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The difference between decision support systems and decision support services

The difference between decision support systems and decision support services
Decision support services enable decision support systems to be effective

Decision support services are distinctly different from decision support systems. Effective decision support takes both. If you have one but not the other, you have nothing.

The idea of decision support is a simple one. We all need to make decisions, and to do so we rely on information that is relevant and insightful. Information that is useful in decision making comes in many forms. Expert experience, scientific understanding, heuristics, cultural norms, advice from colleagues, friends, family, major influencers and other sources too numerous to list.

What decision makers need to know

Certain types of decisions are obviously more important than others. This is particularly true for the choices that have to be made in the spheres of business and government. These decisions can have a big influence on the lives of others and on the environments in which we all live. It’s no wonder that people with such responsibility need to be sure they’re making the best possible decisions using what they consider to be the best information available.

The role of decision support

This is where decision support plays a critical role. Decision support systems and services deliver information to a decision maker about the context in which they must make their choices. For example, if you’re trying to decide what products to sell, then it’s going to be very helpful to have information that tells you what people want and how your product can help them. A system and service that provides that kind of insight to a decision maker is delivering decision support.

Decision support systems

A decision support system is a computer-based system for collecting information and providing it to a decision maker in a way that tells that person something about the circumstances in which they’re operating. The key premise of the decision support system is that the system, to be truly useful, must provide the decision maker with information that couldn’t be provided – whether it simply couldn’t be generated at all, or couldn’t be analysed and delivered in the form needed – without the system.

A decision support system is all about technology and how it serves the user. The quality of a decision support system comes down to how well you build the computer infrastructure. Designing the system takes into account computer architecture, software design and the functionality and usability of the system. Fundamentally, decision support systems are computer-based, and so everything that applies to the design and development of computer-based systems by definition applies to the development of decision support systems.

A key principle of decision support is that the information provided is sourced directly from the environments that are relevant to the decisions in question. When it comes to collecting the information, processing it and delivering it to a manager in a timeframe that is optimal for making a decision, computer technology is essential. If you aren’t exclusively using a computer system to provide context-relevant information, then you aren’t actually providing decision support. You’re providing some other form of service such as legal support, processing, capability development or mentorship.

Decision support services

A decision support service is the ‘wrapping’ that enables a decision support system to have real-life impact. The decision support service ensures the continual improvement and upkeep of the decision support system. It creates the necessary alignment between organisational structures and the decision making culture in which the decision maker works. Services help decision makers get the people who work for them through the learning curve that is inevitably required in order to get the best out of a decision support system.

A key fact about decisions, particularly in organisations today, is that context and environment are always changing. There’s a constant feedback mechanism between decision support systems and the environment in which decisions are made. When somebody makes a decision, that changes the context and the environment in which the decision maker operates. A decision changes what is implicitly valuable and what goes into providing effective decision support. And it means your system has to change. It won’t change on its own.

In the absence of the decision support services that are required to maintain it, even the most useful and powerful decision support system will go out of date. Another reason those services are absolutely essential is because, as I said earlier, decision support systems are computer-based. As we all know, computer technology gets out of date quickly. Operating systems are always being upgraded. Mobile devices and the computer technology that they operate with are constantly improved over time. Accordingly, you absolutely must upgrade and improve your computer decision support system. This is a key task for decision support services.

Services and systems together!

Decision support services and decision support systems are two very distinct and different things, and they very much involve different skill sets. When creating a decision support system, the focus is on technology. Software development methods and capabilities are key determinants for a first-class decision support system. But when creating a decision support service, the focus must be on people: how decision makers interact with the system, organisational culture, behavioural change, learning and decision making psychology.

Decision support systems and decision support services are very different animals. But one without the other is just a wasted investment. An organisation that understands how to create each, and how to integrate them, will have the best imaginable source of useful decision making information.

And that makes all the difference.


Photo Credit: 'wocintech (microsoft) - 62' by WOCinTech Chat on Flickr. CC by 2-0. 

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.