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Posted 05 July 2013

YOR18 – OR – A Twenty Twenty Vision?

YOR18 – the 18th Young [to] OR Conference – got off to a great start with the plenary session given by the President of the OR Society, Dr Geoff Royston. Antuela Tako, the chair of the organising committee, began the proceedings by telling the audience what had been planned for them and how to find out more about streams.

Dr Royston started by recognising that the audience represented the next generation. This was particularly pertinent as his talk was aimed at getting the delegates to think about how they saw OR in general and the ORS in particular developing over the next decade. He explored the threats and opportunities for OR over the next decade, in particular highlighting key growth points. He then set out a number of alternative futures for OR with a view to eliciting feedback from the audience by considering the merits of each possible future and participating in a group exercise. This exercise he believed would prove useful to the O.R. Society in determining directions to follow and useful to the individuals when contemplating which career direction in O.R. to follow. He emphasised the importance of being involved with the community of O.R. and thought that practitioners and academics alike should foster a sense of belonging by being members of the Operational Research Society throughout their career.

O.R. is a special science like medicine or engineering, O.R. is for improving things. It is the science of improving systems – complex and dynamic systems which involve resources, money and people. In three words O.R. is “System Improvement Science.”

The Society’s vision is, “To see a world improved by rigorous analysis and better evidence based decision making.” And two of its aims are: “members should try to ensure that decision makers actually understood what O.R. was, and be made aware of where to seek it” and; “to try and ensure that its members were knowledgeable, well trained and in good supply”.

Dr Royston reminded his audience that Operational Research was 75 years old and of how it rose to prominence after it had made significant and important contributions to the allied war effort during WWII. The appliance of such science as O.R. may well have been a decisive factor in defeating the enemy.

O.R. professionals had for example, played a huge part in the development of “Chain Home”, the defence early warning system used to scramble fighters to meet incoming enemy aircraft using a ring of coastal radar stations and observers. At sea, OR was used to devise the system of convoy protection and determine the best tactics to combat the submarine (u-boat) menace. Indeed, it has been claimed that OR was a decisive factor in both the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic.

After the war of course, O.R. quickly became recognised for its optimisation capabilities and a large spectrum of techniques which have helped it become adopted by many industries including utilities, engineering, transport, health services and logistics to name but a few examples.

O.R. today was everywhere, helped in no small part by the current popularity of ‘Analytics’ although O.R. people had been facilitating ‘analytics’ based solutions for many years prior to the advent of ‘analytics’. According to Dr Royston, “Analytics was going to make or break O.R..”

Situations can be uncertain, complex and changing and there is often a wealth of data available which people don't yet know how best to analyse. It was also notable that decision-makers were not necessarily numerate. Good decision-making needed a mixture of intuition and analysis and those making decisions needed the support of numerate individuals to assist them in the process, O.R. professionals could provide this assistance.

The Operational Research professional is equipped with a wide spectrum of tools to navigate complex, uncertain and changing systems. Decision support, optimising systems and providing real-world benefits through analysis are all aspects of OR.

Many managers have latched onto the 80/20 concept. They are looking at how to get 20% of effort to give 80% of the results, and that is one of the reasons why they need Operational Research. There is a case for analysts being 80/20 as well. The analyst needs to enable the client to solve the problem for themselves, at least at the conceptual level. The client does not need to get involved in the maths or computing but if they understand some of the concepts they can work for themselves.

It is important that decision makers do not carry around the wrong concepts. In hospitals, many still see spare capacity as a “waste” but it is not, spare capacity is a “resource”. If run a hospital with no spare capacity, it will be unable to cope with unexpected peaks in demand (e.g. a coach, train or aeroplane crash). A small amount of spare capacity also allows for better management of critical resources – it can give managers time to be proactive rather than always being reactive.

Communication is also of prime importance – getting your message across in a way that your client can easily understand. Very often this can be done using simple, clear graphs.

Dr Royston’s final message was, "The future of O.R. is going to depend on how much it is valued and its visibility. It is no good to be valued but not visible; the best aim is to be valued and visible. We are probably reasonably valued but not very visible yet".