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Halting the Natural Drift, Bridging the Gap

Wednesday, 12 Oct 2016
Jeffrey Jones

Ranyard, J. C., Fildes, R

In this article we explore the extent to which the ‘natural drift’ – the gap between academic research and the needs of clients and organisations (which is common to all professional occupations) - still exists for OR today and the consequential dangers to our profession. We summarise some corrective actions that are being taken in the UK and suggest further actions that could support the long term health of our profession.

The motivation

In our global survey of OR practice, we found that the IFORS representatives for many national OR societies had few, if any, links with practitioners, even though some of the countries had known practitioner communities. This indicates a lack of commitment to practice which we believe to be of concern. Also, national and international OR conferences are almost exclusively targeted at academics, although the UK’s national conference, which regularly attracts 30-40% practitioners, is an exception as is (possibly) the INFORMS practitioner conference (now labelled ”Business Analytics and Operations Research”). Finally we have concern that the academic literature, despite documenting key breakthroughs that are of relevance to practice, is largely impenetrable to practitioners. It is long-standing problem but as we will argue in the third article, it is perhaps even more important now than when Ackoff (amongst others) raised it in the 1970s.

Dangers of the Natural Drift

In our extensive literature review (Ranyard and Fildes, 2015), we noted that concerns about the natural drift have been raised for decades in the OR community but Corbett & van Wassenhove (1993) – building on Abbott (1988) - confirmed that this gap existed for almost all professional bodies. They believed that this gap is potentially dangerous for the long term survival of a discipline such as OR. Starting with the fundamental challenge of survival, the problems that arise from the drift are that the demand for OR and for OR qualified graduates diminishes; while the subject can survive in a university setting for many years, its declining influence, from an incapacity to attract students to limited research funding and no public profile, in the end can lead to its demise.  There is evidence of this in the US which typically have seen OR courses in MBA programmes dropped and specialist courses replaced by ‘Business Analytics’ or similar.

Corbett and van Wassenhove suggested two remedies:

  1. Better marketing of OR so as to raise the profile of OR’s relevance and effectiveness.

Much progress has been made in recent years, particularly by the US and UK societies, for example the ‘Science of Better’ initiative, the Edelman Award, the President’s Medal, HORF (The  Heads of OR Forum) and the INFORMS Roundtable, school’s initiative etc. Some believe that changing OR’s label to include business analytics and/or data science would enable wider understanding but the jury is still out on this! It is certainly true that OR has a much lower profile in the popular management forums than its potential challenger, business analytics.

  1. To regard OR as ‘Engineering’ so as to help to bridge the gap between research and practice.

The aim would be to prioritise the development of tools that are closely aligned with organisational problems…but in order to achieve this an understanding of the consultancy process and organizational context is needed. The proposed solution has to be ‘engineered’ into the problem context taking into account all the various constraints from data to the actors who are involved in any implementation.

OR in academia and its publications

Ormerod (2002) claimed that “OR is defined by its practice and not by the maintenance of its body of knowledge” but journals and most conferences show a dominance of abstract mathematical OR disassociated from practice. The few case studies that are published often omit rich detail on the process of achieving change. In Fildes’ recent Beale lecture, he demonstrated how few of the JORS papers were engaged with practice – most of those papers which included reference to an application just used stylised data.  The reasons for this are well known: editors (and conference organisers) insistence on ‘innovation and rigour’ and a readership targeted at those with an in-depth understanding of the specific problem area addressed in each paper. (We were surprised that the paper documenting the results of our survey of OR practice, sponsored by IFORS, was rejected by ITOR (the main IFORS journal) as not meeting its criteria!) The result is a style of paper that is largely impenetrable to practitioners. This seems to us to be a scandalous waste of research resources!

Some Solutions

Encouraging links between academics and practitioners and promoting collaborative research

In fact the OR Society has done and is doing much to encourage links between researchers and practitioners. In recent years, activities under the Making an Impact label at our national conference have helped to maintain the traditional academic/practitioner balance by providing activities aimed at specifically practitioner’s interests (such as workshops, tutorials, mentoring and networking). Making an Impact sessions were also provided by UK organisers at the EURO conference in Glasgow last year and will be continued at this year’s EURO conference in Poznan. In addition, EURO is setting up of a practitioner’s network, which should help to foster practitioner-academic liaison across Europe. COPIOR, the Committee of Professors in OR, and HORF are now meeting regularly to promote common interests and collaborative projects.

 The recent inclusion of ‘impact’ as a key criterion in the Research Excellent Framework - REF - (which prioritises research funding in the UK) is also an attempt to close the gap. Here the impact of theoretical work has to be substantiated by organizational beneficiaries. In the last REF a number of OR case studies were submitted, the Lancaster Forecasting Centre being one, where the gap between theory and practice is demonstrably linked. The OR Society’s new magazine style publication ‘Impact’ will also promote applicable research. The Edelman competition in the US as well as the President’s medal in the UK also aim to demonstrate and reward best practice. Also many  academic OR departments collaborate with local – and increasingly national – organisations, including offering cost-effective Master’s projects and internships.

Finally, a recent innovative initiative at Cornell universitie’s OR department in the USA has been to found a professorship of OR practice in honour of Art Geoffrion, one of OR’s influential thinkers about the relationship between theory and practice. 

Increasing the Accessibility of OR Journals

In some journals the theoretical focus we describe has come under fire. This concern has been emphasised in a paper by Tang (2015), referring to Operations Management, where he summarises the reasons for this status quo and offers some remedies. This has led to lively exchanges in an INFORMS online discussion forum and a number of practical suggestions for change. These include:

-          Insisting that all authors explain at the beginning of their paper, how their research is relevant to a real world problem

-          Ensuring that the introduction section is comprehensible to those outside the particular domain

-          Providing two abstracts, one aimed at researchers in the domain (the normal target audience) and a second – a marketing one – aimed at those outside the research domain who might benefit from the research.

Ormerod’s (2013) recommendations as to how applications should be written up to increase our understanding of practice are particularly helpful here and include discussion of the: roles of the author and other actors, the process and progress of the interventions and the barriers to improvement encountered.


To this we would add that paper titles could often be more helpful. A recent paper in JORS, 2014, entitled “A compromised multi-objective solution using fuzzy mixed integer goal programming for market-based short-term unit commitment problem” could have been entitled “Optimising power generation” and would have had a better chance of reaching those planning such operations! Perhaps there is a case for having two titles for some papers?  Seriously, editors need to expect authors who have any aspiration to an application to discuss the path towards implementation. Clearer labelling (through a key word or perhaps separating out theoretical papers from the remainder) would perhaps help. Sadly few case study papers are submitted to OR journals but those that are should be required to provide details of the implementation process, not just the approach and benefits .


The Way Ahead

In summary, there are a number of established and new actions that the OR societies are putting in place but there is still more to be done. We hope these ideas will lead to creative discussion within the UK OR community….and hopefully beyond.


Abbott, A. (1988). The System of Professions: an Essay on the Division of Expert Labour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Corbett, C. J., & Van Wassenhove, L. N. (1993). The natural drift - what happened to operations-research. Operations Research, 41, 625-640.

Ormerod, R. J. (2002). On the nature of OR: taking stock. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 53, 475-491.

Ormerod, R. J. (2013). The mangle of OR practice: towards more informative case studies of/technical'projects. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 65, 1-16.

Ranyard, J. C., Fildes, R., & Hu, T.-I. (2015). Reassessing the scope of OR practice: The Influences of Problem Structuring Methods and the Analytics Movement. European Journal of Operational Research, 245, 1-1Tang C. S. (2016) OM Forum—Making OM Research More Relevant: “Why?” and “How?”.  Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 18(2):178-183.




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