Reflections of Decision Support Pioneers

Hugh J. Watson

Hugh Watson 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?

Watson's Response: When I was in graduate school in the late 1960s, MIS was just emerging as an academic discipline. B-schools offered only a few MIS courses. I remember taking a course in numerical methods in the statistics department in order to learn FORTRAN. Like many of my contemporaries, my doctoral degree wasn’t in MIS. Rather, it was in Management with an emphasis in Management Science. My early research was on computer simulation applications.

In the early 1970s I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii and started working with Ralph Sprague. Ralph got me interested in MIS in general, and DSS in particular. We wrote four or five articles and later edited a book of readings on DSS. When I returned to Georgia, I switched all of my teaching and research to MIS.

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

Watson's Response: I really see my contributions in three major areas. In fact, they reflect three different stages in my professional career. The first area was DSS. Working with Ralph Sprague, I helped developed some of the conceptual foundation for DSS and then investigated various implementation issues. This stage lasted for about ten years. Then I met George Houdeshel, the EIS Manager at Lockheed-Georgia, who introduced me to EIS and the incredible system that he had developed. For the next 10 years, EIS became the focus of my attention, and I studied key issues in how they should be developed. Then by the early 1990s, I switched to data warehousing/BI, and I’ve been studying the area ever since.

Throughout the three stages, there is a pattern. I’ve been interested in decision support and have preferred to study emerging approaches. I move on to a new area once the current one is “the old news,” as Peter Keen used to say. I like to think that I’ve been successful in providing frameworks, identifying and describing the best work being done by companies, and identifying best practices for DSS, EIS, and data warehouse/BI development.

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

Watson's Response: When I was in graduate school, Data Processing (as it was called then) wasn’t very intellectually interesting. There was much more excitement about Management Science. But as the Management Science field evolved, it focused on ever-narrower applications and more specialized algorithms. To me, it seemed to become less relevant.

DSS provided both intellectual stimulation and relevance. It provided new paradigms for thinking about and supporting decision making and was important to the world of practice. The latter has always been important to me. I’ve always wanted my research to have high “market value” in the business community. I’ve never been interested in research that “only other academics can love.” This orientation has also served me well in the classroom.

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

Watson's Response: There have been so many. As I suggested earlier, Ralph Sprague deserves a lot of credit for introducing me to DSS and being a collaborator on DSS research. George Houdeshel made me aware of EIS and taught me most of what I initially knew. Ron Swift of Teradata first introduced me to data warehousing. I’ve worked with Paul Gray on several interesting projects over the years.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a large number of great doctoral students at Georgia, and most of them have focused their research on DSS, EIS, or data warehousing. Collectively over the years, Jack Hogue, Kelly Rainer, Mark Frolick, Barbara Wixom, Thilini Ariyachandra and others have been great friends and research partners.

I’ve also been fortunate to work with the EIS Institute and The Data Warehousing Institute. These leading practitioner organizations have brought me into contact with the people and companies that are doing the best decision support work in the world.

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

Watson's Response: A couple of conclusions come to mind. First, almost everything that is touted as “new” has significant antecedents. For example, dashboards and scorecards are currently the rage. But if you are familiar the history of decision support, you know that the idea of using performance metrics to monitor what is taking place and to motivate workers is an old idea that dates back to critical success factors in the 1970s and executive information systems in the 1980s. The technology may be new and vendors may hype the ideas as new, but the basic concepts have typically been around for quite a while.

Second, the greatest days for decision support are still ahead. To date, decision support has not been an integral part of the running of most companies. Most decision support has involved analysts analyzing data and passing the findings on to others. We are starting to see decision support become more pervasive and integrated into business processes and how companies are run. Examples of this include event triggers and alerts that inform organizational personnel through a variety of digital channels about recent developments, business activity monitoring that monitors current operations, and rules engines that automate or support operational decision making. Many of the most exciting developments are due to the availability of real-time data through real-time data warehousing, enterprise application integration (EAI), and enterprise information integration (EII). It isn’t a coincidence that leading software vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP have recently made significant investments in decision support.

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

Watson's Response: A major issue is to make decision support easier to use and more accessible to everyone. This issue was recognized back in the 1970s when “easy to use” was a defining characteristic of DSS. Admittedly, back then DSS were easier than writing your own code, but they still often required a chauffeur or intermediary. Today, drillable reports and managed query environments (e.g., Hyperion, Cognos) make work life easier, but they still require training to use. In general, decision support applications have become easier to use but additional progress is still needed. For example, we have made strides with visual displays of data and data visualization but they pale in comparison to the video games that the future captains of industry play. A graph that shows actual versus budgeted cash flow does not have the same impact as a screen that shows a growing pile of dollars and audio sounds that indicate whether cash flow is meeting expectations. Google has changed our expectations for how we should be able to locate information. We should be able to “Google” any kind of decision-related information and tool. In most organizations, structured and unstructured data exist in separate silos. Users want to be able to easily access both kinds of data seamlessly. For example, a product manager who uses quantitative data and sees that an add campaign did not generate the anticipated lift might want to see the video clips of the adds that were run. We also need to make it easier for work teams to use decision support tools collaboratively

About Hugh J. Watson

Dr. Hugh J. Watson is a Professor of MIS in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia and a holder of a C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry Chair of Business Administration.

He is one of the world’s leading scholars and authorities on decision support. He is the author of 22 books and over 100 scholarly journal articles. He helped develop the conceptual foundation for decision support systems in the 1970’s and applied his knowledge and expertise to executive information systems in the 1980’s. Alan Paller, Editor of the EIS Conference Report, described Hugh as “the nation’s foremost EIS researcher…a walking encyclopedia of what works and what doesn’t.” Over the past fourteen years, Dr. Watson has specialized in BI and data warehousing.

Watson is a recognized leader in the academic community. He was conference chair for DSS-90, program chair for the 1995 Association for Information Systems conference, and serves on the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences executive committee. Dr. Watson was elected to the Decision Sciences Institute’s Executive Council, served on the Organizing Committee for the Association for Information Systems, elected as an AIS Americas Region Council Member, and was twice a candidate for AIS president. He is an AIS Fellow.

Dr. Watson is a multiple winner of the Society for Information Management’s Paper Competition. This is the field’s most prestigious award for applied information systems work. In 1986, he was awarded second place for the EIS at Lockheed-Georgia. In 1993 he won first place in the SIM competition for the methodology used to assess the benefits of the EIS at Conoco, and in 1999 he won the SIM competition for the customer-oriented data warehouse at the First American Corporation. In 2000, he won honorable mention for the business to business intelligent extranet at Owens&Minor, and in 2005 won third place for the real-time BI initiative at Continental Airlines.

Hugh Watson has consulted with numerous global organizations, including the World Bank, Intel, IBM, Arthur Andersen, Conoco, and Glaxo. He has also conducted hundreds of executive development programs.

Dr. Watson is a Fellow of The Data Warehousing Institute, the leading professional organization for BI and data warehousing professionals. He is a regular speaker at their conferences, serves as the Senior Editor of the Business Intelligence Journal, judges TDWI’s Best Practices and Leadership Competitions, and conducts TDWI sponsored research.

He is the Senior Director of the Teradata University Network, a free portal for faculty that teach and research data warehousing, BI/DSS, and database. A companion resource, the Teradata Student Network is used by students to learn about data warehousing, BI/DSS, and database.

Also, Dr. Watson is the Consulting Editor for John Wiley & Sons Computing and Information Processing series. For the past 19 years, he has helped Wiley develop all of their information systems textbooks for the college and university market. His vita (May 2007) is on line, click here.


Hugh J. Watson Reflections, DSSResources.COM, 07/06/2007.

Hugh Watson's responses were received June 26, 2007.