What are substitutes for computerized decision support?

by Dan Power


Some computerized decision support is increasingly a necessity, but there remain many substitutes or alternative approaches for improving decision making. Also, situational factors can reduce or mitigate the need for computerized decision support. In the late 1970s, Kerr and Jermier (1978) suggested that substitutes existed for leadership. At that time, it was “fiction” to think that computerized decision support could substitute for leadership, but progress has been made. What we want to remember is that outstanding leadership can sometimes substitute for deploying computerized decision support. Leaders made "effective" decisions for thousands of years without the assistance of Decision Support Systems (DSS).

A substitute is a replacement. The substitute action or approach takes the place of a computerized solution and serves the same function. Some substitutes work almost as well as a computerized solution, others are poor replacements.

Today the increasing complexity and uncertainty in many organizational decision situations coupled with time pressures and heavy information loads are encouraging the development of operational, tactical and strategic DSS. Even so DSS are not always the best or the only solution for improving and enhancing decision making in admittedly difficult circumstances. This discussion addresses a number of potential substitutes and complements for a computerized DSS. Some situational factors are only temporary or short-run substitutes; some substitutes make computerized decision support less crucial or even unneccesary, but result in high costs and create other problems; other factors are really “enhancers” or complements when used in conjunction with DSS to improve decision making.

Kerr suggested that certain situational factors or variables reduce the importance of formal leadership and even substitute for leadership. Such a substitution phenomenon also seems to occur in many decision situations and various factors can impact the need for computerized decision support. Kerr, Jermier, and others have focused on subordinate, task, and organizational characteristics as potential substitutes for effective leader behavior and actions. In a similar way task, organizational and environment characteristics can impact the need for computerized decision support. Characteristics of leaders/managers and their subordinates can also impact the need for and use of computerized decision support systems.

So what can be done to substitute for computerized decision support? Let's examine twelve factors that can be altered to impact the need for computerized decision support. Specific factors help decision makers cope with important, complex decision making tasks. As a caveat, the following list may be incomplete and overlapping. It is not an ordered or prioritized list, rather it is more of an alphabetized list based upon research and brainstorming.

1. Decision authority and centralization -- In a specific situation, the authority of decision makers impacts the need for and usefulness of a DSS. The power of competitors and third parties and legal, political and social constraints often limit decision authority and change decision support requirements. If a crisis occurs, all decisions may be made at the highest levels in an organization. In this situation, the computer decision support requirements will change. In more routine situations, a DSS may encourage delegation of decisions. Also, to avoid using computer support for time critical decisions it is sometimes possible to delegate such decisions to a person with “real-time” knowledge.

2. Decision cycle revision -- In some situations increasing or extending the decision cycle (the time and activities spent making a decision) can reduce the need for computerized decision support or allow decision makers to make “fewer” decisions without harming the overall outcomes. For example, if a company has competitive and market superiority, it may be possible to slow down new product introductions or reduce advertising expenditures and improve the success of such activities. Reducing time pressure and more analysis can sometimes increase decision effectiveness and reduce the need for computerized support.

3. Decision task structure -- Some decision tasks are complex and hence, if the task is completed by those with less knowledge and skill, computer support is needed to maintain or improve task proficiency. For example, the task of configuring computer systems at Digital Equipment (DEC) became very complex and a knowledge-driven DSS called XCON for expert configuror was built to help with the task. An alternative that was used by competitors was to simplify the configuration and decision task. Characteristics of a decision task impact the need for DSS. For example, for an unambiguous, routine, and highly structured decision task managers may have only a limited need for computerized decision support. Also, if decision makers receive frequent feedback concerning the success of their decisions, then they may be able to incrementally improve their decisions without any decision support.

4. Formalization -- Rules, planning, procedures, policies and guidance support decision making. Characteristics of the organization setting, especially formalization, impact the need for DSS. For example, in addition to rules and procedures, clear plans and goals and formalization can reduce the need for DSS. If the rule is “The customer is always right and we accept all returns”, then no computerized decision support is needed to help customer service representatives. Good contingency plans can reduce the need for computerized decision support once a crisis or event triggers a need for a decision. Any negative anchoring effect of having contingency plans is often more than outweighed by the “speed” and quality of preparation advantages than are achieved. Contingency planning can be improved and supported using appropriate DSS. For example, a knowledge-driven DSS with a document repository can be developed to support contingency planning.

5. Work load and effort -- Long hours by staff and decision makers can substitute for a DSS or compensate for a “poor” DSS, but fatigue can lead to major errors and staff burnout. Even with decision support systems, decision making in a crisis is hard, “mentally taxing”, stressful work. The goal in complex, strategic and/or crisis decision situations is to have decision support technology help increase the likelihood of success and hopefully reduce stress.

6. Leaders and staffing -- To reduce the need for decision support it may be possible to identify and select managers who can make better decisions in uncertain, complex, rapidly changing, and ambiguous environments than most other people. Some people are better able to remain calm and focused in complex situations and hence will need less computerized decision support or be better able to use what decision support is provided. Leadership is about having the respect and trust of those who will act based upon directions. DSS can not substitute for weak leaders, but outstanding leaders may require less elaborate or even different decision support. Leadership skills can substitute for some computerized decision support capabilities, but not all. Characteristics of leaders/managers and their subordinates that impact the need for and usefulness of computerized decision support include ability, experience, training, and knowledge.

7. Operations technology -- Sometimes constraints created by production systems add complexity in decision tasks. Removing the constraints simplifies the decision task. Removing constraints from production systems often involves overcoming technical barriers and may involve many trade-offs.

8. Slack resource changes -- Slack is a measure of excess capacity or supply. For example, to avoid inventory management and supply chain decision support one can keep large safety stocks and then centralize inventory. The trade-off is of course higher inventory holding costs.

9. Staffing level increases -- In some situations as decision complexity and decision volume increases it is possible to increase the number of expert decision makers, e.g. add more truck dispatchers or air traffic controllers. DSS can eliminate decision roles in processes and streamline the process, thereby freeing up experts for other tasks. To reduce the need for computerized decision support for complex operations it is often possible to increase the amount of human decision support.

10. Training decision makers -- Managers who are well prepared for performing decision tasks and who have rehearsed the decisions are more likely to be successful even with limited decision support.

11. Use general purpose computer software tools -- To substitute for using task specific decision support systems, but gain some benefits of computerization, one can often use commercial off-the-shelf personal productivity software like Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint. Personal productivity software is very useful and it can provide limited decision support in a complex, multi-decision maker environment.

12. Use non-computerized decision aids -- Managers have used and continue to use a wide range of non-computerized decision support tools from books, maps, grease pencils, pen and paper, post it! notes, calculators, and check lists to assist in decision making.

None of the above approaches and changes is a “perfect” substitute for computerized decision support and in reality a combination of the above “substitutes” and decision support and information technologies will be used in organizations. Computerized decision support can fail and inappropriate use can even lead to negative consequences. Managers/decision makers need to understand the strengths and limitations of computerized decision support. Formalization may be a good substitute for a data-driven DSS for performance monitoring or a complement that increases usage. A checklist may substitutte for a knowledge-driven DSS. More face-to-face meetings and travel may substitute for a communications-driven DSS. Paper-based filing cabinets substitute for document-driven DSS. Calculating a solution or bid amount manually may substitute for a model-driven, cost estimation DSS developed using Excel.

The key lessons: 1) Decision makers must maintain an ability to function effectively in decision making situations with or without computerized decision support, and 2) Managers make tradeoffs in supporting decision making tasks including use of substitutes or complements.


Kerr, S., and Jermier, J. M., “Substitutes for leadership: Their meaning and measurement,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22, 375-403, 1978.

The above response is modified from Power, D., Are there substitutes for computerized decision support? DSS News, Vol. 4, No. 21, October 12, 2003.

Last update: 2005-08-06 17:52
Author: Daniel Power

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