Organizational decision-making and the computer

The first edition of this book was published shortly after the first modern electronic computer came into the world and some years before it found even the most prosaic applications in management. In spite of the extensive use of computers in organizations today, we still live pretty much in the horseless carriage stage of computer development. That is, we use computers to perform more rapidly and cheaply than before the same functions that we formerly carried out with adding machines and typewriters. Apart from some areas of middle-management decision, where techniques like linear programming (from operations research) and expert systems (from artificial intelligence) are now widely employed, computers have changed executive decision-making processes and the shapes of organization designs only modestly.

We must be cautious, however, about extrapolating from past to future. The automobile, when it first appeared, also had a modest impact: It took over tasks formerly performed by horse and wagon. It gave few hints of its future enormous effects on our whole transportation system

We have learned by now that the computer, too, is something far dif- ferent from an oversized adding machine, and far more significant for our society.5 But its significance is only just beginning to emerge, the appearance of personal computers about a decade ago perhaps being a decisive turning point. One way to conjecture what important novel tasks computers may take on is to review the many metaphors that have been applied to them. First, the computer is an incredibly powerful number cruncher. We have already proceeded, especially in engineering and science, a considerable way toward discovering what can be done by number crunching, but we will find new uses as computer power continues to increase. Second, the computer is a large memory, and we are just now beginning to explore (for example, on the World Wide Web) how large data bases must be organized so that they can be accessed selectively and cheaply in order to extract the information they contain that is relevant to our specific tasks.

Third, the computer is an expert, capable of matching human profes- sional-level performance in some areas of medical diagnosis, of engineering design, of chess playing, of legal search, and increasing numbers of others. Fourth, the computer is the core of a new worldwide network of communications, an “information superhighway.” Everyone can now communicate with “everyone,” almost instantaneously. Fifth, the computer is a “giant brain,” capable of thinking, problem solving, and, yes, making decisions. We are continually finding new areas of decision— evaluating credit risks, investing funds, scheduling factories, diagnosing corporate financial problems—where computers can play an important role or sometimes do the whole task.

From the capabilities of computers for pouring out large volumes of information, it has been easy to draw the wrong conclusion: that the main condition for exploiting the computer more fully is to enhance its powers of information storage and information diffusion. On the contrary, the central lesson that the computer should teach is that information is no longer scarce or in dire need of enhanced distribution. In contrast with past ages, we now live in an information-rich world.

In our enthusiasm for global networks of unlimited information, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that a new scarcity has been created: the scarcity of human time for attending to the information that flows in on us. The information revolution has multiplied the amount of information that a single person can scatter around an organization, or around the world; it has not increased the number of hours a day that each person has available for digesting information. The main requirement in the design of organizational communication systems is not to reduce scarcity of information but to combat the glut of information, so that we may find time to attend to that information which is most relevant to our tasks—something that is possible only if we can find our way expeditiously through the morass of irrelevancies that our information systems contain.

Chapter VIII and its commentary explore the problems of communi- cation and organization design in a world where information is not scarce, but time to attend to it is. The commentary explains why the first, and even second, generations of management information systems and management decision aids have generally been something less than a great success, and sketches the forms that more effective information systems may be expected to take in the future.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *