ORMS Today
October 1999

Decision Explorer

An easy-to-use mapping tool designed to aid in the structuring and analysis of qualitative information

By Marion M. White and Susan W. Palocsay

Banxia Software's Decision Explorer offers the user a powerful set of mapping tools to aid in the decision-making process. Ideas can be mapped and the resulting cognitive map can be further analyzed using the tools provided by Decision Explorer. This software has many practical uses, such as gathering and structuring interview data and as an aid in the strategy formulation process. The software is primarily described as being a recording and facilitation tool for the elicitation of ideas, as well as a tool to structure and communicate qualitative data. It allows the user to gather and analyze qualitative data and thus makes sense of many pieces of qualitative data in order to achieve a coherent picture of a given issue or problem.

The causal mapping technique used by Decision Explorer is based on Kelly's theory of personal constructs [Kelly, 1955]. According to Kelly, when individuals are faced with a problem, they try to make sense of the situation by attributing cause-and-effect relationships, from where they then decide how to proceed to achieve desired outcomes. In Decision Explorer, ideas and information can be linked, revealing connections between variables, including cause-and-effect relationships. The resulting model can be used as an aid in identifying and choosing between alternative courses of action.

An excellent overview of the causal mapping technique and its application to the strategy formulation process can be found in "Making Strategy: The Journey of Strategic Management" by Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann [1998]. This book describes how to use cognitive maps, through the Decision Explorer software, for formulating strategy. The book is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the theory and concepts of strategy making; the second part, entitled "Vignettes," describes case studies showing real-world examples of organizations applying causal mapping techniques; the third section gives practical guidelines for using the various tools and techniques described in the book. As an aside, this book is not the typical strategic management text used at the undergraduate or graduate school in U.S. business schools. Instead, the authors' focus is primarily on the role of culture, cognition and politics in strategy making (see page 28 of their text).

Systems Requirements

The requirements for running Decision Explorer are quite modest. A practical configuration for Decision Explorer requires that you have an IBM compatible computer running Windows 3.1 or higher on a 386 or better processor, a VGA graphics card or better, a mouse, a hard disk drive with 4Mb free, DOS 5 or higher compatible, and a high density 3-inch floppy disk drive. 4Mb RAM is a recommended minimum. For purposes of this review, Decision Explorer was tested under Windows 98 with a Pentium computer where it performed well.

Documentation and Installation

The installation guide was easy to follow and the installation process was straightforward. Decision Explorer also comes with a user's guide and a reference manual, both of which are clearly written and easy to follow. After installation, we ran the tutorial as instructed. This gave us a very good overview of how to build the cognitive map, although it did not give details on how to use the analysis tools. The tutorial is excellent and allows you to go at your own speed and review sections not well understood the first time through. Decision Explorer is also supported by a detailed, informative Web site at www.banxia.co, which includes several interesting items in addition to the usual overview and ordering information. An impressive bibliography of articles relevant to concept mapping and strategy management has been developed. Online access is given to a written tutorial on cognitive mapping, based on a paper by Ackermann, Eden and Cropper of the University of Strathclyde, together with a summary of the main points on how to construct a cognitive map. An executable tutorial file can also be downloaded directly from the Web site, as well as a demonstration version of the software.

We used the version of Decision Explorer provided to us by Banxia Corporation (3.0), but registered users have the option of downloading the latest beta test version (3.1) and running it concurrently with version 3.0. Visitors to the site are encouraged to sign up to receive the company's online newsletter, and full information is provided on training sessions for Decision Explorer in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Building a Cognitive Map Using Decision Explorer

As an initial step in becoming familiar with both the Decision Explorer software and the cognitive mapping technique, we "explored" the tutorial. The tutorial uses an example problem that is all too familiar to anyone who has traveled by air the frustration of waiting in long lines to go through airport security checkpoints. The tutorial provides a description of how to operate the software, as well as a step-by-step outline of the mental dialogue that is needed in the process of creating the cognitive map, shown in Figure 1, for this problem. This figure shows the output from the tutorial and is representative of the kind of cognitive map that can be built using Decision Explorer.

Figure 1: A cognitive map for the problem of waiting in long lines at airport x-ray machines.

To build a cognitive map you click the new model button on the toolbar. Use the mouse to move the cursor to a point on the map where you wish to start the model. When the cursor is in the desired position, double click the left mouse button and type in a concept or idea. (Alternatively, the menu bar and command line can be used in place of the mouse.) Decision Explorer recommends expressing ideas or concepts as short statements. For this example, the initial phrase "long queues at the x-ray" is suggested to describe the cause of your frustration, with the contrasting phrase "3 minutes or less at x-ray" (shown separated by an ellipsis) indicating that you would consider a wait of no more than 3 minutes to be reasonable. The next concept entered is your anxiety about missing your flight, which is caused by long delays at the airport x-ray machine. Decision Explorer automatically numbers all concepts as you enter them.

Concepts can also be linked, as shown in Figure 1. Here also, you use the mouse. By simply clicking on a concept, holding the button down and dragging the cursor to the concept that you wish to link with and then letting go of the button, a link is formed. At this stage the Link Selector box opens and allows you to choose the direction of the arrow, assuming you want a causal link between two concepts. In this example, you will elaborate on the initial concepts by recognizing that long x-ray queues also have other implications. For example, the queue delay lengthens your total travel time, and other passengers are likely to miss their flights or cause flight delays.

This brings to mind a number of issues of concern to airline and airport management, such as interruptions in flight schedules, less shopping time and thus lower revenues in airport shops, and a worse overall reputation for the airport initially due to inefficiency and subsequently extended to its security. These issues can be further extended to indicate how a sustained queuing problem can eventually lead to higher airfares and an increase in passengers' general frustration with air travel. Decision Explorer's editing tools make it simple to change the direction of causality between links and to rearrange and redraw the concept map as it grows.

After adding the additional concepts from the perspective of others, the next step is to categorize them. Concept "styles," which may be selected from a list or user-defined, are used to distinguish between categories of ideas. In this example, four colors are shown corresponding to your goals (red), the airport's goals (black), standard concepts (blue) and issues (green). The completed map is easy to grasp visually and provides a good starting point for identifying options to reduce passenger waiting times at security checkpoints.

Even though Decision Explorer can be used for a myriad of purposes, we choose to evaluate the software for this review using a case from an undergraduate strategic management class. The case in question features an organization facing a number of problems, that now needs an action plan. Both strategy formulation and strategy implementation issues needed to be considered, with the implementation issues covering a wide range of topics including: organization, culture, motivation and leadership. This was a fairly short case with minimal number crunching; however, it did give us an opportunity to explore a strategy problem in some depth and to build up a fairly extensive map. Much of the analysis involved qualitative data, making it ideal for use with Decision Explorer.

We began our case analysis by expressing all the problems or issues we found in the case as separate concepts in Decision Explorer. Then, as we considered possible solutions, we extended the model by adding new concepts. As we progressed in building up our model, we developed a clear picture of the various ramifications involved in implementing some of our chosen alternatives. While this may not have been an ideal scenario to fully test all of the capabilities of Decision Explorer, it did allow us an opportunity to construct a model from scratch and go through some of the thought processes associated with each concept. We were left with a cognitive map that was very rich in detail and gave organization to a mass of different ideas.

Decision Explorer does more than just organize different ideas into a more manageable and coherent whole. Very large models (Decision Explorer points to models of 150+ concepts) can be further analyzed. The model we used to come up with our map was not very large, but we used it anyway just to explore some of the options available. Separate from the model, different concepts can be organized into sets, each set being given its own name. Differences and similarities between sets can be explored. We also looked at the cluster analysis, whereby concepts are clustered together based on the relationships between the concepts. This allows the user to take a very large model and examine different clusters, particularly clusters with fewer linkages in more detail. Again, given our limited data set we were not able to explore these options extensively, even though the set of available analysis tools appears to be very comprehensive and adds substantial capabilities to the basic software.

Concluding comments

Decision Explorer provides a powerful set of mapping tools to structure and analyze qualitative data. It is unique in that it facilitates the discussion of issues and ideas with a visual representation showing their relationships. Decision Explorer would be extremely valuable in a group setting where participants can interact, particularly if it were to become available in a Web-based, groupware version. For consultants, it could prove to be a very useful tool in helping them to identify client objectives and create decision alternatives. In a classroom setting, case teaching might also be enhanced through "live" use of Decision Explorer by the professor during the discussion of cases.

In their tutorial paper, Ackermann, Eden and Cropper address the question, "Why might operational researchers use cognitive mapping?" They point out that the ultimate success of any OR/MS project depends on its acceptance by the intended users, and this requires a good understanding of the decision problem from their perspective. Required activities for modeling complex problems, such as capturing user perceptions, identifying objectives and collecting important data, can be significantly improved using cognitive mapping. In addition, the resulting map serves as documentation for future reference. Other suggested uses for OR/MS analysts include exploring the qualitative aspects of risk and going beyond quantitative analysis of risk, gathering and structuring knowledge for expert systems development, and identifying and organizing tasks in project management.

In summary, the cognitive mapping technique, implemented in Decision Explorer, would make a useful addition to any OR/MS toolkit.


  1. Ackermann, F., Eden, C., and Cropper, S., "Cognitive mapping: getting started with cognitive mapping," http://www.banxia.co.uk/depaper.html.

  2. Eden, C. and Ackermann, F. (1998), "Making Strategy: The Journey of Strategic Management," Sage Publications.

  3. Kelly, G.A. (1955), "The Psychology of Personal Constructs," New York: Norton.

Product Summary
Decision Explorer is produced by
Banxia Software Limited

141 St James Road, Glasgow, G4 0LT, UK.
E-mail: info@banxia.com
Web: www.banxia.com
Telephone: (UK +44) 0 141 552 3082
Fax: (UK +44) 0 141 552 5765

Decision Explorer is available in the United States for $630. If used for educational purposes, a discounted price of $472 is available.

Vendor Comments
Editor's note: It is the policy of OR/MS Today to allow developers of reviewed software an opportunity to clarify or comment on the review article. Following are comments from Matthew Jones of Banxia Software Ltd.

The review mentions many of the capabilities of the software including its ability to handle large models. It is this ability to handle well over 2,000 concepts that make Decision Explorer unique. Although a typical model varies from 150 to 500 concepts, the software scales nicely — it is a real modeling tool, not a page-based graphics package.

In August 1999 Banxia Software released a new version of Decision Explorer, which is a native Windows 95, 98, 2000 and NT compatible application. While this includes a 16-bit version for Windows 3.1 users, with the low system requirements mentioned in the review, the added capability of the 32-bit version will obviously increase minimum requirements. A free down-loadable working demonstration of the new version will be available on our Web site, as well as a free upgrade for registered users of the full product.

Marion White is an associate professor of Management and Director of the International Business Program at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., where she teaches courses in strategy and international management. Susan Palocsay teaches management sciences courses at JMU as an associate professor in the Computer Information Systems/Operations Program.

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