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Operational Research

Operational Research from Taylorism to Terabytes: A Research Agenda for the Analytics Age

Stewart Robinson’s opening address at this week’s Operational Research Society Conference (OR56) asked whether the OR Society should become the Analytics Society.

Robinson OR-analyticsHe presented his thoughts, based on his work with Michael Mortensen and Neil Doherty which has just been published in this Open Access paper which highlights:

  • a significant lack of research into analytics in operational research orientated publications.
  • the histories of operational research, analytics and a range of related disciplines.
  • the relationship between these disciplines and how they are perceived by the wider business community.
  • suggested routes for future research that can combine key themes in analytics and operational research.

The Abstract says:

The growing attention and prominence afforded to analytics presents a genuine challenge for the operational research community. Many in the community have recognised this growth and sought to align themselves with analytics. For instance, the US operational research society INFORMS now offers analytics related conferences, certification and a magazine. However, as shown in this research, the volume of analytics-orientated studies in journals associated with operational research is comparatively low. This paper seeks to address this paradox by seeking to better understand what analytics is, and how operational research is related to it. To do so literature from a range of academic disciplines is analysed, in what is conceived as concurrent histories in the shared tradition of a management paradigm spread over the last 100 years. The findings of this analysis reveal new insights as to how operational research exists within an ecosystem shared with several other disciplines, and how interactions and ripple effects diffuse knowledge and ideas between each. Whilst this ecosystem is developed and evolved through interdisciplinary collaborations, individual disciplines are cast into competition for the attention of the same business users. These findings are further explored by discussing the implication this has for operational research, as well as considering what directions future research may take to maximise the potential value of these relationships.

My thoughts:

I loved the description of the Dianoetic Management Paradigm (DMP) with its six phases of management thinking (from Scientific Management to Analytics).  It’s a great way of looking at how data-based approaches to management have evolved and very neatly helps people avoid the temptation to jump on the latest bandwagon.  Analytics is certainly the current “fad”, but the DMP implies that something new will be along eventually, so putting all your eggs in the Analytics basket is probably not a great strategy for sustainability.

This very much mirrors my experience of “Continuous Improvement”.  My first involvement was TQM, back in the 1980s.  That was, however, an evolution from Quality Control and arguably, Scientific Management as well.  We’ve subsequently seen:

  • Business Process Reengineering
  • Business Excellence (& the EFQM Excellence Model)
  • Six Sigma
  • Lean
  • Lean Sigma
  • Systems Thinking
  • Anti-Fragility
  • and more, no doubt!

I completely agree with the paper’s view that Isolationist or Faddist approaches are risky; I’m very much a pragmatist and believe that, for Continuous Improvement as well as OR, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.  The paper recommends a balanced approach that can both highlight the many qualities and successes of the discipline (OR), as well as engaging with the new concerns of analytics and the wider ecosystem.

The About Us page of my blog says: “We’re not wedded to a particular improvement methodology, but over the years we’ve learnt most of them and helped clients apply them, tailored to their starting point and needs.”  I have worked with more than 200 clients and helped implement a wide range of approaches to improve customer satisfaction, reduce process cycle-times, drive out waste and actively engage staff in continuous performance improvement.  I’m not too worried about what the approach is called as long as it’s about continuous improvement and tapping into the potential of all employees.

Oh, and the answer to Stewart’s question: no, the OR Society should not change its name to the Analytics Society (AS).  They might, however, want to protect themselves from the risk of an AS being formed, by grabbing that name and related internet domain names.  [A Google Search for “the Analytics Society” brings up plenty of OR Society links]

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Stewart Robinson is Professor of Management Science and Associate Dean Research at Loughborough University, School of Business and Economics.  Previously employed in simulation consultancy, he supported the use of simulation in companies throughout Europe and the rest of the world.  He is author/co-author of five books on simulation.  His research focuses on the practice of simulation model development and use.  Key areas of interest are conceptual modelling, model validation, output analysis and alternative simulation methods (discrete-event, system dynamics and agent based).  Stewart is co-founder of the Journal of Simulation and the Simulation Workshop conference series.  He helped lead the development of the first OR-based Masters course in Analytics in the UK and currently he is helping to lead an OR Society Charitable Project on Analytics Education.  Home page: www.stewartrobinson.co.uk.  .

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