The next generation of decision support. (decision support computer systems)by Juras, Paul E.
A great deal of attention has recently been given to what are known as expert systems and decision support systems (DSS). These systems differ in focus and in their capabilities and limitations, but both have gained popularity as a result of their ability to potentially improve decision making. See Exhibit 1 for a comparison of these two types of systems.
It would be hard to argue against the development of tools to aid in decision making, but what is required to improve decision making ability? In the 1981 publication entitled Accounting and Human Information Processing: Theory and Applications, the author identifies three alternatives for improving decision making:
1. Provide different (better) information.
2. Educate the user as to decision methods.
3. Automate the decision process. Unfortunately, neither a DSS nor an expert system can support all three alternatives on its own. Whereas DSS can probably best be identified as supporting alternative (1), expert systems are probably most supportive of alternatives (2) and (3). See Exhibit 2 for a summar of their benefits as decision aids.
Simply stated, expert systems are programs that can emulate the decision making ability of an expert or a group of experts. Development of such a system is a resource-intensive task that requires a well- structured problem domain. Consequently, much of the emphasis in the accounting field has been in the area of auditing applications since GAAP provide a degree of structure to the auditing process. However, in the auditing profession a CPA cannot completely delegate decision making responsibility to such a system. The audit opinion is an expression of the opinion of the auditor and no computer system can take the place of the decision maker who must take full responsibility for an outcome. In addition, relinquishing decision making responsibility to an expert system may hinder the development of expertise on the part of staff members that rely upon such systems. Because expert systems are relatively new, we do not yet have any knowledge as to the effects of long term use of expert systems by decision makers.
This is not to say that expert systems do not have a place in the audit world, it simply means that the traditional emphasis of the expert system replacing the decision makers must be reexamined.
Decision Support System (DSS)
A decision support system, as its name implies, is used to support decision making and is not intended to replace t the decision maker. In fact, a DSS works under the assumption that the decision maker is familiar with the problem to be solved and the data required for its solution. The DSS itself simply supports the examination of alternatives. Hopefully, performance can be improved through a "what if" analysis since the computer based DSS speeds up such analysis and related calculations.
The DSS is composed of three primary parts, an interface, a database, and a model base. See Exhibit 3 for a description of each component.
Intelligent Decision Support
The main point of this article concerns the development of the next generation of DSS which I call intelligent decision support systems (IDSS).
The typical approach to decision making follows these procedures:
* Specify the objective or problem;
* Obtain data;
* Generate alternatives;
* Evaluate alternatives;
* Select an alternative;
* Implement the selected alternative;
* Obtain feedback on the implemented alternative.
Decision making in general can be improved if one or more of these procedures can be simplified or automated. It may be possible to extend the capabilities of each of the three components of a DSS through integration with an expert system to achieve such simplification. In effect, the expert system would be acting in an advisory capacity during several of the decision making procedures in much the same way as a supervisor. Since the decision maker must define the problem, the variables, and the decision model to solve the problem, an expert system could be called upon to offer suggestions for various alternatives to be considered, as well as justification for the suggestion. Hopefully, the result would be synergistic.
Looking at some specific benefits of integration we see that the expert system can perform reasoning operations on the database, thus making it easier to manage, and maybe even improving its capabilities. The expert system can also provide for natural language interface which means that the user does not need to know formal computer language to interact with the system. A request could be entered in plain English and the system would be able to understand and process the request.
The explanation capabilities of the expert system would also prove useful since it could not only identify appropriate decision models but also provide explanations as to why they were suggested, how they are used, and their underlying assumptions. The expert system could also call up specialized models that may have been previously created by a decision maker to solve similar tasks.
Since the IDSS is a higher order DSS the decision maker is still responsible for going through the decision making procedures previously identified. The IDSS gives full control to the user regarding information acquisition, evaluation, and making the final decision. Since the decision process is not completely automated the user is developing decision making skills. Unfortunately, the decision maker may inject personal bias into the function. The expert system on the other hand, is free of such human bias and therefore, when called upon for assistance, may give more consistent decisions on the part of the decision maker. In fact, the expert system could bring a certain amount of expertise to each decision within its domain which could in turn help compensate for varying degrees of capability among the decision makers using the system.
This integration approach to developing an IDSS is promising, but be aware that it is not without its problems. The focus and development of a DSS and an expert system differ, so it may prove difficult to integrate the two technologies. What one must keep in mind is that the focus should be on the economic benefit of the IDSS and not on unrealistic expectations.
New Accounting Software Series
ACCOUNTING PLUS Version 8 is designed to handle the specific needs of the retail industry, wholesale industry and service businesses. The system has been designed for easy use, produces an audit trail, and includes such features as windowing and a pop-up calculator.
The retail system provides point-of-sale technology, as well as an interface to light pens and other bar code readers, cash registers and receipt slip printers. It includes inventory, purchasing and general accounting modules.
The wholesale system handles sales order entry and invoice generation, along with an inventory module that provides up to four pricing levels and eight million item numbers. The service system can handle recurring charges for monthly invoicing and permits user-defined service codes for detailed invoicing. Systems Plus, Inc. 500 Clyde Avenue Mountain View, CA 94043 415-969-7047
* Requirements: IBM microcomputers or compatibles.
* Price: Check with vendor.
Data Transfer Utility
BROOKLYN BRIDGE, a file transfer utility from White Crane Systems is now available in a parallel version which moves data at up to 50 kilobytes per second. Using parallel ports and the supplied cable, the package can transfer files between computers up to 15 feet apart. For distances up to 50 feet, the original serial version can still be used, which transfer files at up to 10 kilobytes per second.
The package requires just 5K of RAM and consists of file transfer software on a 5.25 inch disk for desktop computers, a 3.5 inch disk for laptop or IBM PS/2 computers, and a choice of a serial or parallel cable to connect the two computers. The program has a file manager that uses 1-2-3 style menus to "point and shoot" from 150 file management functions. Experienced users can bypass the file manager by entering file transfer commands at the DOS prompt. White Crane Systems 6889 Peachtree Ind. Boulevard, #151 Norcross, GA 30092 404-394-3119
* Price: $139.95.
Special Software Promotion
Great American Software has announced the availability of a ONE-WRITE- PLUS "toolkit" created specifically for accountants. Called the ACCOUNTANTS DESK COPY, the toolkit is a complete access and reference tool for use with ONE-WRITE-PLUS accounting software. ONE-WRITE-PLUS emulates on a computer the standard manual one-write system long used by accountants.
The ACCOUNTANTS DESK COPY comes with the ONE-WRITE-PLUS Master Module (General Ledger, Checks and Receipts) as well as FINANCIAL STATEMENT EDITOR and DATALINK. FINANCIAL STATEMENT EDITOR allows accountants to customize the system's financial statements, account ranges and headings. DATALINK is a conversion module that exports client data to spreadsheets and word processors for further analysis and reporting. Great American Software, Inc. 9 Columbia Drive Amherst, NH 03031 603- 889-5400
* Requirements: IBM compatible microcomputer.
* Price: $59.
Business Planning Software
A new way to devise a business plan is available in the software package, BUSINESS PLAN EXPERT from Expert Technologies. Using a question-and-answer format, the software takes the user through key areas of a business plan, such as company information, products, marketing strategies, operating strategy and planning assumptions.
BUSINESS PLAN EXPERT can be applied to all types of businesses and works at any stage of the life cycle of a business. After answering the questions, the user can print out a business strategy profile that can serve as the backbone for a business plan. The software can also be used to update an existing business plan. Expert Technologies 3618 Burlington Houston, TX 77006 713-526-0909
* Requirements: IBM PC or compatible microcomputer with 256K of memory, using DOS 2.0 or higher.
* Price: $195.
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