Decision Support Systems for Executives

Keeping a business on course and profitable requires a corporate leader to make judicious decisions at every step. It’s no surprise, then, that decision support systems (DSS), long used at the operational levels of enterprises, have matured enough to become part of executives’ everyday tools.

“Although some people think the term DSS is dated — preferring to call it business intelligence, performance management, executive information system or some other name — DSS is still a useful way to inclusively describe a broad variety of automated systems specifically designed to support decision-making,” says Dan Power, editor of Decision Support Systems Resources, based in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The Difference Is in the Data

When compared to DSS systems designed for the rank-and-file, executive DSS systems are much more visual. They focus on graphical representations of key metrics to help executives digest a lot of information quickly, according to William McKnight, senior vice president of information management at CSI, a systems consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. “In many, if not most cases, executives don’t have the time to drill down into the data, but instead want to get to a quick conclusion,” he says.

Another key difference is that executives tend not to need real-time data as much as operating employees. “Up-to-the-minute information is less important than having ready access on figures for the month, the week, or perhaps the close of business the day before,” McKnight says.

Although DSS technology is fairly mature, there have been recent advances in terms of portability: Web-based systems that can be accessed from anywhere using a standard web browser and executive dashboards that can be viewed on cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) are making DSS a truly ubiquitous tool for IT executives who are frequently on the road.

Changing Behaviors to Better Exploit the Tools

The biggest challenges for organizations wishing to put executive DSS systems in place are behavioral rather than technical. “There are still some things that executives don’t want to use a computer for — they’d prefer to get certain information in paper form,” says Power. “Also, what is the culture of the company? Is it fact-driven? If so, DSS systems probably will be more successful than if executives like to make decisions based on intuition.”

A secondary, but equally critical, concern is getting the data in shape. “Although it’s pretty common these days for companies to have data warehouses, databases can sometimes be built specifically for DSS systems,” says McKnight. “In either case, making sure that the data is well integrated, clean and kept up to date is essential.”

Implementing DSS for the executive suite can motivate senior managers to rethink and re-engineer their business processes. “At first, it’s smart to design your DSS systems so that they fit into executives’ existing routines,” says McKnight. “But eventually, if the DSS developers do a good job, the tools will encourage executives to modify their behavior to make the most of the rich information being captured and stored by the organization.”

Ultimately, however, the real risk related to DSS is not doing it. “Some industries haven’t yet moved to DSS, but that number is decreasing. The danger is that a competitor will make good use of DSS, will be more responsive to market conditions and will steal market share from you,” said Power. “This isn’t to say that you are guaranteed to be successful if you’ve put DSS into place — there are no such guarantees — but it’s fast becoming a mandatory technology for individuals leading large complex companies.”