Tools & Technologies

Thoughts on Austhink Software's work with Business Decision Mapping

I had the chance to meet Tim van Gelder, founder and CEO of Austhink Software here in Melbourne. We spoke about the current software offered by Austhink — Rationale for argument mapping, and bCisive for business decision mapping — and then got into a wider discussion about the “big picture” that Austhink is working towards.

But in order to appreciate the big picture, it’s vital to reflect on the current offering.

The Austhink History Lesson

Austhink started about a decade ago with the intention of selling an argument mapping software product into two markets — the educational space, and the business market. Tim had spent 20 years undertaking research into argument and debate, and saw an opportunity to transfer that academic insight into day-to-day living. What Tim and his team found, however, was that the generic idea of argument mapping was of much less interest to business people than the understanding of arguments as they related to business decision making. And so a pivot point in the company was found, and it was recognized that a more tailored business decision making tool was required. World, meet bCisive.

bCisive provides a set of constructs to graphically visualize a decision, including the question being asked, options that could be considered to answer the question, and a whole supporting cast of typed-constructs as they relate to an option. For example, one typed-construct is a “pro” for an option, and a related typed-construct to a pro is supporting evidence.

A tool like bCisive is exceedingly powerful because it makes the inner structure of arguments clear and transparent. Tim and I talked about the downside of such tools — that for people who don’t have a clear line of argument for the options they are pushing, the clarity that bCisive brings to the decision process would be very unwelcome. I suggested that perhaps the tag line of bCisive should be something like, “The tool for decision making that people full of hot air will really hate.” 😉 Because surely they will, and they will put any number of roadblocks in the way of using a tool such as bCisive because it will show them up for what they really are: blowers of hot air.

On the other side of the equation, bCisive is powerful because it gives decision makers a set of pre-defined buckets into which the stuff related to a decision can be placed. As in, is what you are saying an “option”, or a “pro”, or a “supporting argument”, or a “rationale”. It eliminates the guess work involved in trying to classify what you are saying in a business decision, and gives everyone involved in the decision a common vocabulary for decision making. And it lays it out in a graphical map, so that people can quickly and intuitively see the current state of the decision.

Tim talked about the three main benefits of laying out a business decision in a map (these are not his exact words): (1) categorization of stuff related to decisions, (2) contextualization of stuff within the right place of the business decision, and (3) clarity for next actions about what is missing from the map. For example, when you look at a business decision map and realize that one of the options has no pros or cons against it, it’s very clear what needs to happen next — the lead user or the group has some work to do to flesh out that part of the map.

A related benefit of using a graphical decision map is that it makes clear the inner structure of a decision, without having to ask someone to wade through a 5-10 page document that uses carefully scripted language to portray the same information. So for people that are less able to read a decision document in all its glory, and for people unable to write such a stimulating document, there’s bCisive that does it visually.

I asked Tim about the availability of decision maps as examples on the Austhink web site, and he pointed me to the bMap Gallery. While what Tim has there is a good starting point, I’d like to see Austhink do something a bit more down-to-earth for normal everyday people. Perhaps a storyboard that shows how a user like Eric goes through the process of choosing a new computer (“PC or Mac?”), and in 10 screens, shows how his map develops over time as he considers new options and finds evidence and supporting ideas for each of the options that he has scoped out. And then, of course, on the final slide, how Eric chose to get a Mac!

Or maybe Austhink could run a “bMap of the week” competition, whereby users can submit their cool bMaps of the week in a similar 10 screen format, showing the decision they were trying to make and how they went through the process to come to a particular decision. With the newness of a tool like bCisive, I think that examples like these would clearly portray the key value of decision mapping.

The Bigger Picture

The bigger picture for Austhink and business decision mapping involves two things: collaborative business decision mapping, and organizational decision management. Tim talked a lot about both areas, sharing his ideas and vision for how to take the bCisive software offering to the next step.

With respect to collaborative business decision mapping, the next step in the development of bCisive is to make it more friendly in a team or group setting. When you meet with others in person, someone can bring their laptop and project bCisive on the wall via a data projector, but it’s not possible to share a bCisive map in real-time with multiple others when you can’t be together. Not yet, at least. The Austhink team have been working on a web version to support real-time joint decision mapping, and it’s coming!

With respect to organizational decision management, the current idea is to provide a Web-based interface into all of the decisions that are currently being taken within the firm. Think Flickr for business decisions. If I understood Tim’s vision, this would mean that a manager could log into his decision hub in the morning, and see all of the decisions that were being made in his areas of interest. He could open up any decision map and take a look at the current state of play, and make additions to the map as he saw fit. And maybe subject matter experts could set up an alert for all decisions that included the keywords they were interested in … thus delivering serendipitous discover of pending decisions where they might be able to add value (or was that meddle?) With being able to leverage the power of everyone in the organization for decision making, hopefully better decisions would be made.

How do you make decisions?

The making of decisions is the key activity that managers and many professionals face on a daily basis. In essence, it’s what we get paid to do. Can you see value in a tool like bCisive to help you lay out the inner structure of your decisions and to use that increased clarity in your collaborative activities around decision making? If so, I suggest you check out the 30 day free trial of bCisive, and share your experiences with us.

I look forward to seeing your 10-screen decision maps!

Categories: Tools & Technologies