Leader: The 3-D View


I’d like to focus my first leader article as President Elect on what I see as three key themes in industry: Data, Digital and Diversity (of thought). I’m absolutely convinced that The OR Society and the wider OR community has much it can contribute to this debate; I’ll lay out my thoughts and ideas in the coming paragraphs.

I ought to start with a point of clarification. ‘Digital’ is a term regularly referred to in business, government and charity blogs and articles, often with the assumption that the reader knows exactly what it means. In this context, digital simply refers to how content is delivered, often through the cloud, but generally by electronic means to improve accessibility.

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In recent years, much of the focus under the heading of ‘data’ has been on the proliferation of data and using more and more of it. Naturally, this has had significance for ‘hard’ OR, but the softer side of OR has been underplayed. The Heads of OR and Analytics Forum, comprising some 70 leaders of OR and analytics practitioner groups, has recently undertaken a review of the use of soft OR in practice: Reinvigorating Soft OR for Practitioners: Report to HORAF. The report found that soft OR is well used in practice, and is in excellent health. I firmly believe that soft OR is the other part of our toolkit that allows us to bring an holistic approach to what might be viewed as data projects.

The Society has a key role to evangelise about this; it can bring huge benefits. The HORAF report has a series of recommendations which I’d be keen that we follow up.

We’re all strong believers that OR is extremely useful in times of change, and the adoption of the digital agenda is certainly an opportunity to show how OR can help to shape its use and ensure the potential benefits are realised. Aside from the ability to come at any such issues using either (or both) soft and hard techniques and agile methods, the links to behavioural OR can also add a distinctive flavour to our approach.

Diversity of thought is something that comes naturally to OR folk; it’s almost a standard way of approaching our various projects and business issues. But it’s nonetheless an important point to consider. Within my own organisation, BT, I have responsibility for many things AI-related. The Society’s already involved in many initiatives on this front, including the ValidateAI conferences (https://validateai.org/) and the Analytics Development Group looking at responsible AI. Having a diversity of thought should lead us to consider where we, either as a society, or as organisations, can get involved in auditing AI algorithms, systems or even whole organisations.

So, what might we do? Here, I turn from three Ds to three Rs: recruitment, retention and reskilling. All three fall perfectly into the Society’s charitable objectives and are essentially builds on much of what is already done. Recruitment, bringing more people into both the profession and the Society, is something that’s developing with the introduction of apprenticeships in OR and related disciplines.

As we read in last month’s InsideOR, the first cohort have started on the level 7 (Masters equivalent) OR Specialist programme. The challenge is to build wider take up with other employers, and potentially figuring out how to co-ordinate smaller groups which might only need to put one or two people through such a scheme each year. Remember that (some) employers can spend their apprenticeship levy, making this almost free. Work is about to begin on a level 6 standard which potentially brings scope for improving diversity within the profession.

Retention is clearly allied to recruitment; we want to keep people in the profession either through their current roles, or in using and relying on OR and analytics skills as they perhaps move to more general management roles.

Reskilling, or more generally providing continuous professional development, is at the heart of what the Society does. It can continue to take advantage of its own digital transformation with the widening of scope of its webinars, considering podcasts and switching to hybrid delivery of conferences and events. This last example is a real challenge to ensure all delegates at such events are fully engaged and getting the learning and networking benefits, but it’s a perfect example of how we might combine the three Ds and the three Rs for the good of our community.

In summary, if we really want to get deeply involved in the big issues (and I’m certainly not suggesting that we’re not), I think we must capitalise on the marriage of soft and hard OR. AI is a perfect example of a big opportunity on the hard side of OR, but it isn’t completely relevant for strategic issues such as sustainability. If we successfully combine all aspects of out toolkit, then we really can be at the centre of global issues.