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Transforming Dispute Mediation With Technology: FMCS

How FMCS Uses Web-based Tools by Facilitate.com to Change the Way Mediators Do Their Business

"Anonymous brainstorming quickly gets the real issues on the table and focuses the group on legitimate concerns rather than personalities."

In labor-management negotiations throughout the country, laptop computers linked to powerful servers allow negotiators to instantly capture ideas on FacilitatePro's virtual flipcharts, build on those ideas and rank – using the group’s own criteria– various options to achieve real consensus. "For collective bargaining, dispute mediation and conflict resolution," says FMCS Director Peter J. Hurtgen, "technology tools are the wave of the future."

In Elk Grove, Illinois, teacher James Arey manages an online conference center that allows students to anonymously warn each other – as well as school administrators – of any threat of violence or presence of a weapon, without fear of recrimination. "It’s an opportunity to get voices heard," says Arey, "without peer pressure or teacher bias."

Bringing Vision to Reality The shift to technology-enabled processes began in 1999. At the time, Barnes led the agency as its Director, appointed to the position by then-President Bill Clinton. He approached a federal mediator stationed in Central Texas named Michael Wolf and asked him to come to Washington for a meeting. "I wondered if I had done something wrong," remembers Wolf. Instead, the Director offered him the opportunity to become the lead FMCS technology innovator and implement Barnes’ vision to develop technology tools that enhance the way mediators perform their work.

Wolf said yes, and immediately began focusing on how groups can better solve problems, make decisions and implement decisions – critical activities for any negotiation. Wolf and a small team of mediators built the FMCS approach around customized off-the-shelf software. After purchasing several dozen laptop computers and setting up a web site in early 2000, a small cadre of specially trained FMCS mediators began to apply technology tools to mediation cases. A traditional collective bargaining negotiation between Levy Foods the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union was an early test, with the parties using FMCS mediators for the first time. Even though dialogue took place simultaneously in three cities, the negotiation over a new food service contract for Chicago’s Navy Pier moved along smoothly. "They trusted us," says Wolf, today the Director of FMCS Mediation Technology Services "and it worked."

The agency’s collection of customized technology tools has morphed into the Technology Assisted Group Solutions system, or TAGS as it’s commonly referred to by FMCS customers. TAGS is based on a unique suite of groupware tools, such as eRoom, mimio, FacilitatePro and NetMeeting, and about 200 agency-owned laptops in eleven cities that wirelessly connect to powerful mobile servers and Internet servers located at FMCS headquarters in downtown Washington. FMCS mediators have already used their TAGS technology tools in hundreds of cases, including successful interest-based bargaining negotiations between the Teachers Federal Credit Union in Minneapolis and the Office and Professional Employees International Union, and between the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals; a strategic planning session for the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers Union and its union-employing contractors, and a relationship-by-objective program involving Sunoco Chemicals and the Paper and Allied Chemical Employees union.

TAGS at work Interest based bargaining agenda With the TAGS infrastructure in place, Wolf and the FMCS mediators found plenty of opportunities to enhance the ways that mediators apply their skills. Meeting notification and participant preparation went more smoothly. large audiences discovered their individual voices could still be heard electronically. Electronic conferencing eliminated the requirement that everyone had to be in the same room. Inputs were captured verbatim and completely anonymous. Consensus was achieved more quickly by using tabulated ratings and rankings to focus group discussion. Surveys allowed participants and leaders to instantly evaluate ideas. Time could be used more efficiently. "We couldn’t have accomplished in a week the work we completed with TAGS in two half-day sessions," observed Thomas Haun, Director of Apprenticeship for the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, after a strategic planning session involving 200 participants.

Jennifer Wood, Chief Legal Counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Education, was similarly effusive. "We were not always faced with taking a group of people out of the office to work at the same time, which resulted in a tremendous human resources saving. We had a broader conversation without enormous amounts of time invested." Employing TAGS for interest-based bargaining, said Wood, was revelatory. "The collaborative bargaining process using TAGS altered the labor-management relationship," she concluded, elevating respect and trust on both sides.

With over 100 mediators now familiar with TAGS technology, and approximately 200 TAGS-supported events – conferences, meetings, negotiations – completed, the value is becoming more quantifiable. "We can see that the technology correctly used will lead to more and better ideas, quicker decisions and time-efficient processes," says Wolf. "It is improvement in the 35-to-50 percent range, sometimes even more."

"If there’s any certainty in this world," observes FMCS Director Peter Hurtgen, "it’s that the impact and influence of technology will be felt to a greater and greater extent in our world, our services and our customers’ requirements. The President has urged all of us to think how to better provide e-government services, and – for FMCS – TAGS is an important part of that answer."

Note: Excerpted with permission from the case study archives of Collaborative Strategies LLC

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