2019 Beale Lecture Mike Jackson

Mike C Jackson – “The future of OR is present”

The OR Society’s Beale Medal is awarded each year in memory of the late Martin Beale. It gives formal recognition to a sustained contribution over many years to the theory, practice, or philosophy of OR in the UK, or to some combination of those areas.

This year’s Beale lecture was given by Beale medal winner 2017 – Prof Mike C Jackson OBE, Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull. The title of his lecture was “The future of OR is present”.

Mike began his talk with a “couple of acknowledgements”, the first of these was to Martin Beale whose seminal work he said was “Mathematical Programming in Practice”, published in 1968. He said that if you read the first few pages of that book, you could see Beale was absolutely clear that he was “not interested in computer programming in order to solve mathematical problems; he was interested in mathematical programming for assisting with the solution of practical problems”.

The other acknowledgement was to Russ Ackoff, whose paper presented at the 1978 OR Conference in York was The Future of OR is Past. “This was the inspiration for the title of this talk”. At the York conference, Russ Ackoff argued that the deficiencies of OR could only be overcome by ‘a comprehensive re-conceptualisation of the field, its methodology, the way it is practised, and the way students were educated to practise it.’

However, Ackoff saw little chance of this happening and declared “the future of OR was past”. We now know he was wrong, and Mike Jackson wished to make it clear, that the efforts made to broaden the scope of OR would allow us, in 2019, to discern a bright future for the field. He also said that Ackoff’s point in 1978 was that he felt that OR had somehow betrayed its aspirations and intentions.

Ackoff saw OR as “being a holistic science, multidisciplinary, aimed at strategic problems in social systems – but he feared that under the influence of academics in US universities, OR had become far too mathematical and quantitative and had lost the link with practice, and therefore in his view it was stagnating.

Today, we know this perception was incorrect; even then, the future of OR was already present; it was in “good health” and today by concentrating on theoretical and methodological advances such as ‘soft OR’ and ‘multi-methodology’, and drawing upon developments in the related trans-discipline of systems thinking, a case could made for an invigorated ‘enhanced OR’ capable of helping decision-makers meet the challenges posed by modern day complexity.

However, some might wonder if an ‘enhanced’ approach could still be called OR. Mike Jackson argued that it most certainly was. Today, OR enabled the realisation of the original ambition of OR to become an interdisciplinary approach capable of engaging successfully with important, problematic issues set in social systems. Traditional OR he said, “was in rude health”.

Mike then talked about System Dynamics (SD) which had been developed by Jay Forrester - SD is often used as part of the OR toolset - and of Systems Thinking (ST). He said there were two types of ‘system’ personnel in OR, the pattern seekers - people who looked for patterns which can enable the determination of how best to organise systems, and the radicals who wanted to give a more radical edge to OR.

Socio-technical systems thinking was pattern seeking in the sense that it looked to group dynamics and about individual psychology, on that basis it could tell us something about how systems should be designed. Now looking ahead to the digital age, technical systems thinking, although developed quite some time ago, had become part of new and rapidly changing technology.

What the advocates of socio-technical thinking argued was that we shouldn’t be fooled by technological determinism, there was organisational choice, and if we wanted to get the best out of new technologies, then we’d have to jointly optimise the technology with the social system in which that was going to be used.

Referring to AI and ML, “We have to cope with this digital revolution, I am by no means a Luddite, and it’s a matter of getting the greatest benefit from these technologies that are coming about”.

Coming toward the end of his presentation Mike said there was a danger, though, that to be really significant in the digital age, we need also to overcome many of the problems associated with it.

Some of these other aspects of enhanced OR are capable of doing these things; avoid technological determinism (by using sociotechnical thinking); debate the purposes for which technology was being used (soft OR); democratize the development and employment of AI (soft OR); avoid unintended Kafkaesque consequences (SD); ensure humans are the masters and manage ethical issues (cybernetics); reveal biases (critical systems heuristics).

Can we manage the digital age any better than the industrial age?

Biographical information

Mike C Jackson OBE is Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull. Born in Hull, he was awarded an Open Exhibition at University College Oxford and graduated in PPE. He spent four years in the civil service before gaining an MA from Lancaster University and a PhD from the University of Hull. Mike has written seven books and over 100 articles on systems thinking and management, including some of the most cited in the field. He has edited Systems Research and Behavioural Science for 25 years. He was founding director of the Centre for Systems Studies at the University of Hull where he established ‘critical systems thinking’ as a major area of research and practice. Between 1999 and 2011 he was Dean of Hull University Business School and led it to triple-crown accreditation. Mike is a Chartered IT Professional and a Fellow of The OR Society, the British Computer Society, the Cybernetics Society and the Chartered Management Institute. He is a Companion of the Association of Business Schools. Mike has served on the General Council of The OR Society, been Chair of the UK Systems Society, and President of the International Federation for Systems Research and the International Society for the Systems Sciences. He has been a visiting professor at numerous international universities and been awarded two honorary doctorates. Mike received an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list, 2011, for services to higher education and business. His new book Critical Systems Thinking: Responsible Leadership for a Complex World was published by John Wiley & Sons on 1 March this year.