One of the few books I still have from my Ph.D. student days is Herbert Simon's The New Science of Management Decision. A couple of others were written by my advisor and mentor. At some level, I held onto Simon's book knowing full well that I would have to come to terms with its implications for my view of the world. Added emphasis appears in red, and my reactions are enclosed in a box: (Note 137)

Programmed and Non Programmed Decisions

In discussing how executives now make decisions, and how they will make them in the future, let us distinguish two polar types of decisions. I shall call them programmed decisions and non programmed decisions, respectively. Having christened them, I hasten to add that they are not really distinct types, but a whole continuum, with highly programmed decisions at one end of that continuum and highly unprogrammed decisions at the other end. . . . I use the terms programmed and non programmed simply as labels for the black and the white of the range.

When I first encountered these terms, I was fascinated. As a member of the computer and operations research community, I was gratified to have the word "program" associated with executive decision making. This added an aura of importance to our priesthood of organizational rationalists.

Decisions are programmed to the extent that they are repetitive and routine, to the extent that a definite procedure has been worked out for handling them so that they don't have to be treated de novo each time they occur. The obvious reason why programmed decisions tend to be repetitive, and vice versa, is that if a particular problem recurs often enough, a routine procedure will usually be worked out for solving it. Numerous examples of programmed decisions in organizations will occur to you: pricing ordinary customers' orders; determining salary payments to employees who have been ill; reordering office supplies.

This was my stock in trade before I returned to get a Ph.D. My work was to take manual procedures and the decisions embedded in them and turn them into computer programs and mathematical models. I was a linear programming model builder and a Fortran and Cobol programmer for scientific and business procedures. I also used simulation languages such as GPSS to model stochastic processes.

Decisions are non programmed to the extent that they are novel, unstructured, and consequential. There is no cut and dried method for handling the problem because it hasn't arisen before, or because its precise nature and structure are elusive or complex, or because it is so important that it deserves a custom tailored treatment. General Eisenhower's D-Day decision is a good example of a non programmed decision. . . . Many of the components of the decisions were programmed - by standard techniques for military planning - but before these components could be designed they had to be provided with a broader framework of military and political policy.

If the activity was not repetitive and rationally understandable, I was not interested in what an executive did. When managers were not clear about how they did a routine task, my responsiblity was to work with them using systems analysis to figure out the logic behind their processes. It was troubling that some problem situations did not yield to my rational analysis.

I have borrowed the term program from the computer trade, and intend it in the sense in which it is used there. A program is a detailed prescription or strategy that governs the sequence of responses of a system to a complex task environment. Most of the programs that govern organizational response are not as detailed or as precise as computer programs. However, they all have the same intent: to permit an adaptive response of the system to the situation.

I had a different understanding of program: to ensure a deterministic rather than adaptive response to a situation. Absolute logic was essential, if A then B or whatever the decision rule was. This was true even in cases where some part of the process was stochastic. In those cases, the response could be counted on to follow a well defined statistical function.

In what sense, then, can we say that the response of a system to a situation is non programmed? Surely something determines the response. That something, that collection of rules of procedure, is by definition a program. By non programmed I mean a response where the system has no specific procedures to deal with situations like the one at hand, but must fall back on whatever general capacity it has for intelligent, adaptive, problem oriented action. In addition to his specific skills and specific knowledge, man has some general problem solving capacities. . . .

Non programmed meant situations in which the system, say a manager, did not have sufficient frequency of experience from which to build up the rules to guide the response. These were cases where the program could not be specified because they had not been created. However the implication was that given interest and resources a procedure could be devised to deal with the situation.

This general problem solving equipment is not always effective. Men often fail to solve problems, or they reach unsatisfactory solutions. But man is seldom completely helpless in a new situation. He possesses general problem solving equipment which, however inefficient, fills some of the gaps in his special problem solving skills. And organizations, as collections of men, have some of this same general adaptive capacity. . . .

Carrying the reasoning further, the general capacity to solve novel problems was itself a procedure for which a program could be written. This implied man and machine were both logical devices although the former was sometimes confused by irrational behaviors such as emotions. Such diversions from predictability had to be transcended to be an effective manager. In the broadest sense, machines and men were elaborate clockwork mechanisms.

Years later I went serendipitously to see Mindwalk. In the style of My Dinner with Andre which I had seen earlier, this "conversation" film was a low key but scathing indictment of the arrogance of the mechanistic mindset I had lived by for so long. The screenplay was written by Fritjof Capra based on his writings. (Note 138)

My reason for distinguishing between programmed and non programmed decisions is that different techniques are used for handling the programmed and the non programmed aspects of our decision making. The distinction, then, will be a convenient one for classifying these techniques. I shall use it for that purpose, hoping that the reader will remind himself from time to time that the world is mostly gray with only a few spots of pure black or white.

I latched onto the distinction in all its shades of gray as a central premise of thinking about my work and career. On many occasions, I used the spectrum to speak about problem solving and decision making in computer classes and later in management courses. The analogous words routine (programmed) to novel (non programmed) appear in a figure I prepared for this thread.

The four fold table below will provide a map of the territory I propose to cover. In the northern half of the map are some techniques related to programmed decision making, in the southern half, some techniques related to non programmed decision making. In the western half of the map I placed the classical techniques used in decision making - the kit of tools that has been used by executives and organizations from the time of the earliest recorded history up to the present generation. In the eastern half of the map I placed the new techniques of decision making - tools that have been forged largely since World War II, and that are only now coming into extensive use in management in this country. . . .

table from new science of management decision

My education and early career initiatives focused on the eastern half of the table. Slowly but surely, I gravitated to the western side of the diagram. I was drawn in particular to the traditional techniques of judgment, intuition and creativity. My return to the natural realm of human decision was encouraged by a gradual realization that heuristic techniques would not replace these time tested tools.

I can warn you now to what conclusion this journey is going to lead. We are in the midst of a major revolution in the art or science - whichever you prefer to call it - of management and organization. I shall try to describe the nature of this revolution and, in my final chapter, to discuss its implications.

I preferred to call the revolution a science when I was a young operations researcher. As my fascination with the modern techniques waned in the face of intractable issues, I experienced a return to time tested art forms such as the discipline of yoga and the technique of the I Ching. I explored the East in terms of the planet rather than the boundaries of Simon's table.