DSS News 
                    D. J. Power, Editor 
             September 12, 2004 -- Vol. 5, No. 19
         A Bi-Weekly Publication of DSSResources.COM 


      Check the article by Todd Freter "XML: Document 
      and Information Management" at DSSResources.COM


* Ask Dan! - What is a DSS?
* What's New at DSSResources.COM
* DSS News Releases


Ask Dan!

What is a DSS?
by Dan Power

The Ask Dan Frequently Asked Questions page at DSSResources.COM has more than 100
questions and about 10% deal with terms related to decision support systems and
with differentiating one term or concept relevant to DSS from another. Is a Data
Warehouse a DSS? What are Analytical Information Systems? What are the main
differences between GDSS and Groupware? What is a Spreadsheet-based DSS? What is
business intelligence? What is data mining and how is it related to DSS?

The question "What is a DSS?" is a fundamental question and one that I and many
others have addressed over the years. The Ask Dan FAQ page lists the question,
but until now the question and answer has not appeared in DSS News. What prompts
the current response? Recently John Wen asked on the Free DSS Forum about the
difference between a DSS and a DSS generator. It seems appropriate to start with
a clarification of the term decision support system and the associated acronym
DSS before drawing any further distinctions. 

In a "long ago" DSS forum posting of Friday, January 16, 1998, I raised the
following issues: "What are the pluses and minuses of using the term decision
support systems or DSS as an all inclusive term for more specialized systems like
enterprise-wide DSS, data warehouses, OLAP, desktop data bases with query tools,
spreadsheet financial models, visual simulation models, optimization models built
using a management science package, knowledge management tools for indexing and
searching text data bases, web information systems that support management
decision making, management expert systems and groupware?" My 1997 practitioner
paper titled "What is a DSS?" had basically concluded DSS should be used as an
all inclusive term for these more specialized systems.

At that time, I noted in the forum "My approach is to define DSS as a
meta-category. DSS is a category like fruit is for apples and oranges. It is my
perception that DSS is a general term that will be more understandable to non-IS
staff in an organization. We have many 'buzz' words that we can use with
technical people that are related to the broad, general category -- Decision
Support Systems (DSS). DSS can be categorized in many ways. Data-driven DSS
emphasize a data warehouse and OLAP tools and model-driven DSS emphasize
simulation, operations research, and spreadsheet financial models."

Renae Houck replied January 21, 1998 "I believe (and I assume most IS
professionals would agree) that the term 'decision support systems' is too broad
of a phrase to define what most systems are trying to accomplish. Using more
specific terms such as OLAP and data warehouses are needed so we can understand
each other. However we must always remember that when speaking to end-users we
need to simplify complex jargon. Most of the people in this class do not really
know what a "visual simulation model" or a "knowledge management tool" is so we
should not expect people who do not have a lot of technical skills to be able to
understand these terms either." Kandy Jones followed up on January 26, 1998 "It
is my understanding that Data Warehouses are used to store and manage data. Some
of the other applications mentioned collect the data that is stored by the
warehouses. Other applications use the data to assist managers in making informed
decisions about the business. These are all very different functions that are
related. Using DSS as a term that describes all of them would not be correct
unless it was accepted as a category, such as fruit is for apples and oranges." 

Consultant Larry Greenfield noted some time ago in a short paper at his Website,
Data Warehousing Information Center (, "Business intelligence
seems to have become the vendors' preferred synonym for decision support. My
guess is because decision support has an academic connotation and, as just
mentioned, decision support systems do not necessarily support decisions. On the
other hand, business intelligence systems do not necessarily make a business more

Some vendors like Information Builders do use a broad definition of DSS like the
one advocated by Ralph Sprague and Eric Carlson more than 20 years ago and
similar to the definition used at DSSResources.COM. Sprague and Carlson (1982)
stated "DSS comprise a class of information system that draws on transaction
processing systems and interacts with the other parts of the overall information
system to support the decision-making activities of managers and other knowledge
workers in organizations (p. 9)." In general, Decision Support Systems (DSS) are
a specific class of computerized information system that supports business and
organizational decision-making activities. A DSS is an interactive software-based
system intended to help decision makers compile, analyze and manipulate
information from raw data, documents, knowledge frameworks, and/or business
models to identify and solve problems and make decisions. A DSS is a specific
software/hardware system for use in a specific situation as part of a decision

Techtarget.COM defines a decision support system as "a computer program
application that analyzes business data and presents it so that users can make
business decisions more easily. It is an 'informational application' (in
distinction to an 'operational application' that collects the data in the course
of normal business operation). A decision support system may present information
graphically and may include an expert system or artificial intelligence (AI). It
may be aimed at business executives or some other group of knowledge workers."

In the late 1990s, Techweb defined a Decision Support System (DSS) as "an
information and planning system that provides the ability to interrogate
computers on an ad hoc basis, analyze information and predict the impact of
decisions before they are made. DBMSs let you select data and derive information
for reporting and analysis. Spreadsheets and modeling programs provide both
analysis and "what if?" planning. However, any single application that supports
decision making is not a DSS. A DSS is a cohesive and integrated set of programs
that share data and information. A DSS might also retrieve industry data from
external sources that can be compared and used for historical and statistical
purposes. An integrated DSS directly impacts management's decision-making process
and can be a very cost-beneficial computer application."

In an online glossary at IBM Developerworks decision support system (DSS) is
defined as "one of a number of older synonyms for applications and data used to
support decision-making and business management processes, now broadly called
business intelligence systems. Check URL
. The same glossary states "Business Intelligence (BI) is the gathering,
management and analysis of vast amounts of data in order to gain insights to
drive strategic business decisions, and to support operational processes with new
functions. BI is about the development of information that is conclusive, fact
based, and actionable. It includes technology practices like data warehouses,
data marts, data mining, text mining, and on-line analytical processing (OLAP).
The objective of a BI solution is to transform data into useful information, such
as customer profiles, buying habits, product profitability and competitive
analysis. It may involve analyzing volumes of data for unsuspected, but valuable,
associations and insight. It includes streamlining data into useful reports and
sharing that information with people inside and outside the organization who need
that information." The IBM definition builds on its data-driven approach to DSS
first advocated in the 1980s with the introduction of DB2.

Why is it important to differentiate different types of decision support systems?
The more that DSS impact us, the more important it is to draw distinctions.
Distinctions among DSS can help target the right decision support capability to a
specific need. Drawing meaningful distinctions can assist in understanding what
specic type of DSS works and when. Clarifying our terms can also improve
Information Systems teaching and research. We need to periodically revisit
fundamental terms to help us grapple with the growing complexity of computerized
systems and to help explain what is possible and what is desirable. Why shouldn't
we adopt a new term like business intelligence and abandon the term decision
support system? Is DSS an archaic synonym? Providing intelligence information to
managers about the status, operations and environment of a business is a
worthwhile goal and a purpose for a specific DSS. My preference for naming DSS
with such a purpose is to call them data-driven DSS. It is easy to fall to the
temptation of changing the labels on our computerized information systems to stay
current with vendor nomenclature. We must resist that temptation. Maintaining an
historical continuity in our nomenclature and terminology helps make sense of
what we observe.

So what are we trying to do by expanding and more explicitly defining concepts
related to computerized decision support?  The computing technologies that are
used to build DSS are evolving and becoming more powerful and more sophisticated.
Hence new systems are being developed that better meet long standing needs and
that meet new needs derived from a more complex organizational environment. For
those of us who build and try to understand computerized decision support our
vocabulary needs to become more sophisticated and we need to differentiate types
of DSS in more elaborate and more meaningful ways.  Our DSS language is evolving
and becoming more differentiated.  Like the Eskimos who developed many words in
their language to describe the different types of snow, we need to develop word
phrases to describe the many types of DSS.  The phrase "decision support system"
like the word "snow" remains useful, but it is not adequate to capture the
evolving reality of DSS. The Eskimos speak of "anniu" meaning "falling snow" and
"api" meaning "ground snow" and "salumaroaq" meaning "smooth snowy surface of
fine particles". We need to add adjectives to enhance the descriptions of our

In general, we who are interested in DSS should become more precise and more
specific when we discuss a specific DSS.  Are we discussing, investigating or
building a data-driven, web-based DSS for providing business intelligence, or a
web-based, document-driven DSS to assist in managing operational risk, or a
spreadsheet-based, model-driven DSS for cost estimation.  It is no longer
adequate to speak in broad generalities about decision support systems or
business intelligence.


Greenfield, L. "A Definition of Decision Support,", last updated on 01/23/04.

Power, D. J. "What is a DSS?". DSstar, The On-Line Executive Journal for
Data-Intensive Decision Support, October 21, 1997: Vol. 1, No. 3. 

Power, D. "Is a Data Warehouse a DSS?" DSS News, 02/17/2002.

Power, D. "What are Analytical Information Systems?" DSS News,  10/21/2001

Power, D. "What are the main differences between GDSS and Groupware?" DSS News,

Power, D. "What is a Spreadsheet-based DSS?" DSS News, 03/17/2002

Power, D. "What is business intelligence?" DSS News, 11/04/2001

Power, D. "What is data mining and how is it related to DSS?" DSS News,

Sprague, R. and E. Carlson, Building Effective Decision Support Systems,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982.

For more information about Eskimos and snow terms check or check Woodbury  at


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What's New at DSSResources.COM

09/03/2004 Posted article by Todd Freter, "XML: Document and Information
Management". Check the articles page.


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