Discovering Decisions in Your Business

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Faculty Member, and CEO and Principal Consultant, Decision Management Solutions
James is a Faculty Member of and the CEO and a Principal Consultant of Decision Management Solutions. He is the leading expert in how to use business rules and analytic technology to build Decision Management Systems. James is passionate about using Decision Management Systems to help companies improve decision making and develop an agile, analytic and adaptive business. He provides strategic consulting to companies of all sizes, working with clients in all sectors to adopt decision making technology. James has spent the last 20 years developing approaches, tools, and platforms that others can use to build more effective information systems. He has led Decision Management efforts for leading companies in insurance, banking, health management, manufacturing, travel and telecommunications. James is the author of “Decision Management Systems: A practical guide to using business rules and predictive analytics” (IBM Press, 2011). He previously wrote Smart (Enough) Systems: How to Deliver Competitive Advantage by Automating Hidden Decisions (Prentice Hall) with Neil Raden, and has contributed chapters on Decision Management to multiple books as well as many articles to magazines. He is currently working on a book projects related to decision modeling. Decision Management Solutions work with clients to improve their business by applying analytics and analytic technology to automate and improve decisions. Decision Management Solutions is a submitter of the Decision Model and Notation standard.

In previous articles we have discussed Business Decision Management, the role of decision management and decision modeling in reducing process complexity as well as the risks of focusing only on processes without considering decisions. At the heart of these articles is a focus on decisions – high volume, repeatable, operational decisions that can be identified, modeled and managed for improved business results.

Most organizations will initially identify decisions within their business processes – either finding tasks that are clearly decision-making tasks such as those handling validation, approval, calculations, assessments etc – or collapsing process complexity into a decision that was previously obscured by a nest of process gateways and conditions or rules.

Yet there are other ways to identify decisions within a business area. These can be useful both when working in areas of the business where processes have not yet been extensively modeled and as a complement to more process-centric approaches. From various projects a number of successful approaches can be identified. You can start with your KPIs, look at your Business Intelligence environment and, of course, you can just brainstorm the decisions you think you have.

Starting with KPIs

One of the best approaches is to look at the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or metrics for the business area. Any KPI is valuable only if it helps motivate suitable behavior – this is why KPIs are exposed to those working in an area. This implies that the actions of people in the business area can change the value of a KPI.

By investigating KPIs and finding when and where people make choices that move them up or down, a project team can identify decision: Each opportunity for choice-making, for selecting an action from a possible set of actions, is a decision. Most of these decisions will be highly repeatable operational decisions as it is operations that are overwhelmingly monitored using KPIs.

The team can ask what decisions make a difference to a KPI or ask business experts to walk through their day keeping the KPI in mind to see when it matters. It can be tricky to find all of the decisions as people may not think of the choices they make as explicit decisions.

Not only is this approach effective at finding decisions, by identifying them in the context of KPIs it makes it clear what a “good decision” looks like – it’s one that moves KPIs in a positive direction.

Examine business intelligence

Most business organizations use Business Intelligence (BI) tools to generate a lot of reports, build dashboards, provide queries and dump data into Excel for analysis. While some of this can be justified by a need to monitor what is going on, most of it is intended to improve decision-making. As a result these BI outputs can be used to find a list of decisions being made. With a focus on operational reports and dashboards, highly automated or real-time BI elements the team can use two approaches to find decisions:

Project teams can ask those who get a particular report or look at a dashboard what they do as a result – what response does the data prompt. If the actions that are taken as a result vary depending on the data displayed then a decision is being made.

Similarly users can be asked when they refer to a report or dashboard, what they are doing when they use it. By listing the actions being considered when the report is read the team can often identify decisions being impacted by the reports content.

One additional benefit of this process is that it often identifies reports that are not having ANY impact!


The decisions involved in a business area can often be listed in a straightforward brainstorming session with the business owners. This is generally a top-down approach that begins with the more senior staff in a business area.

The first decisions identified may be those strategic or tactical decisions made by executives or management. These are not generally a good target for decision modeling or decision management as they don’t repeat often enough. As the conversation continues, however, it is often possible to get to operational decisions by asking managers and executives what decisions must be made at the front line. By asking what decision-making training and authority is given to front line staff, determining which decisions have published guidelines, and asking managers what decisions sometimes get referred to them, implying front line staff make most of them, the team can identify operational decisions.

While this can be a weak approach, essential only when the other approaches cannot be used, it nevertheless has political value, helping to build buy-in

Final thoughts

A rich set of suitable decisions is a powerful tool when beginning decision management and decision modeling efforts. They can be prioritized and discussed for potential first projects to make sure there is a good chance of initial success. They also help get everyone thinking about the breadth of possibilities.

That said, not all decisions will be considered in the current state. Often there are places where everyone or everything is treated the same way – all customers see the same information on the website for instance or all orders get the same discount. The team should look for these missing decision points and document them as “Micro Decision” opportunities. A Micro Decision is one where each transaction, each opportunity for a decision, results in a specific decision made about that transaction. When micro decisions are being made, the organization focuses on each opportunity to make a decision as a unique opportunity to improve results. In each case the team can ask why something is always done the same way and in what circumstances might it be done differently?

Finally remember that sometimes a decision can only really be exploited if it is moved – earlier in the process most commonly but sometimes from one group of users to another or into a new system context.

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