After more than 30 years of research on how the work of managers can be supported by computers, the observation that developing computer systems that are truly useful for top management is a highly complex and uncertain task is still as valid as ever. Information systems for executives raise specific problems, which have primarily to do with the nature of managerial work itself (Mintzberg, 1973), as they are intended to tackle the needs of users whose most important role is “to create a vision of the future of the company and to lead the company towards it” (King, 1985, p. xi).
The major difficulty in supporting managers with computer systems comes from the very nature of management work (Mintzberg, 1973, 1975, 1976), which is concerned with communication, coordination, and people’s management for more than 80%. At the time of his research, Mintzberg (1973) had noted how little time is left for reflection and for “playing” with computer systems. This has been a significant difficulty from the origins of MIS systems because their primarily “operational” focus was not central to executives’ concerns (Ackoff, 1967; Keen & Scott Morton, 1978). Twenty years later, this difficulty has also been largely responsible for the shift from decision support systems (DSSs) to executive information systems (EISs). EISs were intended to be very easy to use and to help users manipulate required data without the need for much training, which would be very attractive to top executives who want to have, at a glance, a very comprehensive view of their business. Specific descriptions of the differences between DSSs, EISs, and cooperative decision systems can be found in Pomerol and Brézillon (1998). Naturally, computer literacy among executives has increased to a great extent, notably thanks to the development of electronic mail and the World Wide Web. However, whatever designs were put forward over the years, it has remained true that managers are not inclined to spend countless hours browsing computer data, such is the time pressure under which they operate.
Beyond the time pressures under which executives must operate, there are issues of trust and of credibility of the information that can be found in a computer system, which mitigate against intensive executive reliance on information systems, especially in a long-term perspective. First of all, the lack of confidence of executives in their models has been noted by many researchers (e.g., Wallenius, 1975; Cats-Baril & Huber, 1987; Abualsamh, Carlin & McDaniel, 1990). The idea that decision makers need sophisticated models may actually be wrong. People in charge of the preparation of decisions would probably be able to understand and use smart models, but the high-level executives who most commonly make the final decisions are far too busy to train with and use involved systems. On the contrary, they appear to prefer simple systems that they trust and understand, and that display very timely simple information. More often, the data required to make the best decisions will already reside in some form or another in the database of the organization or can be captured with an online feed into a computer system, and what is really needed is a device to filter and display and to warn executives about the most important variances (Simon, 1977). As noted by Kleinmutz (1985): “the ability to select relevant variables seems to be more important than procedural sophistication in the processing of that information” (p. 696).
In EIS, the underlying models built into the system are normally very simple and easily understandable, which is a great help in increasing the acceptability of a computer system.
To conclude, the specificities of managerial decision making can be synthesized as follows:
Most decisions are made very quickly under considerable time pressure (except some strategic decisions).
Strategic decision making is often the result of collaborative processes.
Most decisions are linked to individuals who have specific intentions and commitments to personal principles and ideas.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Dashboard: Specific display of information that presents key information about a process or device. A dashboard may or may not be computerized.
Model: A simplified representation of reality that concentrates on predicting how a factor or a series of related factors would evolve based on the variation of a set of parameters. Also, a simplified representation of reality.
Interface: Portion of a computer application that is used by the user to communicate with the application. It is particularly important for a dashboard, because it may impinge on the ability of users to properly interpret the variations in the indicators shown to them.
Critical Success Factors: A methodology for managing projects and firms that concentrates on the areas where things must go right if the endeavor is to flourish.
This work was previously published in Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology: edited by M. Khosrow-Pour, pp. 266-271, copyright 2005 by Information Science Reference, formerly known as Idea Group Reference (an imprint of IGI Global).