Ernest Forman

Ideal Practices

There is often a gap between theory and reality.  Thanks to Ernest Forman, however, that gap is one society can hope to bridge.

A professor of decision sciences at The George Washington University, Ernest was teaching a range of business school classes like statistical decision making and operations management when he came to a disturbing realization.  “It began to dawn on me that there was a considerable distance between what we were teaching and what was actually practical,” he recalls today.  “What’s more, I noticed that what we were calling ‘best practices’ weren’t even that good, and often lacked a theoretical foundation.  In that gap between common, everyday practices and best practices, I began to develop what I now call ‘ideal practices.’”

Ernest’s goal was elegant in its simplicity: to base the student experience on concepts that were theoretically sound and whose pragmatic validity did not dissolve when translated to real-world scenarios.  The PC had just come out, and Ernest became acquainted with the work of Thomas Saaty, a professor at Wharton School of Business who had developed the theory of analytic hierarchy process (AHP).  Through this methodology, a problem is decomposed into its various sub-problems and then analyzed in a mathematical and neutral manner, thus evolving the decision making process from a subjective art to a more objective science and enabling users to discern the best decision in the context of their own unique goals, preferences, and values.

Seeing how the philosophy could be marketed across a broad range of industries, and after reconnecting with a colleague who had studied under Saaty, Ernest met Saaty himself.  The ideas of the two visionaries seemed perfectly aligned, and they set about developing software that could automate this objective and rational way of conceptualizing of the world.  Thus, in 1983, Expert Choice, Inc., a software and consulting company committed to turning best practices into ideal practices, was born.

Ernest had started a software company before, but Expert Choice was a shift away from that path.  Another notable aspect of the Expert Choice journey was that Ernest was able to overcome a criticism that AHP was flawed because it allowed for something called “rank reversal.”  “People were dismissing it, but I knew there was a way to overcome this aspect of AHP and to develop some very useful peripheral activities for the system based upon its fundamental theories,” he explains.  After working together many years, Saaty spun off and launched a family business with his two sons, but the Expert Choice programs and their offshoots remain the most widely used decision methodologies in the world today.

“When people approach decisions, they often debate the alternatives.  It turns out, however, that it’s much more effective to debate the objectives,” Ernest points out.  “What are you trying to achieve?  Our process works by first identifying your objectives from a strategic perspective in a top down fashion, including the mission, vision, goals, and objectives of your organization.  Then you look at your alternatives to determine which ones contribute to the various objectives, and how these connections interplay to lead you to the best decision.  In short, our applications are used to structure complexity, to measure tradeoffs, and to synthesize to arrive at a solution.”

Through this approach, Expert Choice is able to help people across a myriad of scenarios, whether someone’s trying to decide which company to acquire, where to invest, or how to be an effective leader.  “We can apply this technology to any decision, whether it’s how to negotiate with a competing party, or which cancer treatment would be optimal for a given patient,” says Ernest.  “By accepting data and judgments from the many different players involved in a decision, the software can help identify the best decision.”

The software also becomes invaluable in issues of resource allocation in which decision makers must choose a combination of alternatives, rather than just one.  The federal government, for example, has been tasked with cutting back the budget, and Expert Choice could be used to make important decisions in the allocation of funds and resources.  “One of the most important things about the process, aside from synthesizing qualitative and quantitative information, is the potential for communication,” Ernest points out.  “One person can never have all the answers, so people have to communicate with each other.  Debating values and recognizing that different people have different objectives is important.  It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem and force everyone to agree, but it at least illuminates the possibilities and increases the chance of arriving at a win-win situation.”

Expert Choice currently has fifteen employees and is defined by its phenomenal development team as much as it is defined by its unparalleled product.  When he’s not working in this capacity, Ernest’s main focus and love is teaching decision making and resource allocation principles at The George Washington University’s graduate school of business to MBA students, as well as to a combination of on-campus and distance students, in its well-known MS in Project Management program.  Across these two interconnected spheres of his professional life, he recognizes decision software and methodology as the way of the future and strives to prepare clients and students alike for what’s to come.  “Generally speaking, there exists a big time lapse between when things are first developed and when they’re widely accepted,” he explains.  “It was that way with email, and I believe we’re witnessing a similar trend with this technology.  There is certainly a pressing need for it.  Today, the big decisions faced by organizations are decided by a bunch of guys and gals sitting around talking or what we jokingly refer to a BOGGSAT.  There is a better way, and that is AHP.”

The son of a taxi driver, Ernest was raised in New York City and attended high school in Queens.  It was here that he met the love of his life, the former Mary Ann Selly, with whom he later collaborated to create two companies, Decision Support Software and Expert Choice, and with whom he co-authored a book called Decision by Objectives.  His high school offered a strong academic curriculum, and he also enjoyed running track and cross-country.  The track team won the Queens County Championship all four years of his high school career, and his coach also happened to teach honor’s English, coaching his students in college admittance just as he led them to success in running.  “I had never given much thought to college before that, so his influence really opened doors,” Ernest reflects today.  Ernest was awarded a Navy scholarship and a New York State scholarship, opting to use both to attend the University of Rochester.  “My coach cautioned me against committing to four years of active duty, but my parents couldn’t afford to help, so I accepted it anyway.  It was something I had never planned for, but it all worked out great—almost serendipitously,” he marvels.  “I loved all five years I spent in the Navy, undergoing midshipman training and flying propeller and jet planes.”

Following this defining experience, Ernest spent another five years teaching in Admiral Rickover’s nuclear power program during the Vietnam War.  He also earned his master’s from Johns Hopkins University in management science, in which he studied the mathematically-based techniques for better management that form the essence of decision making.  After serving his country, he took a job with a think tank in McLean, Virginia called The MITRE Corporation, which was a great experience, albeit somewhat limiting.  “We were only advising, not doing,” he explains.

Then, in 1972, when a hands on project turned up, he jumped at the opportunity and worked on the development of the first distributed database system on the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “store and forward,” packet-switched network called ARPANET—the precursor to the Internet.  Meanwhile, he earned his doctorate degree at George Washington, at which time the engineering school offered him a yearlong adjunct faculty position.  After taking a sizeable pay cut to accept the position, he then had the opportunity to transition over into the business school.  “That shift provided a nice contrast in that, with engineering, you often learn an array of disciplines and how they operate.  Business, on the other hand, is a much softer science,” Ernest points out.  “One of the biggest differences is the way things are measured in technical sciences versus social sciences, and that has figured prominently into how our software works.  We’re able to derive priorities to reflect what people really mean, so their decisions are much more faithful to their wants.”

In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Ernest details three different kinds of people that one can expect to encounter in life.  “There are those that make things happen, those to whom things happen, and those who wake up one day and say, ‘what happened?’” he explains.  “No matter how smart you are, unless you’re one of those that make things happen, you’re not doing it right.  You have to make a difference.  You don’t have to be the brightest or the wealthiest, but you have to find something worthwhile to do.  If you find something worthwhile that you enjoy, you’ll be successful.”

Beyond this, Ernest stresses the importance of what might best be characterized as a lifelong pursuit of knowledge, a healthy dose of skepticism, or perhaps even the “ideal practice” for going through one’s days.  “So many things in life are not intuitive, but instead run contrary to common knowledge,” he explains.  “Conventional wisdom is often wrong.”  Looking at the world with this understanding allows one to travel off the beaten path, pursuing innovation and garnering success as Ernest himself has done with Expert Choice.

Ernest lived in accordance with this philosophy even before the Expert Choice journey began, his first invention being a double entry bookkeeping system that could be utilized by people who didn’t even know accounting.  That technology was purchased by Dow Jones, confirming a flare for the entrepreneurial in Ernest that he had never intentionally developed.  Rather, the expression of this trait has always been organic in nature and solutions-oriented in intent.  One summer, for instance, his house and car air conditioners both broke at the same time, and being low on cash, he read up on how to fix them himself.  Interested by the process, he enrolled in a high school air conditioning course and then started a modest air conditioning business.  “I would take my kids out on runs with me, and they’d watch me traipse into attics to change expansion valves,” he remembers fondly.  “Now, both of them are very handy themselves.

“That’s why I love teaching so much,” he continues.  “When you pursue a theme of constant learning throughout your life, you’ll come across knowledge that benefits both yourself and society.  You can then use that expertise to serve a need, and people will appreciate what you’re doing.”  It is at this juncture, where genuine interest meets utilitarian value to create a passion that betters both self and society, that Ernest has achieved his greatest success, and where future successes inevitably await.

Ernest Forman

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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