A pair of firms provide technology to help with decision-making

By Steven Overly
Monday, October 18, 2010

The litany of high-stakes decisions that come with business never ends. Hiring executives. Investing money. Cultivating relationships. Developing products.

A crystal ball sure would be nice.

Two local companies that produce products that help with decision-making haven't developed one of those, but each provides technology to reduce the complexity and uncertainty inherent in determining courses of action. Both count a diverse clientele that includes major corporations, National Football League teams and several branches of the military.

Their approaches differ -- one provides software, the other interactive videos -- and neither serves as a complete replacement for human judgment.

Decision Lens

Several companies offer software that uses a mathematical theory called the Analytic Hierarchy Process to help companies navigate complex decisions. But Decision Lens co-founders and brothers Daniel and John Saaty have at least one advantage: Their father invented it.

The Arlington-based company's software allows a decision-maker to prioritize and assign numerical values to the factors that impact on a decision. The software then analyzes the input from multiple stakeholders and ranks potential outcomes.

"It helps organize and draw out the inherent judgment and trade-offs that you would be making in a more sophisticated way," said chief executive John Saaty.

For example, he said NFL recruiters have used the software to quantify the value of certain draft picks over others based on performance data, as well as intangible attributes such as charisma and leadership skills.

Thomas Saaty, the co-founders' father, originated the Analytic Hierarchy Process in the 1970s after spending years in the State Department grappling with complex disarmament issues for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

"The human mind is a receptacle of a lot of information, but it does not have a good way to lay things out," said Thomas Saaty, 84, a University of Pittsburgh professor. "You have to find an organized way of putting it all down and prioritizing what is really important and what is not."

Seven years ago, the brothers pulled together $120,000 to bootstrap a business built on their father's theory. John Saaty said the company has had 30 to 40 percent growth in recent years, and the company ranked 769 on Inc. magazine's list of the 5,000 fast-growing companies.

"To actually see the theory taken and spread this quickly in an applied way, he absolutely loves it," John Saaty said of his father. "It's sort of a family effort."

WILL Interactive

Sharon Sloane began her career as an educator and learned one key lesson: "Experience is the best teacher."

But a person cannot live out every decision before it's made. So in the late 1990s, Sloane patented an interactive video technology to help people play them out virtually.

"The decisions people make are not based solely on knowledge, skills or information, [so] we really needed to address the other side of the brain," Sloane said. "How do you engage people at a level that is emotionally engaging to them as well as cognitively engaging?"

That's the basis for her company, Potomac-based WILL Interactive, which merges the engaging elements of a movie, such as multidimensional characters and real-life scenarios, with the interactivity of a video game.

The viewer has control over the characters' key decisions and can watch as the repercussions play out. To establish a substantive connection with the films, Sloane said the videos employ real actors and the scripts are adapted from actual events.

"We bring the decision-making training and the ability to influence people to a lot of different topics and audiences," rather than specializing in one or two areas, she said. "We really view technology here as an enabler."

While the technology can be applied to a plethora of topics, Sloane said the videos generally serve specific audiences. For example, the company has produced videos on financial literacy for the NFL and post-traumatic stress disorder for the military.

But Sloane said that decisions, especially as they increase in complexity, always bring unforeseen circumstances. Real life cannot be completely replicated in a video.

"There is always the highly unlikely event that could occur," she said. "So what we do is give a whole range of potential outcomes that cover the most likely 99 percent."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company