Whatever Happened to Decision Support Systems?

Article excerpt

The decision support systems of the '80s are alive and well, masquerading as smaller, personal support systems.

The early 1980s were an exciting period for a new type of information system called decision support systems (DSS). These innovative systems were expected to aid management in making non-recurring, complex, unstructed decisions. But the excitement has diminished. Very little has been written about the use of these systems in recent years. Is the concept of decision support systems dead, buried by newer information technologies? Or are DSS now so commonplace that we take them for granted?

What are decision support systems?

Decision support systems were originally defined as interactive, computer-based systems that could be used to support complex, non-recurring decisions made by senior managers. These systems were a combination of hardware and software built to support specific top-level strategic decisions. Whether to build a new plant, or expand the company's fleet of aircraft, were considered the kinds of decisions DSS would support.

The essence of this definition has remained the same over time but the scope of application of these systems has greatly expanded. DSS are still interactive, computer-based systems that support the decision maker. They still provide relevant information to the decision maker rather than actually make the decision. But DSS are no longer used only for unstructured, one-time decisions. Their greatest use today is for spreadsheet-based support systems for semi-structured, recurring decisions such as periodic budgeting decisions. A characteristic of these systems is that they can be easily modified to analyze information based on changing circumstances.

We still think of DSS as comprising three main components: a model base, a data base, and a user interface.

The model base consists of a set of mathematical models such as linear programming and statistical models (regression, analysis of variance) that can be used to analyze raw data into useful information. A model base management system enables the DSS developer and user to retrieve, modify, add, and delete models from the model base.

The second component of DSS, the data base, includes not only data from internal sources (usually the accounting systems) but also data from external sources. These external sources include data from government, industry, and consulting sources. A data base management system allows the user to manipulate and organize data in the data base so that it can be input to the decision models.

The third component is the user interface. DSS are characterized by direct manipulation of the data and models by the user. This means that the interface must by easy to use and easy to learn. Today a variety of user interfaces is available including graphics, windows, menus, and command interfaces.

The three components of a DSS distinguish these systems from other systems found in organizations today. Transaction processing and management reporting systems focus on the storage and selective retrieval of large amounts of internal data. Very little analysis is done with the data in these systems. Accounting information systems such as computerized G/L and payroll systems are examples of transaction-processing systems.

Executive Information Systems (EIS) are considered a form of decision support system. These systems are primarily used by top management to monitor and track the organization's performance. The modelling components of these systems are specifically designed to filter and summarize specific organizational data to support management control. For example, Kraft Grocery Products Group uses an EIS built with the Commander EIS software from Comshare. The system supplies Kraft executives with highly refined and summarized marketing and production data.

Current expert systems or knowledge-based systems use IF-THEN rules, as opposed to the mathematical models found in DSS, to provide advice in narrow problem domains. …