Business Intelligence: What Are You Thinking?

Most of the businesspeople I know use Google Trends—an online tool that allows ordinary people to compare the frequency of Google search terms— to check out how an idea is resonating with the market, running multiple quick analyses to get an understanding of relative trends. I see this as an example of a new class of tools I call “thinking support,” a kind of pre-decision support option that fits within the strategic management process.

I believe routine business decisions should be as automated as possible. After all, when a decision is routine and you understand the rules well enough, that decision can be made by software—using a decision engine—acting on those rules in a consistent, unbiased and auditable fashion. We’ve seen a lot of examples of this over the past few years, such as program trading in securities, granting consumer credit, mortgage origination, inventory management, and support-desk escalation processes. But there are many more opportunities: markdown-pricing decisions—in fact any pricing decision—merchandise-mix planning, resource scheduling.

Because this is a new category, these tools tend to be a collection of not-yet-very-well-connected ideas from different sources. Take a look at the work going on at such diverse places as Applied Minds, The Swiss Institute of Technology, Group Systems, Minciu Sodas and Ventana Systems for a taste of the different types of thinking-support tools that are available. Overall, these tools do several useful and important things:

  • First, they let you (as an individual or, increasingly often, as a group) “doodle” ideas in the decision space and let the decision-space boundaries be sufficiently fuzzy so you can go off in unplanned directions if you need to.

  • Second, in answer to your relatively ill-formed questions, they “show” you what’s going on so you can look for patterns (or lack of patterns) that help you navigate to a decision model.

  • Third, they let you quickly build and run simulations, or ask “what if” questions about the impact of your thinking on the current state of the world (or at least your business process). Simulations add the time dimension to an otherwise “flat” decision space, so you can catch ideas that will “run away” or “die out” over time if they are not actively managed.

  • Fourth, they apply theory-of-constraints models to the outcomes of your simulations, so you can judge feasibility. This is important, because you don’t want the answer to your new problem to break what’s already working, unless it’s absolutely necessary.

  • Finally, they generate sets of rules to feed into a decision engine, so you can try for an automated solution to the decision problem you have been analyzing. This is a big help in getting a new or enhanced set of rules into production. You want to be able to quickly test the efficiency of your new understanding of exceptions and errors by re-running past data to see if the rules correctly apply.

    What thinking support tools don’t do is think for you. These are support tools, not substitutes for human analysis, synthesis, insight and intuition. They do provide an effective “force multiplier” for those human attributes, allowing you to look further, faster and with more confidence than you could do unaided. Happy thinking!

    John Parkinson has been a business and technology consultant for more than 20 years.

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