Reflections of Decision Support Pioneers

Clyde Holsapple

Clyde Holsapple 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?

Holsapple's Response: Decision Support has an ancient history. Decision makers have always surrounded themselves with specialist staff to provide information as a crucial aid to decision making. In the army, for example, the decision support function was provide by the adjutant. The path began in the late 1960s while pursuing a mathematics degree, focusing on mathematical proofs dealing with number theory, but having an opportunity to take some computer science courses along the way. Following an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1972, the path continued with work on an MS in computer science at the country’s first CS department. One of the courses in this program dealt with computer modeling of large social systems. Taught by Andy Whinston, this course was my initial encounter with the concept of decision support systems. It was the fortuitous spark that ignited decades of interest in computer-based decision support. This interest was actively stimulated by Andy to the point of a DSS doctoral dissertation in the 1970s, and continuing well beyond – involving many collaborative research ventures with Andy.

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

Holsapple's Response: The work has largely concerned contributions to the theoretical foundations of the field, along with practical implications built on that foundation. These contributions include a generic architecture for DSSs that is not confined to database and model base techniques; origination of the generalized problem processor concept, along with designs for software integration that led to its commercial implementation; conception of intelligent decision support systems, coupled with demonstrations of how such systems can work; introduction of the idea of organizational DSSs in the 1970s, further developed into the knowledge-based organization architecture in the 1980s as a prelude to Web-based, distributed DSSs, and more recently enterprise DSSs; recognition of knowledge management as a fundamental underpinning of decision support systems; creation of the knowledge management ontology for informing DSS research and practice; introduction of the knowledge chain theory and science of competitiveness – in which DSSs can be instrumental.

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

Holsapple's Response: It is personally interesting, aligned with the academic background, presents many little-explored frontiers, and its progress is of great importance relative to the way work gets done.

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

Holsapple's Response: There have been too many important collaborators to individually name. Moreover, trying to somehow separate out individual contributions to a collaborative research effort is a useless exercise. The fact of the matter is that the result of such effort is shared by all, and to a very large extent, is an effluence of our interactions as collaborators.

Of course, as the key mentor, Andy Whinston has been the most important research collaborator. Bob Bonczek was a major contributor to our collaborative team up until the DSS community lost his special insights and enthusiasm via his premature passing. Over the last 25 years there have been over 75 research collaborators in the course of working on doctoral dissertation committees. A substantial portion of these collaborations have led to new streams of research related to advances in decision support systems. There have also been numerous faculty colleagues with whom research collaborations have unfolded.

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

Holsapple's Response: From a practical standpoint, decision support systems have become so widespread in use as to be almost invisible – supporting decisions of consumers, managers, groups, enterprises, and inter-organizational systems such as supply chains. From a commercial standpoint, many vendors have been quite successful in developing and marketing DSS software and services – with recent major consolidation in this sector indicating DSS importance to strategies of such firms as IBM, Oracle, and SAP. From a scholarly standpoint, we see that the DSS field has become a major expansion of the IS discipline, going well beyond its important predecessors of data processing and management information systems, becoming heavily interrelated with newer IS expansions such as organizational computing, electronic commerce, and pervasive computing. Advances in the DSS area have had major impacts on the productivity, agility, innovativeness, and reputation of decision processes and their outcomes. Continuing advances will extend impacts in these directions.

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

Holsapple's Response: Many of these issues have been aired in the heavily-cited article by Shim et al. appearing in Decision Support Systems. More recently, a multitude of future issues are raised in the 2-volume Handbook on Decision Support Systems.

One of the issues for which there is a particular opportunity to have a major impact is to better understand the relationship between DSS features and usage on the one hand and decision-maker competitiveness and performance on the other.

From a completely different perspective, there is the issue of how research on decision support systems is regarded within the IS field. All too often, it is treated as a side show, rather than a key component at the heart of IS research. All too often, IS researchers who apparently are not very familiar with the DSS area miss opportunities to enhance their research by recognizing its potential for connections to DSSs. There is a need for them to greatly improve the depth of their familiarity with the DSS research literature – for enriching their own research and for improving their capabilities as reviewers of DSS-related manuscripts.

One last issue important for continuing development of the DSS field concerns the attitudes of those who perform and evaluate research. So far, the field has tended to benefit from an inclusive attitude that welcomes innovation, recognizes the applicability of diverse methodologies, and is open to provocative/stimulative work. Back in the early days of DSSs, Herbert Simon pointed out that such an attitude is important for the field’s progress. More recently, the Editor of Management Science, Wallace Hopp, points out that it is not at all uncommon for some “leading” periodicals (in disciplines covered by this multidiscipline journal) to become encrusted with convention – enforcing conformance at the expense of exploration and innovation. It is important for DSS researchers not to fall into such a predicament, but to press onward with a pioneering attitude that makes forays into the intellectual wilderness – in efforts to see, understand, and map out new DSS possibilities – rather than incrementally treading along well-worn paths of conformance.

About Clyde W. Holsapple

Professor Holsapple holds the Rosenthal Endowed Chair in Management Information Systems and is Professor of Decision Science and Information Systems at the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on supporting knowledge work, particularly in decision-making contexts. He has authored over 100 research articles in journals such as Decision Sciences, Operations Research, Decision Support Systems, Journal of Management Information Systems, Group Decision and Negotiation, Journal of Operations Management, Organization Science, Communications of the ACM, Journal of American Society for Information Science and Technology, Knowledge and Process Management, Journal of Knowledge Management, and IEEE journals. His many books include Foundations of Decision Support Systems, Decision Support Systems: A Knowledge-Based Approach, and the 2-volume Handbook on Knowledge Management, a basic reference work. He has served as Editor of Journal of Organizational Computing and Electronic Commerce, Area Editor of Decision Support Systems and INFORMS Journal on Computing, and Associate Editor of Management Science.

DSS References

Burstein, F. and C. W. Holsapple, Handbook on Decision Support Systems, 2 volumes, Springer, 2008.

Shim, J.P., Merrill Warkentin, James F. Courtney, Daniel J. Power, Ramesh Sharda and Christer Carlsson, "Past, present, and future of decision support technology," Decision Support Systems, v.33 n.2, p. 111-126, June 2002.


Clyde W. Holsapple's Reflections, DSSResources.COM, 4/27/2008

Clyde Holsapple's reflections responses were received March 1, 2008.