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Posted 8th Sep 2013

A window on the world of O.R.?

Geoff Royston

The “invisibility cloak” of science fiction is now fact, albeit with limitations. O.R. could claim to have had the power of invisibility for years, though not by desire; what we want is the opposite - a high-visibility jacket! Indeed, part of the mission of the OR Society is to help make our presence more visible. But perception involves both the observed and the observer. And all of us have open and hidden parts.

To help understand that, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, two US psychologists, devised, back in the mid 1950s, an approach called (after the first parts of their names) the Johari window, as illustrated below.

The “open” window pane is the part of ourselves that both we and others see. The “hidden” window pane is our private space, which we know but others do not. The “blind” window pane is what others see but we are not aware of. The “unknown” is the part of us that is seen by neither ourselves nor others.

A Johari window for O.R.?

The Johari window was designed to illuminate interpersonal perception, but can we perhaps apply the idea to perceptions of O.R.?
The “open” part would be the traditional part of O.R.– quantitative analysis in routing, scheduling, packing  etc - what might be called “decision physics”. 
The “hidden” part might be the softer parts of O.R. – although I ‘m sure we don’t actively hide it, managers nevertheless often don’t see that we can help with problem framing and structuring tasks, not just with crunching numbers.
The” blind” part could be the behavioural aspects of issues – by our focusing strongly on modelling the “physics” rather than the “psychology” of situations O.R. seems to be a bit behind, compared to say some parts of economics, in incorporating into our models the latest developments in the science of human thinking and behaviour.
Finally, what about the “unknown“ part? A candidate for this might be our work on system design – as I have written about before, a high proportion of O.R. is about this but we often seem to give little recognition to or publicity for that compared to our work on decision making  – and so risk both we and our clients under-estimating its contribution. 

If we are to fulfill a role as a visibly coherent science of systems improvement O.R. needs to openly embody all four panes of this window. This would involve more than purely presentational changes, it would require some reframing of education and training in O.R., about which I made some suggestions in the June issue of Inside O.R.  One result of that reframing should be to gain a position where both we and our clients see us through an integrated “skills window” as shown below.

Fostering Behavioural Operational Research

I suggest that the biggest tasks are those related to opening up the two elements on the right of the skills window – a greater focus on modelling human behaviour and on enhancing our thinking about system design. I wrote something about O.R. and design in Inside O.R. last September and there is some work now going on to see how the OR Society might collaborate with organisations such as the Design Society and the Design Research Society to progress that area. What about modelling human behaviour?

The performance of organisations and other human activity systems inevitably depends on the thinking and behaviour of all the people who work in, are clients of, or otherwise interact with them. So consideration of cognitive and behavioural factors should play a major role in O.R. and O.R., as a multi- or trans-disciplinary endeavour, should draw strongly on the behavioural sciences.

Recent publications indicate increased interest in behavioural and cognitive aspects of O.R.  Many address mainly “process” related issues such as how people understand O.R. models. That is an important issue but behavioural and cognitive O.R. needs also to embrace “content” related issues, by analysing and modelling the behavioural and cognitive elements of the situation or system that is being investigated.  Indeed in the specific field of operations management there is now a recognised topic of behavioural operations.

These are encouraging signs but there has not been a specific focus within the UK O.R. community for promoting and fostering this area. The OR Society is planning some activity to help speed growth and spread visibility and awareness. This could help bring what currently appear rather scattered efforts into a more coherent and systematic approach; under the umbrella of behavioural operational research.

A small group of members of the Society who are active in behavioural operational research and/or have a particular interest in it are beginning to address how the Society could best assist development in this area. If you are interested in participating in this initiative, do please get in touch with me (email: