between structured and unstructured decisions

Operational control decisions involve making decisions about carrying out the " specific tasks set forth by strategic planners and management. Determining which units or individuals in the organisation will carry out the task, establishing criteria of completion and resource utilisation, evaluating outputs - all of these tasks involve decisions about operational control.

The focus here is on how the enterprises should respond to day-to-day changes in the business environment. In particular, this type of decision making focuses on adaptation of the marketing mix, e.g. how should the firm respond to an increase in the size of a competitor's sales force? should the product line be extended? should distributors who sell below a given sales volume be serviced through wholesalers rather than directly, and so on.

Within each of these levels, decision making can be classified as either structured or unstructured. Unstructured decisions are those in which the decision maker must provide insights into the problem definition. They are novel, important, and non-routine, and there is no well-understood procedure for making them. In contrast, structured decisions are repetitive, routine, and involve a definite procedure for handling them so that they do not have to be treated each time as if they were new.

Structured and unstructured problem solving occurs at all levels of management. In the past, most of the success in most information systems came in dealing with structured, operational, and management control decisions. However, in more recent times, exciting applications are occurring in the management and strategic planning areas, where problems are either semi-structured or are totally unstructured.

There are 4 stages in decision making: intelligence, design, choice and implementation. That is, problems have to be perceived and understood; once perceived solutions must be designed; once solutions are designed, choices have to be made about a particular solution; finally, the solution has to be implemented.

Intelligence involves identifying the problems in the organisation: why and where they occur with what effects. This broad set of information gathering activities is required to inform managers how well the organisation is performing and where problems exist. Management information systems that deliver a wide variety of detailed information can be useful, especially if they are designed to report exceptions. For instance, consider a commercial organisation marketing a large number of different products and product variations. Management will want to know, at frequent intervals, whether sales targets are being achieved. Ideally, the information system will report only those products/product variations which are performing substantially above or below target.

Designing many possible solutions to the problems is the second phase of decision making. This phase may require more intelligence to decide if a particular solution is appropriate. Here, more carefully specified and directed information activities and capabilities focused on specific designs are required.

Choosing among alternative solutions is the third step in the decision making process. Here a manager needs an information system which can estimate the costs, opportunities and consequences of each alternative problem solution. The information system required at this stage is likely to be fairly complex, possibly also fairly large, because of the detailed analytic models required to calculate the outcomes of the various alternatives. Of course, human beings are used to making such calculations for themselves, but without the aid of a formal information system, we rely upon generalisation and/or intuition.

Implementing is the final stage in the decision making process. Here, managers can install a reporting system that delivers routine reports on the progress of a specific solution, some of the difficulties that arise, resource constraints, and possible remedial actions. Table 9.1 illustrates the stages in decision making and the general type of information required at each stage.

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