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Decision Intelligence In The Time Of COVID-19

  |   Innovation

On March 6, I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my professional career. We at the SAP Academy for Engineering were into the last month of the engineering program that has been running for over five months. Our program colleagues had traveled to Santa Clara, California from five different countries: China, India, Brazil, Canada, and the US. With just three weeks left until graduation, I had to make a hard decision: whether to continue the program, or to send everyone to their respective countries and continue the program remotely.

In early March, the coronavirus situation was just beginning to grow in the US, and Santa Clara was reporting its first few positive cases. While I was well-informed of the global situation, it seemed premature to stop our program, especially since its completion was so close. On the other hand, I also feared for the safety of my students, as I did not want them to be stranded in a foreign country, away from their families.

There was no playbook for me to make a decision. I used my instinct, gut, and common sense to decide to close the program and send the students home. There were last-minute flight bookings to be done and a sense of shock that many of our plans remained unfulfilled. We ended the day on a tearful note. As I drove back home, I struggled with my decision: did I over-react, or did I make the right call? Only time would tell.

By March 12, travel restrictions had begun. On March 16, California became the first state to order shelter-at-home in six counties. My decision proved right, though I must admit I was lucky. Most often we neither have the full context of the situation nor are we aware of the outcomes from our actions.

We live in times where decisions made by government officials, healthcare workers, corporate leaders, and school administrators have disproportionate consequences. How can a government official know the consequences of maintaining a shelter-at-home order for another week? Should a school reopen or remain closed for the rest of the school year? What are the impacts on our supply chain of delaying a purchase order? When should a doctor ask for more ventilators? Every decision has unintended consequences, which are unfortunately difficult for us to visualize and understand.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal work Thinking Fast And Slow, says “people aren’t first and foremost foresighted utility maximizers but react to changes in terms of gains and losses. Gains and losses are short-term, they’re immediate, emotional reactions. This makes an enormous difference to the quality of decisions.”

The question is: can technology help?

Over the last few years, I have been tracking the growth of a new discipline called Decision intelligence (DI), which can help. What is DI and how is it different from Artificial Intelligence (AI)? In simple terms, AI creates predictions or labels: like classifying customers as the most likely to leave for a competitor or identifying a security intrusion. But AI leaves us asking “so what?”, and “what should I do about it?” This is what’s unique about DI: it helps us understand how actions lead to outcomes.

In my situation, I believe that DI could have assisted me with the best action to take to achieve my ultimate goal, which is to drive engineering pride across SAP.

Dr. Lorien Pratt, Chief Scientist at Quantellia in, Link: How Decision Intelligence Connects Data, Actions and Outcome for a Better World, shows how DI helps us make decisions within complexity.

The COVID-19 situation is a good example. Here’s why:

We are not wired to think exponentially

It’s not surprising that some dismissed the COVID-19 situation until it was too late. We live in a linear world where we think incrementally and struggle to understand exponential growth. In particular, it was hard to imagine how a few cases would mushroom to hundreds of thousands.

We don’t see the ripple effect of our action

We are often only able to see the immediate impact of actions, which play out over long periods of time and space. The actions that the Chinese took to mitigate COVID-19 had worldwide impacts, where this kind of understanding was essential.

Massively complex context

The results of decisions depend on a complex interaction between our actions and the situation. The decisions we make in California may be very different from the ones in Italy. Also, the situation is rapidly changing every day.

Importantly, the above list of characteristics also applies to a lot of the “wicked” problems out there: climate change, poverty, conflict, the status of women, democracy, wealth inequality and more. We live in a new normal in which we must solve these problems too.

While we may be facing the biggest threat of our lifetime, the good news is that Decision Intelligence (DI) can leverage AI as well as epidemiological, social, and other knowledge sources to help. Including beautiful visualizations, DI can be used by policymakers, media, business leaders and individuals, to make and communicate the impact of their decisions in a complex world.

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