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Book Contents

Ch. 3
Analyzing Business Decision Processes

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An Executive's Perspective on Automating Decision Processes from 1967

I am influenced by personal experience, even in this still unautomated world, of the power of the measurable to drawf the nonmeasurable. I recall times when I have criticized some forecast or estimate for omitting some variable which must obviously be relevant to the result and have been answered--"We couldn't include that; we couldn't put a value on it." And if I objected--"But by omitting it, you have valued it at zero; and you know that is the only value it cannot have." The answer given in the sad, patient voice which the professional keeps for the amateur--would be--"No; we haven't valued it; we have only omitted it." And then, triumphantly--"look, one of the footnotes says so."

I fear the alluring possibilities of automating decision processes, first, because the decisions which lend themselves to be so treated are decisions about the best means to reach given ends, where the criteria by which means are judged best are given, like the "ends," at the outset. I believe that no important decisions are of this type and that those which appear to be so usually conceal more important questions which ought to be dealt with first. I fear that automation will further bury these essential issues. Intractable problems are usually solved by being re-stated; their "facts" are found to be irrelevant. Vast, vested interests resist such re-statements; and I fear that automation will make these vaster still. Most of all, I fear the possibilities of automated decision making, because I believe that the criteria which determine decisions are only evolved by the process of decision itself and that this process, so tedious and necessarily half-conscious, will be further jeopardized by the appearance of the new technique and the new mystique, with its panache of certainty (Vickers, 1967, pp. 144-145).

Questions for discussion:

  1. Are Vickers's fears warranted?
  2. In what organizations, at what levels, and for what problems are his concerns possibly well founded?
  3. What can be done to avoid the problems Vickers anticipates?

Thanks to Karl E. Weick whose paper in the Harvard Business School Research Colloquium "The Information Systems Research Challenge" in 1984 brought this quote from Vickers to my attention.

Vickers, G. Towards a Sociology of Management. New York: Basic Books, 1967.

 

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