Leader: So long, and thanks for all the fish

This leader article is effectively my last in my current role as Executive Director for the Society; I’ll be finishing at the end of January. I’ll mention what comes next a little later on. The good news is that my successor, Seb Hargreaves, joined us at the beginning of the month and we’re well into all of the handover tasks. Seb will be doing an introductory article of his own so I won’t say more about him here.

Writing this piece allows me to wave my goodbyes, and to say thanks to lots of you who I’ve worked with and been helped by over the last 16 years. I hope it won’t turn into a gushing, Oscar acceptance-style list of names – there’s certainly too many to realistically mention here. I plan to talk a little about the changes I’ve seen over this period, but I’ll try to avoid being too self-congratulatory. All of the successes we’ve seen have been due to the incredible work of an army  of volunteers and the hard-working office staff, perhaps with a little help from my hand on the rudder.

My stint at the Society began in August 2006, following the retirement of my predecessor, Bob Miles, who’d been in the role for many years. We had the luxury of a three-month handover, although as an existing member who’d already been involved in many of the Society’s activities, I was familiar with much of what went on. Since that time, the nature of the staff activity has changed dramatically. At that time, we numbered around 10, and the work was almost all administrative. The picture now is very different; staff numbers have almost doubled, and we cover a much wider range of operational and strategic activities. Over my time I’ve explained many times how the nature of the volunteering has changed. Back in the 70s/80s/90s, the organisations allowing their staff to join our committee and working groups were far more generous with their allowances for attending meetings and for carrying out the follow-up actions. This century, our volunteers are far more time-poor, and more of the responsibility for the committee work falls back to the Society staff. The staff have seen a big increase both in their numbers and in the level of the work they undertake.


Gavin Blackett.jpg

Gavin Blackett

We still do many of the same activities as when I started – running events and conferences, publishing journals and magazines, and trying to increase knowledge of and interest in OR. The basics of these tasks have remained constant, but the complexity, the technology and market competitiveness have all increased. The looming threat of open access has been a constant for our publishing activities over my tenure, but it’s only now becoming a reality, and the Society will continue to work hard with our publishing partner to ensure we can continue to benefit from the financial success of the portfolio. I’m really proud that the income from our academic journals has almost doubled during my time. In 2006 our publications income was £523k, and that had risen to £970k by 2020. Of course, there are accusations of profiteering from academic journals, but our income is all ‘reinvested’ by the Society to support its work for the OR community.

This revenue has supported the development of many new services or offerings, including the OR in Schools (now OR in Education) outreach activity and the Pro Bono OR scheme. These are both excellent opportunities for volunteers from our community to give something back to spread the word about OR and demonstrate the benefits it can bring. This is  also reflected in some of the support activities we undertake – our marketing & comms staff has developed from Graham Sharp providing two days a week of external resource to employing a team of four at its peak. This is now a multimedia, multi-channel offering encompassing social media, website and optimisation, alongside all of the traditional routes to our members and wider network. This network is itself extremely diverse – long gone are the days when each big organisation had a central team of analysts called the OR team with well-defined routes to engage with them.

More recently, our challenge has been the arrival or emergence of ‘new technologies’. I’ve put that phrase in quotes because much of what falls under the banners of analytics, data science or even AI is hardly new, and has always been recognised as being part of the OR toolkit. Nonetheless, we’ve had to work hard to demonstrate OR’s relevance for these ‘new’ fields, and to work out how we adapt our activities to bring the folks operating under these banners into our fold. There’s still much work to be done here! With the rebranding that organisations and universities have gone through to capitalise on these trends, there has been pressure to rename and rebrand the Society itself. Personally, I think we’ve been right to continue to stick with OR as a name and brand – it’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Debates over the name “operational research” have existed from long before my time. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of never-solved issues. One of my tasks over recent years has been to prepare the material for the OR-20 column in InsideOR. Each month I looked back at the issue from 20 years earlier to pull out something of interest. It was amazing how many issues were discussed in the articles from earlier ages that persist today.

There’s so much more that I could cover here. Most recently there has been the Society’s involvement in the setting up and development of the Alliance for Data Science Professionals. This will be significant to ensure we have relevant offerings for those that badge themselves as data scientists, and for our expanding options for professional qualifications. It might also set the Society along the path to another offering – degree course accreditation. You could also add in our involvement in apprenticeships and becoming an end-point assessment organisation!

It seems I could go on for pages and pages! I’ll finish by repeating myself. I must thank the countless people I’ve worked with over the years. Your support and help have been immense. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my spell heading up the Society staff, and final thanks must go to Jeff Griffiths for giving me the opportunity in the first place. As promised, I’ll close with a few words on what happens next. At the start of March, I’ll be starting a new role through the Society as secretary to IFORS, the International Federation of OR Societies. Support for this role is transferring from the US to the UK, and I’ll be taking on the reins. It’s a part-time role, so I’ll still have opportunities to be involved in other things – including (perhaps) editing Inside OR as we still haven’t found a successor to John C.

Many of you will recognise the reference in the title of this piece; it’s the title of the fourth book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (which Wikipedia tells me now stands at six books). It seemed an apt summary for my plans for this  final leader for my time at the ‘top’. So long!