Decision support systems have come a long way since the Sixties and Seventies. Time was when Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon could announce with a straight face: "There is every prospect that we will soon have the technological means, through [heuristic programming] techniques, to automate all management decisions." /1/ From battlefield strategy to commercial product development, machines would increasingly take charge.
While I suspect there is more truth to Simon's prediction than most observers allow -- after all, only a person whose own thinking processes were already largely "automated" could have ventured such a statement -- history has contravened his expectation. Now, some thirty years later, neither the battlefield commander nor the CEO is in foreseeable danger of obsolescence.
We still hear about decision support systems, of course, but they mostly attempt to offer a relatively humble suite of logistical services to the human decision maker. The buzzwords flitting about the research publications tend toward the more modest end of the spectrum: electronic meeting systems, groupware, computer-mediated deliberation, and so on. What these denote can range from simple electronic extensions of the chalkboard and the paper memorandum to ambitious, if relatively crude, gestures in the direction of Simon's original vision.
The typical meeting under this system has three phases. Using Electronic Brainstorming software and typing at their separate terminals, all members of the group record their ideas regarding the questions posted on the meeting's agenda. Although these contributions are anonymous, everyone can see the complete and growing list of ideas. Next, a vaguely described Issue Analyzer helps the group "identify and consolidate key focus items resulting from idea generation." Information from other sources can be imported during this phase. Finally, a Voting tool provides various methods for prioritizing the key items. Again, voting is anonymous, but the results are easily displayed for all to see.
The Arizona researchers report on the experimental use of this system at IBM. In one case a manager, frustrated in her attempt to iden