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What are decision support systems and services?

What are decision support systems and services?
Decision support systems and services enable people to make good choices

Decision support systems and services (DSSS) are increasingly important for informing decision makers about how their world is working. First-class decision support begins with understanding exactly what decision support is.

Today’s decision support systems and services have been around for as long as computer technology. In agriculture, for example, the first systems for decision support appeared only a few years after the invention of the computer circuit – about 10 years before the invention of the first personal computer.

Over the years, the defining characteristics of decision support have grown and evolved. Today, management makes very few major, strategic decisions without the assistance of some form of decision support system or service.

AGContext defines ‘decision support’ as:

“the provision of information to a decision maker about the circumstances relevant and important to a decision.”

Decision support systems and services support decision makers as they grapple with the many complex issues involved in modern day management.

Characteristics of decision support

Decision support is a specialised subset in the world of information and communications technology. Decision support systems and services have these key defining characteristics.:

  1. They provide information about, and relevant to, the context in which a decision maker operates.
  2. They deliver information that cannot otherwise be generated or accessed.
  3. They integrate technology, policy and knowledge into a streamlined and efficient process.

Benefits of decision support systems and services

People can benefit from decision support when they need:

  1. support in managing complexity;
  2. support in dealing with uncertainty;
  3. assistance in managing risk;
  4. help in obtaining information;
  5. help in understanding information.

Common problems with decision support systems and services.

Decision support systems and services fail to meet the needs of decision makers when they are:

  1. not aligned with the objectives of the decision maker;
  2. focused on generic rather than personalised solutions;
  3. complex and hard to use;
  4. offered without the support required to learn about them and use them effectively.

Components of decision support systems and services

Decision support is made up of two broad components.

SYSTEMS are the computer-based information systems that enable or facilitate information transfer to the decision maker. At the heart of every decision support service is a decision support system. This can be GIS, the cloud, big data, CRM or some other system that collects, stores, analyses and presents information that is useful to the people who make decisions.

SERVICES are the systems of decision support, plus the people. A decision support service encompasses the people who facilitate the use of, provide access to, or advise based on the outputs of, a decision support system. Decision support services include the organisations, expertise, relationships, documentation and support materials that enable a decision support system to be useful, usable and available to a decision maker.

Are you providing a decision support service?

Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do you provide your clients with information?
  2. Is your information relevant to a decision your client needs to make?
  3. Is your information sourced from and/or directly relevant to the living contexts of whatever or whomever is going to be directly impacted by the decisions you seek to support?

If you are unable to respond with an honest and definite YES to all three of these questions, then you aren’t providing ‘decision support’ as such. Instead, you are probably doing something else that is just as valuable, such as change management, continuous improvement, awareness raising, marketing, automation or capability building. While all of these may benefit from using decision support systems and services, they are not in and of themselves a decision support system or service.

What does success in DSSS look like?

Decision support information can be assessed against five critical success factors:

  1. Usefulness: It enables you to do tasks in ways that are otherwise impossible or less effective.
  2. Usability: It is user friendly, enjoyable to use and generally requires minimal effort.
  3. Availability: It is documented and supported, for example by help desk, training or on-line groups.
  4. Alignment: The policies, procedures and processes of your business align with the functions of the service.
  5. Authority: Those responsible for using the service have the necessary authority to do so effectively.

The future

Decision support systems and services help decision makers understand, manage and respond to the increasingly demanding and complex operational context in which they make decisions.  The creation of decision support systems and services therefore must be highly attuned and responsive to changes in that operational context. A decision support service that is highly useful and relevant today may be entirely irrelevant tomorrow. The changing nature of decisional contexts means that the systems and services that support decisions must also be continually maintained and resourced. This is a great challenge for organisations that seek to benefit from the many advantages of decision support.

Creating a decision support system is not just limited to building the required information technology infrastructure. You also have to create and maintain a network of people to provide the services that maintain the system into the future.

Creating a decision support system is the easy part. Creating decision support services is much more challenging. In fact most decision support systems ultimately become irrelevant because the services they require weren’t properly implemented.


Photo Credit: 'Visitors at USDA's Farmers Market on iPad' by U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr. CC by 2-0. 
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Carl Sudholz

Principled Leader at AGContext
Carl Sudholz has over ten years' experience in creating decision support systems and decision support services for public, private and non-for-profit organisations. Carl holds a Bachelor of Science, a Masters of Sustainable Practice and certifications in PRINCE2 Project Management and Business Analysis. Carl's expertise in the methods of creating first-class decision support services is a rare commodity. Especially so, because in this increasingly complex age of big problems, decision support services are ever more important to deliver but ever more difficult to create.