Inspired negotiation via the web

allison martens

Gregory Kersten stands with three of his major partners in the Interneg Research Centre. Seated from left to right are the JMSB’s Jamshid Etezadi and Rustam Vahidov. On the right is CIISE researcher JinBaek Kim.

Photo by kate hutchinson

For many people, negotiation talks can result in anxiety or boredom, sweaty palms and endless hours locked away in an over-air conditioned boardroom.

Researchers at the InterNeg Research Centre at the John Molson School of Business are seeking to banish those side effects with the click of a mouse.

Using web-based software, InterNeg leader Gregory Kersten and a team of researchers and students have completed thousands of simulated business negotiations with people – mostly graduate students, researchers or professional mediators – around the globe.

Negotiators who use the Inspire software, which Kersten started to develop in the mid-90s, can enter their preferred outcomes at the outset of the negotiation. For example, a singer in negotiation with an agent from a record company might enter the number of concerts she wants to perform each year, her percentage of royalties and the amount of the signing bonus.

Based on these preferences, Inspire then uses complex algorithms to assign a rating to each offer made by the agent. Through the use of easy-to-read graphs, charts and rankings, “they are able to rate each offer and to change their preferences as the negotiation progresses,” Kersten said.

Due to the project’s unique blend of business and technology, it attracts collaborators and students from both the JMSB and Computer Science. Kersten’s closest working partners are the JMSB’s Jamshid Etezadi and Rustam Vahidov, and JinBaek Kim from the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering.

“Active research and production of many quality academic research articles in the last decade have made the Centre one of the most recognized institutes in the e-negotiation system research arena,” Kim said.

“A lot of communication is done by things other than words, with gestures, facial expressions and clothing. To observe these things, face-to-face contact is preferable,” Kersten said, but explained that many of the benefits of e-negotiation outweigh its drawbacks.

“Because it is electronic, everything is recorded from beginning to end. You gain the use of certain electronic tools which with verbal communication are virtually impossible.”

Kersten also said the Centre has completed several cross-cultural and gender-based studies of users, with interesting results.

“We found that women, especially when in anonymous negotiations, are more competitive than in face-to-face meetings.”

It also helps level the playing field. People who uses English as their second language will have more time to think about and type their responses.

Inconvenient or disadvantageous time differences, common in phone or video negotiations, are also minimized. “When I talk to people in Australia or Hong Kong, where there is a 12-hour time difference, synchronicity can be a drag more often than not,” Kersten said.

With Inspire, users simply log on when they want to negotiate. If a new offer is made while they are logged off, they are automatically notified by email.

He said that all this is the “tip of the iceberg.” In addition to anonymous negotiations, he anticipates the arrival of ones done with streaming video. The catch? Computers will be analyzing your every move.

“At some point it will be possible to apply some psychological theories and try to decode people’s behaviour,” to, for example, determine the optimal time to close a deal based on their mood, he said.