They are called smart computer systems and, says Di Palframan, they give the analysis and the options but leave the choice to you.
As the holiday season gets underway, travellers forced to while away more time than they would like crammed into airport departure lounges might spare a thought for the people who have to cope with the chaos daily. These are the schedulers and it is their job to minimise the disruption caused by delayed or cancelled flights. They make decisions that will determine who flies and who does not. They also have a major impact on efficiency.
In many other industries there are similar stories of people who have to weigh up complex situations and make a reasoned judgement about what should be done. Their actions or inactions, like those of the schedulers, can often cost money.
What the decision makers need is help in making more consistent, more confident choices but just as quickly as before. Some of them are getting it in the form of smart computer systems, so-called decision support systems. Depending on the software developer, these systems are also called knowledge-based or expert systems and purists say that the names are not interchangeable. They also add that none of these systems is automating the decision maker's job and they would prefer them not to be associated with the now-unfashionable artificial intelligence business.
"Through the late 1980s artificial intelligence was seen as a panacea but people tried to do too much and it failed. In the UK artificial intelligence is now associated with big money, high risks and failure," says Ian McKenzie, manager of information technology at Texas Instruments, the group that develops decision support systems in the UK.
Decision support systems then tend to tackle bite-sized problems in an organisation. The problems are not trivial (if they were, there would be little point in applying a computer to them) but nor are they all-embracing. Very simply what these systems are trying to do is analyse a lot of information (both numbers and facts) according to rules, relationships and, most importantly, the knowledge of the decision maker. The analysis will produce a number of options. The user will take the most appropriate action.
To date these systems are not in widespread use. The main reason is that there are few off-the-shelf packages for organisations to buy. Those that do exist require the users to enter all company-specific information into the system before it will run - a laborious task. Bespoke systems can be developed, either in house or using an external software developer, but again the work takes time.
A relatively simple system detailing how to strip down and maintain a small engine, for instance, would take one person a year to build, says McKenzie, and this information is static. Most organisations want a system that is able to cope with changing information.
These more complicated systems, although few in number at present, cover a diverse range of applications. A handful are low cost with potential mass market appeal. There is one that, for £100, helps teachers to produce a school timetable. The developer, London-based Scientia, says that teachers used to spend up to six weeks to plan a new timetable. With the knowledge-based system they can do it in a few days.
For manufacturing companies, another UK software developer, Simcon, has recently started marketing a £500 package that runs on personal computers and can be used to determine the risks and rewards of current business strategies. The program was developed in the United States. The software is aimed at directors and these are the people who will have to decide what corporate information to enter into the system.
Some of the data will be readily available hard facts. Some of it will be subjective and open to argument. However difficult data entry proves to be, Paul Williams, Simcon's founder, argues that it is "better to have a go than turn your back on factors that you know control your business".
Decision support systems are, says McKenzie, part of the computer industry's natural progression. "There is a lot of data already out there on disk but no one is using it. No one is asking how it should be used to drive their business."
When they do, one of the biggest benefits will be the leap in understanding - and possibly contribution - between people who are working in different disciplines.
(Di Palframan is a freelance journalist.)