Decision Support Systems

Marek J. Druzdzel and Roger Flynn
Decision Systems Laboratory
School of Information Sciences
and Intelligent Systems Program
University of Pittsburgh

This is an encyclopedia article providing a view of the field of decision support systems. What follows is the introduction to the article. If this catches your interest, please see the full version (links to electronic versions are available below).


Making decisions concerning complex systems (e.g., the management of organizational operations, industrial processes, or investment portfolios; the command and control of military units; the control of nuclear power plants) often strains our cognitive capabilities. Even though individual interactions among a system's variables may be well understood, predicting how the system will react to an external manipulation such as a policy decision is often difficult. What will be, for example, the effect of introducing the third shift on a factory floor? One might expect that this will increase the plant's output by roughly 50%. Factors such as additional wages, machine weardown, maintenance breaks, raw material usage, supply logistics, and future demand also need to be considered, however, because they will all affect the total financial outcome of this decision. Many variables are involved in complex and often subtle interdependencies, and predicting the total outcome may be daunting.

There is a substantial amount of empirical evidence that human intuitive judgment and decision making can be far from optimal, and it deteriorates even further with complexity and stress. In many situations, the quality of decisions is important; therefore, aiding the deficiencies of human judgment and decision making has been a major focus of science throughout history. Disciplines such as statistics, economics, and operations research developed various methods for making rational choices. More recently, these methods, often enhanced by various techniques originating from information science, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence, have been implemented in the form of computer programs, either as stand-alone tools or as integrated computing environments for complex decision making. Such environments are often given the common name of decision support systems (DSSs). The concept of DSS is extremely broad, and its definitions vary, depending on the author's point of view. To avoid exclusion of any of the existing types of DSSs, we define them roughly as interactive computer-based systems that aid users in judgment and choice activities. Another name sometimes used as a synonym for DSS is knowledge-based systems, which refers to their attempt to formalize domain knowledge so that it is amenable to mechanized reasoning.

Decision support systems are gaining an increased popularity in various domains, including business, engineering, the military, and medicine. They are especially valuable in situations in which the amount of available information is prohibitive for the intuition of an unaided human decision maker, and in which precision and optimality are of importance. Decision support systems can aid human cognitive deficiencies by integrating various sources of information, providing intelligent access to relevant knowledge, and aiding the process of structuring decisions. They can also support choice among well-defined alternatives and build on formal approaches, such as the methods of engineering economics, operations research, statistics, and decision theory. They can also employ artificial intelligence methods to heuristically address problems that are intractable by formal techniques. Proper application of decision-making tools increases productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and gives many businesses a comparative advantage over their competitors, allowing them to make optimal choices for technological processes and their parameters, planning business operations, logistics, or investments.

Although it is difficult to overestimate the importance of various computer-based tools that are relevant to decision making (e.g., databases, planning software, spreadsheets), this article focuses primarily on the core of a DSS, the part that directly supports modeling decision problems and identifies best alternatives. We briefly discuss the characteristics of decision problems and how decision making can be supported by computer programs. We then cover various components of DSSs and the role that they play in decision support. We also introduce an emergent class of normative systems (i.e., DSSs based on sound theoretical principles), and in particular, decision-analytic DSSs. Finally, we review issues related to user interfaces to DSSs and stress the importance of user interfaces to the ultimate quality of decisions aided by computer programs.

The full paper is available in Compressed PostScript (220KB) and PDF (149KB) formats.

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