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Tuesday, 17 Mar 2015

Ruth Kaufman

For the last few years I have been writing occasional leaders in my role as chair of the OR Society’s Publicity, Membership and Website committee. I am no longer chair of PMW, having passed the baton on to Jane Parkin, and this is my first leader in the role of President Elect.

I am absolutely delighted to be in this august role, but also slightly surprised –it is not something I foresaw 40 years ago, when I took my first naïve steps into the world of O.R., nor even 5 years ago when I took early retirement and launched into the patchwork world of the self-employed. It crept up on me.

That puts it in the same class as the subject of this leader: the discovery that – rather like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain, who was overwhelmed to be told that he had been speaking prose all his life – my friendly interchanges with a life-time of co-workers and other random people constitute ‘Networking’; and my various address-books, scraps of paper and business card collection constitute a ‘Network’.

I never set out to build a network. ‘Networking’, I thought, meant selecting contacts according to their usefulness; and using them to gain unfair advantage, via cronyism or nepotism. Unethical, and joyless. However, as I moved through the world of work, I met analysts, other colleagues and customers. I liked (most of) them. I learned from (almost all of) them. I went to the occasional conference or Special Interest Group meeting, and met interesting people. I became involved in voluntary activities and met campaigners, volunteers, beneficiaries, donors. People I knew introduced me to people they knew. It turns out that all this was networking, and that everybody I haven’t lost touch with over the years is my network.

“Networking” is what underpins giving, taking and sharing: be it Information, opinions, speculations, criticism, advice, perspectives; be it shoulders, to cry on or stand on; heads, two of which are better than one; hands which can be lent; ears which can be bent; brains which can be picked or racked. It supports illumination, innovation, education, for individuals and for the wider community.

All professionals benefit from interchange with other professionals, but arguably it is particularly important for O.R. workers. By its nature, O.R. forces you beyond your own speciality. It calls for multi-disciplinarity – working with people from other professions; for real-world implementation – working with problem-owners and decision-makers; for discovering the business within which your O.R. problem is set; for working on novel projects rather than business-as-usual.

One consequence is that (a) we are often dangerously ignorant but (b) there are usually other people who can spot that – and given half a chance will take great pleasure in putting us right. Another is that sharing information and insights can lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. An excellent way of opening the door to both those happy outcomes is to get out there and meet people.

That is exactly what conferences are for. Academics and academia tend to be well-aware of this. Practitioners, however, are less so, and their employers less supportive unless there are tangible benefits. That is why the forthcoming Euro2015 will be following the path set by recent OR Society conferences, to include activities intended to directly benefit practitioners: practical case studies, the Making an Impact practitioners’ stream, and the chance to develop their own networks.

But there is a problem. It cannot be denied that a great many people who are attracted to O.R., able mathematicians, keen to tidy up problems and sort out messes, are actually rather shy and introverted. We are not naturals at walking up to people we do not know and introducing ourselves. We are also self-deprecating souls, who do not wish to impose on a stranger’s time and find it hard to know what they might see in us. We may even be optimisers, keen not to waste time with people who we find dull and uninteresting.

To address this, we have introduced “Speed networking” at recent OR Society conferences, and will be running it again at Euro2015. Speed networking is safe; fun; and above all inclusive so that everyone gets a chance to be welcomed into the professional community. For more information about speed networking, and Euro2015 as a whole, go to [website reference to follow].

Of course, you can simply leave your professional interchanges to chance, and allow them to accumulate as you wander through life. But also, you can give fate a helping hand, and speed the process up a bit, by coming to the conference.

Returning to the title of this leader: certainly, a lot of what I know comes from courses, books, websites, journals... But a lot of what I know – indeed, the deepest wisdom, the widest variety, the greatest stimulant to reflection - comes from who I know. If that includes you: thank you!

 
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