animosities surfaced. The parties met in the electronic meeting room for 13 separate sessions, for a total of 57 hours.

The first talks in the electronic meeting room were between Sun Trans and its union representatives. These negotiators deserve much of the credit for setting up the bargaining tools. They customized the computer tools for the bargaining process rather than changing the bargaining process to adapt to the use of the tools.

The negotiators at this session used all four basic tools, although they used some of the tools more extensively than others. For instance, they used the electronic bargaining book extensively and thought that the article checklist in particular was a wonderful innovation. On the other hand, they were reluctant to type intermediate proposals into the caucus-room computer, even after repeated requests by the facilitators. Unlike the other tools, the proposal editor on this computer required some change in bargaining norms, which meant that it took time for the negotiators to adapt to it. As a result, the transportation company's negotiators used this tool only for typing two short proposal submissions.

Although they had reservations about some of the tools, the union representatives were enthusiastic about one aspect of the electronic meeting room from the beginning. The setup in the electronic meeting room allowed a facilitator to update a live document as talks progressed and to display it continuously on the public screen. This meant that when the talks concluded and the two sides shook hands, the union could take the contract immediately to its membership for ratification. The psychological momentum that this created for the union leaders was significant.

After the talks concluded, both parties were impressed with how much language they were able to generate and agree on during the bargaining sessions. They struck agreements throughout the sessions. This saved time between sessions and a great deal of time after the talks concluded. In fact, the two parties only experienced two minor language disagreements after the talks. The contract went to the printers within several weeks. It isn't unusual for language disagreements to continue for six to 12 months after talks conclude. Sometimes the courts must settle the differences.

This first negotiation process to take place in the electronic meeting room involved the bus company and set the example for future bargaining sessions. Using the experience that they had gained from these first talks, the facilitators set ground rules for the health center's negotiators, which included:

  1. Negotiators must input all proposals into the computer in the caucus room using the proposal editor
  2. Negotiators must dictate all verbal agreements immediately to the facilitator, who must type them into the contract log at the facilitator's station, mark them Agreed and date them.

Before this second set of negotiations began, the facilitators invited the two parties to view the room separately. During the viewings, the facilitators asked the participants to use the equipment to discuss their issues and their positions among themselves. Then, because these two parties had a history of difficult negotiations, the facilitators led them through some win-win negotiation techniques before starting the actual bargaining session. These included role reversals, to understand the other side's perspectives, and a discussion of the issues without mention of proposals.

When the facilitators sensed that most of the tension had been relieved, the negotiations began with the parties presenting their respective proposals, detail by detail, as is the norm in contract talks. The facilitators were adamant that both parties enter all proposals into the proposal-editor program in the caucus room. To foster this process, one of the facilitators often sat in the caucus room and acted as a scribe. The facilitator would ask for dictation of proposals and suggest contract language whenever it was appropriate. With keyboard in hand, the facilitator encouraged the negotiators to use language that was specific.

The process of presenting proposals through the computer lengthened the time that negotiators spent in the caucus room because they did more than scribble proposals on a yellow notepad, as is often customary. It clearly saved time when the parties reconvened, however, because the proposals were already on the screen, limiting the need for dictation.

As the negotiators completed their proposals, the facilitators immediately entered them into the contract log and the EBB. Once actual bargaining began, progress was slow for several sessions. When the turning point came, however, the bargaining protocols that the facilitators had introduced created a positive momentum. As the sides closed in on agreement, one of the facilitators sat at the facilitator's terminal, ready to type, while the other facilitator coaxed the participants to reach an agreement on the language. A representative from each side had to declare the language appearing on the public screen acceptable before the facilitators allowed the discussion to move on. Negotiators soon began to dictate language quickly, causing the momentum to pick up. In fact, by late night of the final bargaining session, proposals were flying back and forth at such an accelerated pace that the facilitator who was typing them into the computer couldn't keep up. Ironically, the computer that had served as a device to pick up the pace earlier was now not quick enough.

Computers are only part of a package.
In both of the negotiations, labor relations were relatively congenial, and no initial threat of strike or other sanctions was present. Obviously, averting a strike would be a strong indication of success for electronic negotiations. The parties involved can't claim to have averted any strikes in these cases, however. On the other hand, happy participants indicate success as well. All parties present during the two contract talks indicated that they would like to conduct future contract talks in the electronic meeting room.

The most important questions that arise about the use of computers in contract bargaining are: 1) Does the technology change the outcome in a positive direction? and 2) Can it generate a better long-term agreement? A related issue is whether or not the technology affects the process in a positive way (such as by reducing overall time, costs and effort, and producing greater satisfaction).

The bus company's negotiators say that the electronic component of the negotiations didn't make a qualitative difference to the outcome of their negotiations. However, they all agree that the electronic components did reduce significantly the total time they spent dealing with the contract. They were also in consensus that the setting affected the tone of the talks in a positive manner for a variety of environmental reasons, such as the novelty effect of the electronic meeting room.

The health center's case was more complex and presented different results. Apparently the presence of the facilitators, the integrative bargaining methods that were introduced, the computer and the setting all helped change the outcome of the agreement.

The proposal editor in the caucus room certainly played a greater role in the second set of talks than in the first. Did the use of this tool, then, make a positive contribution to the negotiations? There are indications on both sides of the argument. In several sessions with the health center's negotiators, submitting written proposals improved the face-to-face dialogue because there was less room for misinterpretation. On the other hand, both cases presented some evidence that focusing on the drafting of language can cause members of either party to dig in their heels.

The role of the facilitators in both sets of talks proved significant. Because the facilitators weren't simply technicians, but trained meeting leaders, they became involved actively in mediation as the talks progressed. Several of the negotiators felt strongly that the mere presence of the facilitators-as neutral third parties-lessened the degree of acrimony between management and labor.

As research on electronic meeting systems has progressed, it has become evident that the human component of the electronic-meeting-room package plays a critical role. The computer can't produce a significant change in meeting dynamics by itself. It isn't a panacea-it must be used as part of a package that includes people and their negotiating methods.

Personnel Journal, April 1993, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 93-99.

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