A Conceptual ESS Framework
Li Niu, Jie Lu
Faculty of Information Technology, University of Technology, Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia
Guangquan Zhang
Faculty of Information Technology, University of Technology, Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia
Keywords: Executive support systems, Situation awareness, Mental models, Decision-making.
Abstract: Regardless of cognitive orientation of increasing importance, most executive support systems (ESS) and
other decision support systems (DSSs) focus on providing behavioural support to executives’ decision-
making. In this paper, we suggest that cognitive orientation in information systems is twofold: situation
awareness (SA) and mental model. A literature review of SA and mental models from different fields shows
that both the two human mental constructs play very important roles in human decision-making, particularly
in the naturalistic settings with time pressure, dynamics, complexity, uncertainty, and high personal stakes.
Based on a discussion of application problems of present ESSs, a conceptual ESS framework on cognitive
orientation is developed. Under this framework, executives’ SA and mental models can be developed and
enriched, which eventually increases the probability of good decision-making and good performance.
Decision support systems (DSSs) are computer-
based information systems, which are designed to
aid people in decision-making process (Shim,
Warkentin et al. 2002). Executive support systems
(ESSs), as a kind of DSS, serve the information
needs of senior executives, especially in the strategic
management process (SMP) (Rockart and Delong
1988; Pijpers, Bemelmans et al. 2001). The major
function of today’s ESSs is information delivery
based on a central data warehouse or data marts. The
delivered information can include critical success
factors, operational data, ratios and other kinds of
data that executives use to monitor the performance
of the enterprise.
ESSs are data-oriented information systems with
very limited support to strategic management
process (Singh, Watson et al. 2002). An ESS is
capable of providing executives with a huge amount
of data, from internal and external environment of
the enterprise, such as operations, marketing,
accounting, sales, research and development.
However, more data does not equal more valuable
information (Endsley, Bolte et al. 2003). Current
ESSs can only partially support executives’ strategic
management process (Singh, Watson et al. 2002).
Table 1 shows that only two out of five SMP stages
can be supported or partially supported by current
ESSs. Executives often feel lost when presented
with a body of data concerning strategic decision-
making. In a recent study (Economist Intelligence
Unit, 2006), 73 per cent of senior managers in a
survey agreed that it is important to have less but
more timely data to improve the quality and speed of
decision-making in their organizations. This result
corresponds to Sutcliffe and Weber (2003)’s finding
about the knowledge accuracy. Their research
implies that having a lot of facts about a decision
situation is less important than having a clear and
consistent overview picture about it.
Cognitive orientation has long been recognized
as an very important consideration in DSS research
(Schwenk 1984; Yadav and Khazanchi 1992; Kuo
1998; Chen and Lee 2003; Chen and Ge 2006).
Executives’ cognitive ability (underpinned by their
SA and mental models) plays a very important role
in understanding dynamic complex business
Niu L., Lu J. and Zhang G. (2007).
In Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems, pages 510-515
environments and dealing with ill-structured
problems with time pressure, uncertainty and high
personal stakes (Adams, Tenney et al. 1995; Endsley
1995; Chen and Lee 2003; Resnick 2003). SA and
mental models are thought of as two essential
prerequisites for people’s decision-making in any
dynamic complex system. Decision-making has a
strong relationship with SA and mental models
(Endsley 2000; Stanners and French 2005). High SA
and mental models will increase the probability of
good decisions and good performance.
Table 1: The ESS can only partially support SMP (Singh,
Watson et al. 2002).
SMP Stages ESS Support
Organizational objectives Partial support
Environment scanning Not support
Strategy formulation Not support
Strategy implementation support
Strategic control Not support
The basic objective of this research is to improve
the quality and quantity of support provided by ESSs
through enriching executives’ SA and mental
models in terms of information systems. With rich
SA executives is able to have a thorough
comprehension about the status of the enterprise;
with rich mental models they are more likely to
make effective decisions efficiently.
2.1 Situation Awareness
The concept of SA was initiated from military
aircraft domain and extended to air traffic control,
nuclear power plants, and other tactical and strategic
systems (Endsley 1995). In aviation, SA mainly
refers to the pilot’s knowledge about the aircraft
itself and its environment (Emerson, Reising et al.
1987; Hamilton 1987; Vidulich 1995). Abstractly
Sarter and Woods (1991) describe SA as:
Situation awareness refers to the accessibility of
a comprehensive and coherent situation
representation which is continuously being updated
in accordance with the results of recurrent situation
assessments. (P. 52)
SA is believed to be a very important and
essential prerequisite for people’s decision-making
in any dynamic complex system with time pressure,
uncertainty, ill-defined goals and high personal
stakes (Sarter and Woods 1991; Endsley 1995; Flach
1995; Smith and Hancock 1995; Endsley 2000). A
close relationship exists between people’s SA and
their decision-making actions: The richer SA they
have, the more likely are they to make good
decisions (Stanners and French 2005).
In strategic decision-making domain, the same
characteristics are shared as traditional SA
application domains, e.g. aviation and power plants.
Today’s companys operate in a turbulent business
environment where different sectors interact with
and affect each other. Walters, Jiang et al (2003)
provide an analysis of the environment to which the
executive is subject during environment scanning for
strategic management process. They summarize in 6
internal environment sectors (market research,
product R&D, basic engineering, financial
management, cost controls, and operational
efficiency) and 6 external ones (market,
technological, competitive, political/legal, economic,
and socio-cultural). For the survival of the company,
the executive needs to keep aware of each sector of
the environment. Moreover, the speed and quality
with which business strategies must be made has
increased substantially with the trend of economy
globalization. The complexity, uncertainty,
dynamics, and time pressure of strategic decision-
making show the potential of applying SA theory to
support executives’ decision-making.
2.2 Mental Models
Mental models are “psychological representations of
real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations”
(Johnson-Laird, Girotto et al. 1998). Mental models
are commonly referred to as deeply held
assumptions and beliefs that enable individuals to
make inferences and predictions (Johnson-Laird,
Girotto et al. 1998; Chen and Lee 2003; Chen and
Ge 2006). Rouse and Morris (1985, p. 32) define
mental models as “mechanisms whereby humans are
able to generate descriptions of system purpose and
form, explanations of system functioning and
observed system states, and predictions of future
states”. Mental models are ‘device models’ by which
people are capable of understanding how a device
works in terms of its internal structures and
processes (Sarter and Woods 1991).
Mental models is the key for a decision maker’s
understanding of business environments and ill-
structured problems. They provide executives with
the ability to simplify the complexity of business
environments (Schwenk 1984; Porac and Thomas
1990). Mintzberg (1973) categorizes executives’
work into 10 different roles and connects them with
executives’ mental models. He finds that executives
spend most of their time communicating with other
people and thinking, by which their mental models
are built based on their past experience. With rich
and solid mental models, executives can envision
possible future business scenarios that may cause
problems or bring opportunities and then make
appropriate strategies to respond.
Mental models and SA are different in their point
of reference (Sarter and Woods 1991). Mental
models use finite number of elements and algorithms
to represent systems or devices, whereas SA is a
dynamic representation of open systems. Mental
models are about people’s past experience which are
the basis and guidance for adequate situation
assessments (Sarter and Woods 1991; Endsley
1995). Executives need both rich SA and mental
models to understand the business environment, to
anticipate the near future status of the company, and
then to succeed in strategic management processes.
In this framework of executive support systems
(Figure 1), the basic idea is to aid executives’
decision-making through enriching their SA and
mental models in terms of information systems.
Because human decision-making has a strong
relationship with SA and mental models, ESSs under
this framework we believe will be able to thoroughly
support executives’ strategic planning work.
Compared to traditional ESSs, three
characteristics shape this system framework:
The concept of user-centered is used for systems
design. This concept means to put the user in the
heart of all other considerations, such as decision
situation understanding, data analysis, decision-
Figure 1: An ESS framework on cognitive orientation.
Strategic Situation
Data mining
OLAPSQL reporting
Environmental information
Management experience
Modelling Management Simulation
Situation assessment
Data analysis
Thinking support
ICEIS 2007 - International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
making etc. All the other theories, technologies and
the system development will be researched,
developed with the purpose of serving the user’s
requirements. The opposite end of the spectrum is
technology-centered concept, where users need to
adapt themselves to the data extracted by
information system from the environment.
Cognitive orientation
Rather than emphasizing behavioral support to
executives’ work, we focus attention on cognitive
aspects of management: SA and mental models.
Based on Anthony’s (1965) categories of
management activity, we model executives’ SA in
three levels: operational, management, and strategic.
The operational situation awareness (OSA) looks at
the specific tasks usually conducted by frontline
personnel as the basis of the operation of the
organization. The management situation awareness
(MSA) is concerned with middle managers’ work
assuring the acquisition and usage of the
organization’s resource in accomplishment of the
organization’s objectives. At the highest level,
strategic situation awareness is about the top
executives’ strategic planning activities. In the
strategic management process, strategies are
developed and implemented, which translate the
organization’s objectives into pre-determined
The three levels of executives’ SA are developed
or enriched through situation assessment module in
this framework. Endsley (1995) proposed a
conceptual model of situation assessment, whereby
the operator’s SA is developed through three steps:
perceiving, comprehending and projecting. We also
define three sub-modules of situation assessment
with respect to three levels of executives’ SA in our
framework. Our framework has somewhat
similarities with Endsley’s model. Nevertheless, the
three situation assessment sub-modules in our
framework are not necessarily reflective of
Endsley’s three-step model. More importantly, the
situation assessment module in our framework is
designed from information systems perspective
which we believe is more applicable to specific
system development.
The functionality of situation assessment is fully
supported by different data analysis techniques.
Currently, six kinds of data analysis techniques are
employed in this framework: information filtering,
SQL reporting, OLAP (online analytical processing),
data mining, mathematical modeling, and
information fusion. Each of them contributes to
different situation assessment sub-modules (Figure
2). The environment information data store is the
source that data analysis module processes. The
environment information consists of internal
environmental data (e.g. product R&D, financial,
engineering, and marketing) and external one (e.g.
technological, political, and socio-cultural). Both are
important for executives’ environmental scanning in
strategic management process (Walters, Jiang et al.
Another cognitive aspect of this framework is
thinking support through modelling, fusion and
simulation of executives’ mental models. We use
cause mapping technique to represent executives
mental models. A cause map is a semantic network
that consists of concepts (nodes) that are linked
together by casual relationships (linkages). It helps
executives to order their thinking process in strategic
management process (Gnyawali and Tyler 2005).
Mental models are a sort of mental construct within
executives’ minds reflecting their past experience.
After represented as knowledge (information),
multiple pieces of knowledge can be aggregated
through fusion module in this framework, which
makes it possible to facilitate the integration of
different views from multiple board members.
Mental models and SA are working together as the
mechanism whereby executives are capable of
anticipating future status of the environment. The
simulation module in this framework is designed to
enhance executives’ abilities of projection. It
includes the creation of business scenarios, what-if
analysis, and the possible mental model simulation.
Thinking support module is based on management
experience store, which consists of executives’ past
Figure 2: Data analysis techniques for SA.
strategic management experience in difference
Situation-strategy matching
In model-based decision support systems, a typical
decision-making process consists of intelligence
(identification of problems), design (generation of
alternatives), and choice (analysis of alternatives).
During this decision-making process, A computer
system is mainly developed to deal with the
structured portion of a DSS problem, but the
judgment of the decision-maker was brought to bear
on the unstructured part, hence constituting a
human– machine, problem-solving system (Shim,
Warkentin et al. 2002).
The decision-making process based on this
framework is a situation-strategy matching process.
In the strategic decision-making, the decision
situation comes often with ill-defined goals,
uncertainty, high stakes, and time pressure. And the
decision problems are always too implicit and
complex to be identified explicitly. In this case,
model-based decision support systems seem
ineffective. In our framework, proficient users
(experienced executives) are playing the major role
in decision-making process and computers are only
used to help executives to enrich their SA and
mental models. Because human decision-making has
a strong positive relationship with SA and mental
models, the experienced executives, equipped with
richer SA and mental models, will be likely to
perform better in strategic decision-making process.
Compared to traditional decision support systems,
this framework reflects a new DSS paradigm.
However, some challenges emerge during the
development of this framework.
Firstly, how to evaluate executives’ SA? SA
evaluation is important to systems design. Without
effective evaluation methods, the executive’s mind
remains a black box for us and we are not able to be
confident to declare that SA is supportted. Endsley
(1988; Endsley 1995) evaluates the pilot’s
awareness of the aircraft using so-called situation
awareness global assessment technique (SAGT). In
the SAGT, the pilot is flying a scenario in a
simulation. The simulation system is frozen and the
pilot is asked some questions concerning the current
system status. The pilot’s answers are then analysed
to probe into his/her SA. SAGT is an intrusive
assessment technique for SA evaluation. There are
also some after-the-fact methods such as debriefing,
e.g.,(Marshak, Kuperman et al. 1987). These SA
evaluation methods are applicable to different
domain, but are less likely to be effective in business
SMP domain. In today’s business environment,
every company is focused on developing different
competitive advantages. Each company is shaped by
different goals, structures, processes, marketing
share, and many other factors. The population of
senior executives within each company is
significantly small. Therefore, new SA evaluation
methods need to be developed for business strategic
decision-making domain.
Secondly, how to combine the theories of
situation awareness and mentals and information
systems techniques? Situation assessment is the
process in which the executive’s SA is developed.
Present situation assessment models are mainly
proposed in terms of cognitive psychology not from
information systems perspective. The present
business intelligence systems are mainly data/model-
driven information/knowledge acquisition systems.
Managers are usually either no enough
confidence/experience to find out business solutions,
or are just missed again in the new information flood
provided by the system. One of the grand vision of
DSSs should be huaman can interact with computer
at a high degree and computer provides decision-
maker cognitive supports. One of our next research
tasks is to develop relevant theories and information
technologies which can be used to aid executives’
situation assessment.
Thirdly, how to facilitate an effect interaction
between executives’ SA and their mental models?
The psychological mechanism on which SA and
mental model are affected by each other has been
researched and modeled from the perspective of
psychology (section 2.2). Based on this framework,
we will examine the relationship between SA and
mental models in terms of information systems. Put
simply, mental models look at the past, and SA
looks at the present and the near future. Executives
are able to achieve an overview understanding (big
picture) of the company based on their SA; and then
they identify the potential opportunities or threats
based on their mental models. Therefore, to be
successful eventually in strategic planning,
executives will heavily rely both on SA, mental
models, and their interaction.
ICEIS 2007 - International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
This research is partially supported by Australian
Research Council (ARC) under discovery grants
DP0559213 and DP0557154.
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