from DSSResources.com

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                       DSS News 
                  D. J. Power, Editor 
           October 12, 2003 -- Vol. 4, No. 21
       A Bi-Weekly Publication of DSSResources.COM 

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       Check article by Fisher and Marinos, "Better
     Decisions through Better Data Quality Management"

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Featured: 
* Are there substitutes for computerized decision support?
* What's New at DSSResources.COM?
* DSS News Releases 

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Are there substitutes for computerized decision support?
by Dan Power
Editor, DSSResources.COM

YES. Some situational factors reduce or mitigate any need for 
computerized decision support. During my graduate studies, Steve Kerr's 
research and ideas on leadership attracted my attention. Kerr suggested 
that substitutes existed for leadership (cf., Kerr and Jermier, 1978). 
At the time, Kerr was a Professor of Organizational Behavior. He has 
since moved into the corporate world. Until March 2001, he was the Chief 
Learning Officer at GE. Currently, Kerr is the Chief Learning Officer 
and a Managing Director of Goldman Sachs. When he was thinking about 
leadership issues it was "fiction" to think that computerized decision 
support could substitute for leadership, but some progress has been made 
in that direction.  What we do not want to forget 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).

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 Ask Dan! addresses a number of potential substitutes 
and complements for 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? For 
several months I have thought about and studied this question. Let me 
briefly summarize my current thinking in terms of twelve factors that 
can 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 -- 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 EXSYS 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. Hard work 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. Leadership -- 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 resources -- 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 -- 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 -- 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 substitutes 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 even lead to 
negative consequences.  Managers/decision makers need to understand the 
strengths and limitations of computerized decision support.  Decision 
makers must maintain their ability to function effectively without 
computerized decision support.  

References

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

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10/03/2003 Posted article by Fisher, T. and G. Marinos, "Better 
decisions through better data quality management". Check the articles 
page.

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