Reflections of Decision Support Pioneers

Gerald R. Wagner

Jerry Wagner 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?

Wagner's Response: I don’t know exactly but it was about 1967 when I started a Corporate Operations Research group at corporate headquarters of Swift and Company in Chicago. However, emphasis and interests changed somewhat in about 1970 when I joined the Operations Research faculty, College of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. As a new academician I needed to establish a research program. I was doing the typical statistical and Operations Research types of modeling but what caught my interest was modeling of human judgment processes. At that time we called it Policy Capturing. That early work has similarities to what would be called Expert Systems and AI today.

I was always particularly interested in modeling tools to help business decision makers to think. One day with Mike McCants one of my graduate students I went to the whiteboard and said it would be great if we could write assumptions “like this”. That was the beginning of what became the Interactive Financial Support System (IFPS) which was a dominant DSS product for several years. It was software for expressing assumptions about the future in plain English language. IFPS was the product of Execucom Systems Corporation which I founded.

About this time (mid to late 70’s) I became aware of the DSS retreats in Germany and from that became aware of people like Peter Keen, Christer Carlsson, and George Huber. George actually joined Execucom shortly thereafter and that’s how he got to Austin. Then in 1981 Execucom sponsored the first DSS conference, DSS-81.

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

Wagner's Response: Developing and teaching tools that decision makers can understand and use. Understanding is important because if they don’t understand “it” and see “it” they won’t use “it”.

I suppose my major contribution was the “invention” of IFPS and the DSS conferences which I started. Although IFPS has been gone for a long time there are still advocates that wish it still existed. In a way it is being reincarnated with my Planners Lab™ software. For anyone interested check out The software is free for academic institutions.

I like Paul Gray was early into GDSS. In many ways it had similarities to my early work in Policy Capturing. I tried commercialization of the concepts with VisionQuest and WebIQ but the area just never made it. Collaboration is surely still important but GDSS tools had little influence other than numerous Masters and PhD projects. It was fun stuff and people liked it. However, the enthusiasm and excitement had a very short half life after leaving the “war room”.

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

Wagner's Response: It was fun. It was a way to use my technical skills for useful purposes, i.e., interacting with real decision makers and making a difference in their lives. The “new” DSS is now a combination of art, technology, and psychology. That is really fun.

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

Wagner's Response: This would include most of the early DSS crowd such as those listed in the Pioneers. Most prominent would be Peter Keen and Professors and researchers at the 100’s of academic institutions that used IFPS.

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

Wagner's Response: DSS as I prefer to believe it should be defined had a short life. It lasted until about 1984 when Executive Information Systems came along. EIS had an emphasis on historical data vs. assumptions about the future. Since then we have been pre-occupied with looking backwards rather than forward. I believe the value of DSS is to “rehearse the future” using Peter Keen’s words. The value is not in endless volumes of historical data. Now Business Intelligence is dominant and it is also not about rehearsing the future, i.e., it is about looking backward to what has already happened.

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

Wagner's Response: Getting back to its origins and helping decision makers to see alternative futures. Start teaching modeling and logical thinking again. Professors have lost sight of that. Today they teach Excel which is an electronic calculator and not a modeling tool. We are lacking in innovation in terms of the primary focus of rehearsing the future. Data visualization has great promise but there also we are lacking innovation. We have faster, sexier, and prettier charts but they are the same old line and bar charts. There are complicated 3-D and the like but real people can’t understand those. The need is for new metaphors for visualizing business data that are intuitive and easily understood by real people.

About Jerry Wagner

In 1978, Wagner resigned from his position as tenured Professor and Head of Operations Research, College of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, to start his first software company Execucom. It became a leading force in the emerging field of Decision Support Systems. Execucom sponsored the first DSS conference and started the DSS transactions. Execucom was acquired by GTE in 1984. Dr. Wagner is known for his software including IFPS, VisionQuest, Planners Lab and WebIQ. In 2003, he founded the International Academy for Advanced Decision Support (IAADS). He is Distinguished Research Fellow, Peter Kiewit Institute, College of Information Science and Technology, University of Nebraska, Omaha. His complete resume is at the following link.


Gerald R. Wagner Reflections, DSSResources.COM, 07/22/2007.

Jerry Wagner's responses were received July 9, 2007.