Alternative dispute resolution and online conflict

Ross Paull |

The prefix ‘alternative’ in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has been used to differentiate the process from the legal profession; and rightly so, because the two are indeed the ‘yin’ and the ‘yang’ as shown in Figure 1.


However, the word alternative can imply some form of competitive substitute to the law when this is not the case. Even if ADR is used to resolve the dispute, lawyers will often be brought in to review and reality-check the agreements made. So, where does Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) fit in all of this? Well, ODR takes place at the junction of ADR, its metaphorical parent, and web-based communication technology. ODR inherits its theoretical foundations, or its ‘genes’, from the ADR narrative which, put simply, establishes a dialogue of cooperative negotiation involving:

  • A commitment to negotiate in good faith;
  • Provide relevant information; and
  • Use joint experts as need be.

Hence, what some academics may term a ‘normative communication mode’ is functionally embedded in ODR’s DNA. This analogy—ODR as the offspring of ADR—is reminiscent of the debate regarding the relative importance of heredity (nature) and the environment (nurture) in human development. This was hilariously addressed in the 1980’s flick ‘Trading Places’ where the protagonist, played by Eddie Murphy, benefitted greatly from the nurturing he received from his new salubrious environment.

In the case of ODR, I would argue that its traits and attributes are increasingly acquired and influenced by its environment; that is, internet technology and the new world of social media, with its associated versatility and rapidly evolving ways of handling information and communication. Similar to ADR, the term ODR can come with its own loaded perceptions and stereotypes regarding its contribution to the ‘DR’ of ADR. At Guided Resolution we are creating conflict management tools that not only draw upon ADR principles but have also been structured to suit the World Wide Web (www) so that they can be accessed and used by a mass audience. We assume a very base level user, one who hasn’t even got a camera on their computer. All that’s required is internet access.

So, our ‘conflict management tools’ have been, for want of a better term, ‘www-structured’. Rather than pigeon-holing our tools under the broad banner of ODR, they should be considered a new service that is Customer-centric by being:

  • Simple;
  • Supportive;
  • Secure; and
  • Scalable.

Scalability is a generic advantage of ODR in that there are no geographic limitations to people’s access, nor with our tools are there scheduling difficulties with respect to mediation support as users can vent their issues on their own 24/7. I have issues with Dispute Resolution being used to describe our raison d’être. We prefer the word ‘conflict’ because it expands our ambit to accommodate complaints as opposed to focusing on just disputes.

Resolution implies that the dispute gets resolved which may not be the outcome and that’s no biggie because at least the conflict situation has gone through a management tool to filter the issues for improved economy and performance. ‘Management’ better reflects what we are doing. Our new genre can be best described as Customer-centric Conflict Management (CCM) Think of it as an eco-friendly (as in socially responsible) hybrid vehicle that draws on ADR and ODR for improved cost-effective performance.