Reflections of Decision Support Pioneers

James F. Courtney

Jim Courtney responded by email to six questions from Dan Power, editor, about his past involvement with computerized decision support systems and his current perspective on the issues that need to be addressed.

Q1: How did you get interested in computerized decision support?

Courtney's Response: The summer after I got my BA in economics from UT Ė Austin, I worked for my brother-in-lawís data processing firm in the D.C. area. I entered the MBA program at UT that fall and took the only MIS course that was offered and a programming class in FORTRAN. I also minored in statistics. I decided to enter the Ph. D. program with a major in Management Science. In the meantime I started working for a small consulting company (MRI Systems) that was developing a database product called System 2000. That was in the late 1960ís. So, as I was studying management science models and working on a database product, DSS was very natural for me as it combined the two areas.

Interestingly enough, Jerry Wagner was also at MRI at that time, so he and I have been friends and working in DSS for quite some time. I hope Jerry will also respond to your questions, as it would be interesting to see what he has to say about those days. Of course, we are still in close contact and I am using his new product, the Planners Lab, which employs the IFPS language that Paul Gray mentions in his reflections. The Planners Lab has great features for visualizing model output.

Q2: What do you consider your major contribution to helping support decision makers using computers? Why?

Courtney's Response: One of my contributions back in the early 1980ís was an instructional package that I developed with Ron Jensen of Emory University. Ron had developed a game called the Business Management Laboratory. Together we developed a companion DSS generator we called the Systems Laboratory for Information Management. With it, students could query a database that was created as the game was played and could also write simple DSS systems in a BASIC-like language we developed as part of SLIM. As I recall, this package was used at about 25 different universities to teach DSS. I would like to think that this had an influence on helping students that would be future managers understand how computers could help them in decision making. Incidentally, the students really enjoyed learning this way and I think it helped them learn a lot about holistic views of management and how DSS could help in managing. Database systems were only available on mainframes when we started this project and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most schools could not afford them at that time. But as mini-computers and PCís developed with spreadsheets and databases, SLIM became obsolete and rode off into the sunset.

Incidentally, Gerry DeSanctis came up with the idea of using BML and SLIM to support her dissertation research at Texas Tech (which was co-chaired by Mike Crino). In it, she applied expectancy theory to develop a model predicting DSS use. She tested this in a lab study with student participants who were playing BML and using SLIM and she was trying to predict their use of SLIM. As I recall, two of three hypotheses were supported. She kicked off her career by, among other things, presenting her dissertation at ICIS and publishing it in Psychological Reports. Other students who used BML/SLIM in their dissertation projects included David Paradice, George Kasper, Bill Pracht, Steve Loy, Nassar Ata Mohammed, Beth Billman, and William Hodges. I think raising and training these doctoral students, along with several others including the three Larrys - Sanders, West and Meile Ė and more recently Wafa Elgarah, Virginia Ilie and Sandra Richardson is another contribution. With Scott Poole, I also co-chaired Huy Vo and Bongsug Chae.

Finally, much of my recent work has been trying to foster a broader view of decision making than has been the case with most DSS work in the past. Following Miroff and Linstoneís Unbounded Mind book, Iíve tried to develop a view of decision making and knowledge management based on Churchmanís Inquiring Systems, relying especially on the Singerian inquirer. My paper in Decision Support Systems in 2001 describes my thinking in that regard. This seems to have struck a nerve, as Google scholar shows it to be cited 112 times. While most of the cites have been in DSS or IS journals, some have been in the most unlikely of places including Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Environmental Management, Journal of Agricultural Economics, Environmental Modeling & Software, Radiation Protection Dosimetry, International Journal of Emergency Management, ProduÁ„o (a Brazilian journal published in Portuguese), Complex Systems and Complexity Science (in Chinese), Journal of Documentation, Geosciences and Remote Sensing Symposium, and the 1st Nordic Conference on Product Lifecycle Management. I think many people in the hard sciences are looking at ways to get their findings into policy. I think that is why they are looking at this paper. So, I am very hopeful that this work will be considered a contribution to many fields.

Q3: What were your motivations for working in this area?

Courtney's Response: I suppose that I have always been somewhat of an idealist. As part of my MBA, I was required to write a ďprofessional reportĒ which was sort of a mini-thesis. I did mine on urban planning (simulation) models which were popular at that time. I really thought that simulation could be used to help design cities with a better quality of life. A good deal of my work has involved large-scale, messy public-sector problems where there are many stakeholders. From about 1998 to 2003, I worked on a big project that began at Texas A&M to develop a DSS for infrastructure decision making in the city of Houston, TX. It was somewhat of an eye-opener to see how complex the whole system really was and how many different stakeholders were involved. Since then, one of my students, Wafa Elagarh, developed a dialectical DSS design methodology and tried it out successfully in developing a zoning DSS for Orange County, Florida (Orlando).

I guess itís my idealism (and that of some of my students) that has led me into ethical issues and medical informatics more recently. Sandra Richardson just recently finished a dissertation on the ethics of healthcare information systems and developed a DSS for advance directives to test her theories. And Virginia Ilieís dissertation was on electronic medical records (which was co-chaired with Craig Van Slyke). Iím also interested in environmental DSS, another rather idealistic topic.

Q4: Who were your important collaborators and what was their contribution?

Courtney's Response: Iíve already mentioned many of them. Ron Jensen and I worked together to develop BML/SLIM. Gerry DeSanctis was the first to use this package to support DSS research. Larry Sanders developed and tested a DSS success measurement instrument. Perhaps the most important has been David Paradice. We started working together on knowledge-based DSS when he was my student at Texas Tech in the mid-1980ís (heíd actually been my Masterís student at Georgia Tech before that). We have published at least 11 papers together and a database book. And with David Croasdell, John Haynes and Sandra Richardson, we have developed the idea of ďinquring organizations,Ē which as mentioned previously, is the basis for most of my current work. Iíve also worked with Dave Olson on two editions of our DSS book. Heís a great guy to work with. Virginia and Sandi have also gotten me interested in medical informatics, and with Sandi a special interest in ethics. Finally, Iím starting to work with 3 students at UCF, Las Adams, Lars Linden and James Parrish. They have been important in keeping me going!

Q5: What are your major conclusions from your experiences with computerized decision support?

Courtney's Response: First, everything is connected with everything else, at least in-so-far-as important problems are concerned. Global warming is a clear example of that. You need to try to uncover hidden assumptions and different perspectives that various parties have in making important decisions. You need to define problems as broadly as feasible and include stakeholders affected by the problem in the decision-making process. You must be especially careful in formulating problems, as getting the problem right is critical to solving it. A good solution to the wrong problem may actually make it worse.

Q6: What are the issues associated with decision support that we still need to address?

Courtney's Response: As I suggested previously, I think we need to broaden our view of decision making. Mitroff and Linstone would consider our view the technical one, I believe. We need to also be concerned with other individual perspectives, organizational perspectives, ethical issues and even aesthetics in our work. We need to be cognizant of social and cultural issues to the extent that we can to try to avoid some of the mistakes of the past. I believe we really need to think holistically in an age when our technology is having such a vast impact on the planet and all its creatures. I am discouraged that so much IS research is reductionist and that is what the leading journals tend to emphasize. There is also a great deal of emphasis on theory development, but the theories that we have seem quite shallow and donít explain very much.

Iím concerned that we squander intellectual resources in much of our academic work. I have to take my share of the blame for this, as Iíve published papers that have seldom or never been cited. And my contributions I point out above are rather meager perhaps. But I think we need to encourage our colleagues and our students to work on real problems that are relevant and important. I am encouraged by the emergence of design science and of alternative methodologies such as action research and qualitative methods. I think these can be combined with quantitative techniques such as modeling and simulation to study problems on a broader and more appropriate scale than we are doing in much of our research. I hope that some of the design science research goes in that direction. We've done this all along in DSS, we just didnít call it design science or action research.

I really like what Andy Whinston has done with Decision Support Systems. It publishes a very wide variety of papers with many methodologies and perspectives. I donít think it gets the respect it deserves in the IS community. And he is not afraid of publishing applications.

In closing, Iíd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Gerry DeSanctis, who is also listed as a pioneer on this site. Her passing has been very difficult for me. Iíve not really known how to handle it and havenít felt up to participating in the many activities that have honored her. This has certainly not meant to be in any way disrespectful of Gerry. She was in my mind a quintessential scholar. While she was known primarily as a behavioralist. She was also a methodological pluralist. She was the primary developer of the SAMM GDSS software at Minnesota, so some of her work was design science. She applied and used this software in the field, as well as in lab studies. Her studies included both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Along with Scott Poole she developed Adaptive Structuration Theory as a result of these investigations. She was a great contributor to the field in many ways and we will all miss her, but no one more than I. But as her note below indicates she will remain Always, Gerry.

About Jim Courtney

James F. Courtney is Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He formerly was Tenneco Professor of Business Administration in the Information and Operations Management Department at Texas A&M University. He received his Ph.D. in Business Administration ( with a major in Management Science) from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974. His academic experience also includes faculty positions at Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Lincoln University in New Zealand and the State University of New York at Buffalo. Other experience includes positions as Database Analyst at MRI Systems Corporation in Austin and Visiting Research Scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. From 1999 Ė 2003 Jim was co-Principal Investigator on a project entitled ďExploring the Interface of Urban Decision Dynamics and Infrastructure Knowledge Management,Ē funded by the National Science Foundation and the City of Houston.

His papers have appeared in several journals, including Management Science, MIS Quarterly, Communications of the ACM, IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Decision Sciences, Decision Support Systems, the Journal of Management Information Systems, Database, Interfaces, the Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, and the Journal of Experiential Learning and Simulation. He is the co-developer of the Systems Laboratory for Information Management (Business Publications, 1981), a software package to support research and education in decision support systems, co-author of Database Systems for Management (Second Edition, Irwin Publishing Company, 1992), and Decision Support Models and Expert Systems (MacMillan Publishing, 1992). His present research interests are knowledge-based and clinical decision support systems, ethical decision making, knowledge management, inquiring (learning) organizations and sustainable economic systems.

See his resume.


James F. Courtney Reflections, DSSResources.COM, 05/21/2007.

Jim Courtney provided final permission to publish this email interview at DSSResources.COM on May 21, 2007.