On Monday, December 8, 2003, Dan Power, Editor of www.idcdd.com.cn, interviewed Dr. Gerald Wagner, Founder and Director of the International Academy for Advanced Decision Support (IAADS), University of Nebraska at Omaha. The phone interview lasted approximately 20 minutes and the following comments are edited from that interview.
Dan Q1: How did you come up with the idea for IFPS (Interactive Financial Planning System)?
Jerry's Response: Well, that was when I was on the faculty at the University of Texas, in the College of Engineering with the Operations Research Group. At that time, I was involved in pure OR modeling such as Monte Carlo simulation and optimization. I was also teaching several executive seminars on what I called "Computer Based Systems for Executive Decision Making". One of my favorite topics at that time was financial risk analysis. It was during one of these seminars that the idea for IFPS was born.
During a break in a 1975 seminar, I went to the white board with a student and said "Wouldn't it be nice if we could do this?" What I wrote were English equations to define assumptions in a financial planning model. That was the beginning of what became IFPS. A few weeks later the student came to my office with a prototype that solved English equations. Of course that is what the IFPS language actually ended up being able to do. That student was Mike McCants who ended up being the lead software developer at Execucom. Without him Execucom would not have happened.
Dan Q2: How much after that did you actually decide to go into business with Execucom?
Jerry's Response: I took a year leave of absence in 1978, to see if I could make it outside of UT and then did not go back. Although the product and company had been in mind for years before that we can think of 1978 as being the start of business.
Dan Q3: Most people say the main innovation in IFPS was creating a planning language. Would you comment on this idea of a planning language versus spreadsheets and where you think we are today in terms of planning languages?
Jerry's Response: First of all back in those days, I didn't know what a spreadsheet was. Control Data was a reseller back in the time-sharing days of IFPS. I was in a meeting with some CDC sales guys and they asked whether or not, we could create spreadsheets, or do spreadsheet analysis. That was the first I had heard that word. Spreadsheets are the standard now, but it is nothing but a planning language from my perspective. There is no purpose to differentiate between a planning language and a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet has a cryptic programming language, but it is a planning language. IFPS was a planning language but it was verbose and less cryptic.
Dan Q4: Do you think there is a need for a next generation planning language?
Jerry's Response: I'm biased, but yes I do think so. I still think there is a need to communicate the assumptions behind a spreadsheet. You simply can't do that with Excel. You know this better than I do, but there have been all kinds of horror stories about the mistakes made using Excel. Mistakes are not because of assumption mistakes. It is because of programming errors with the Excel language. I firmly believe that the number of errors made with an IFPS kind of planning language is far less than with a cryptic programming language like Excel. Yeah, I think there is a need simply because there is a need for non-technical people to be able to see, read and understand the assumptions that are behind the numbers.
I think the "next generation" will be a very different style of visual interaction to create and interact with models.
Dan Q5: Comshare tried to distribute a visual IFPS. Are there pros and cons to that kind of approach?
Jerry's Response: I have an opinion. First, "visual" back then was very different from what "visual" means today. It was not for visually engaging experiences as we know today. I believe the reason that IFPS is not being distributed now is because the system lost focus as a planning language and became a data processing package. The language itself stayed intact but it became a package for reporting history as opposed to being a planning package to think about the future. What I would wish to see today is another planning language that may look very much like IFPS in terms of language, but keeping the simplicity that it started off with. Simplicity is what got IFPS its recognition and its large customer base.
Dan Q6: You have been credited with calling computerized decision support systems "mind support systems". Would you comment on what you were thinking of and whether you think DSS are accomplishing that task today?
Jerry's Response: That goes back a long time ago. Peter Keen and I did that. Mind support simply means thinking support. I don't know that anybody ever really used that term except maybe in a few academic type papers. But, thinking support is the real benefit of any DSS.
Dan Q7: Mind support does create an interesting vision of what we are trying to accomplish.
Jerry's Response: I agree. I have always said that's what DSS is all about, thinking support. That's the only reason for DSS to exist. DSS is about helping decision makers to think. A person is going to make a decision and anything we can do to contribute to helping that process is desirable.
Dan Q8: In the last two years, you have created the International Academy for Advanced Decision Support (IAADS). Would you briefly describe your motivation for creating IAADS?
Jerry's Response: That happened when I came back into academics here at Nebraska two years ago. A prime motivation was to revitalize DSS. DSS over the past several years has lost its original intentions, focus and philosophy. We have been very effective as advisors on large complex problems and our thought leaders summit has been a lot of fun and touched a few people. But, in terms of revitalizing DSS I doubt that IAADS has made any significant contribution. However, IAADS will continue it's involvement in developing major research proposals with involvement from the IAADS membership. Next year the thought leader's summit will be in Florida. I am very pleased to see that event being taken over by other IAADS members.
Dan Q9: What is the future of computerized decision support? Where do you think the next generation for DSS will be as we move ahead?
Jerry's Response: I think the next generation is the new and now generation. It is already here. It is caused by a new breed of software designers, developers, or engineers. These are the incredible innovators who are a combination of artist, computer scientist, problem solver and entrepreneur. The exciting developments in software interaction at the moment are from people that were educated as poets, painters, writers and actors who have turned software designers and developers. Not many of these people have yet moved into decision support but this is inevitable and coming fast. We have always said that the interface is the software and almost all DSS are in the form of software. Therefore I say the interface is also the DSS.
Just as one example, I have a student working on developing software to tell the stories behind business strategies, decisions or plans. That's very much a mind support or thinking support kind of tool. These "movies" are interactive, visually engaging, and just plain fun to interact with. The user can stop the movie at any time to "what if" the financials, "what if" schedules in a Gantt chart, "what if" colors for a new device, etc. This is not in the future, it is happening right at this point in time so it is the new generation.
Dan Q10: Do you see the day when we will have a computerized whiteboard where you can stand in front of it and use a tool like IFPS and interact with people and create planning models for decision support?
Jerry's Response: Oh sure, we can do that now. But before that catches on we have to make progress to rejuvenate the old DSS ideas such as mind support and "rehearsing the future". Also, we need infrastructure tools that are intuitive and easy and domain specific such as an interactive financial planning package.
Dan Q11: Well, thanks Jerry. Are you excited about all of this?
Jerry's Response: Oh yeah. This is the most fun time that I have ever had. The "new breed" of designers and developers combined with the new development platforms are creating amazing products. They are delivering simplicity, intuitiveness and end user experiences which are reminiscent of the old IFPS days. No question but what this is the most exciting time of my life.
About Jerry Wagner
Dr. Gerald R. Wagner is the Founder of IAADS (International Academy for Advanced Decision Support), Peter Kiewit Institute, College of Information Science and Technology, University of Nebraska. In 1978, Jerry resigned from his position as tenured Professor and Head of Operations Research, College of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin. He then started his first software company Execucom, which became a leading force in DSS. Execucom sponsored the first DSS conference and started the DSS transactions. After becoming one of the ten largest software companies in the world, Execucom was acquired by GTE in 1984. Dr. Wagner is known for his simple and creative commercial software interfaces, including IFPS, VisionQuest, and WebIQ. He was an originator of group decision support rooms that are sometimes referred to as "war rooms." His current teaching is focused on a merger of art, design, communication, and multimedia technology for business software interfaces. With his return to Nebraska in 2002 Jerry returned to his home state. He is internationally recognized for his many contributions to the field of DSS. Jerry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about IAADS check http://www.iaads.unomaha.edu.
Power, D. J., "Interview: Jerry Wagner comments on DSS past, present and future", www.idcdd.com.cn, 01/30/2004.
Jerry Wagner reviewed the final version of the interview prior to publication. This article was posted at www.idcdd.com.cn on January 30, 2004.