75 Years of The OR Society: Past, Present and Future


As we begin our 75th anniversary celebrations, through this special issue of InsideOR we wanted to reflect on operational research and explore its significance in the UK, but the focus of this article will be the Operational Research Society itself, the membership body that has championed the field, helped shape its development over the years and continues to represent the interests of its members and the wider OR community.

The breakdown between past, present and future is one that you’ll see repeatedly through this year of celebrations. The definition of ‘future’ is pretty clear-cut, although the argument could arise over what timeframe we might consider; the next 12 months, five years or 25 years? Later in this article, Seb, as the current holder of the Secretary & General Manager / Executive Director post, will give some thought as to what the future of the Society might hold and what challenges will need to be faced. In the meantime, Seb’s predecessor, Gavin, will deal with the story of the Society up to the present time.

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Seb Hargreaves, current Executive Director

The 1960s saw an explosion in membership numbers, breaking 1000 in 1963, 2000 in 1966 and reaching 3000 in 1969. The still-recognisable activities of the journal and conferences continued to grow and establish themselves as core to the Society’s work. We can still look back to reports in both the journal and the newsletter to get a glimpse into what these entailed. In terms of administering Society matters it’s hard to get a true feeling for the pace, driven entirely by postal communications. Membership numbers plateaued through the 1970s, despite this often being described as the golden era for OR. It certainly must have been easier for the Society staff, with just about every organisation of a notable size employing OR people, with those jobs being labelled as OR, and collected together as the company’s OR group. Definitely easier to identify and contact new entrants to the profession.

The differentiation between past and present here is somewhat arbitrary. We could think about the present as my stint in the S&GM / ED role, from 2006 to 2023, but even the differences between the start of that spell and the end are quite considerable. One thing is certain – there’s too much to mention in the coming paragraphs, so apologies if something you think is important is overlooked!

As you can’t fail to have seen elsewhere in this issue, the OR Club was first formed in 1948, initially as a private members club. It transformed into the Society some five years later when it became altogether more open. The membership numbers in 1954 broke through the 100 barrier and they continued to rise rapidly through the 60s as OR established itself as a recognised field of study and employment. The 1950s saw the expansion into and beyond nationalised industries and the establishment of the first Masters course lead to the initial moves of industrial pioneers into academia, thereby setting the pattern for future membership with a strong mix of academics and practitioners, something that we’re still proud of today. The late 1950s also saw the formation of IFORS, the International Federation of OR Societies (something close to my heart now!). The UK was one of the founding members alongside France and the USA. Sir Charles Goodeve first held the title of Secretary, but I suspect he was rather more presidential. The secretarial support during the initial formation and growth of the Society, whomever undertook them, must have been very different from today.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a number of significant events that changed the Society’s operations, hopefully for the better. The publishing industry became increasingly commercialised in the late 1980s, and when the Society signed a contract with Macmillan in 1988 (taking over from Pergamon), its income jumped from close to £10k up to £100k. Since then, the Society has used this source of income to fund the vast majority of its activities. Repeated improvements to contractual arrangements saw the income from publications peak at over £1m last year.

Insightful investing of the Society’s reserves during this period grew them enough to enable us to move from rented accommodation into the Society’s own offices in the 90s, providing a suitable home for the Society’s staff, meetings and training courses.

This period also saw the business world and the Society enter the electronic era. The Society was an early adopter of both a website and email as a means of communication. Near instantaneous communications must have transformed the Society’s activities and administration. The arrival of micro-computers and the explosion of computing power had a huge impact on the wider world of OR. It also signalled the start of a change in the nature of the relationship between the Society and the volunteers that helped run it.

During the previously mentioned ‘golden era of OR’, working practices meant members had time to give to the governance of the Society – attending meetings and working on follow-up activities. The 2000s saw more pressure on members, limiting the time they were able to devote to the Society. This meant that the nature and size of the Society’s staff had to change. Over the decade from roughly 2008 to 2018, the Society’s staff doubled in size and took on much more than admin matters, taking responsibility for driving new initiatives.

So far, this article has failed to mention two almost ever-present issues for the Society – the various challenges it has faced and, more particularly, that of its name (and of the profession). The name ‘operational research’ has never been ideal, but it’s always been judged as the best we’ve got. The pressure to consider changing it has never been greater than in recent years. The Society has worked really hard to present itself as still highly relevant during the growth in analytics, data science and most recently, AI, but will that always be the case?

So, to the future of the Operational Research Society as a membership organisation and learned society. Remaining relevant to our community and providing a value proposition that attracts and retains members will remain a key challenge. As the broad church of operational research continues to evolve, terminology and methodologies change, we must stay abreast of these developments, by recognising and adapting to changing landscapes and emerging technologies. Embracing technology ourselves will allow us to provide a more tailored and bespoke membership experience. This is important in a competitive environment where there are many demands on people’s time and resources. How we all engage, access and consume services and content is changing from a traditional ‘one size fits all’ approach to being more personalised and on-demand in nature. By harnessing digital tools and offering a blended approach of in person and online content will help us to meet the expectations of members, provide appropriate support and enable us to stay relevant.

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Gavin Blackett, immediate past Executive Director

We will always be the home of Operational Research, but whether this umbrella term remains fit for purpose is a question that we will need to revisit. A name that describes the various disciplines of our mathematical science which reflects the terminology that our students and Universities are now using to describe what they do is important for us to stay connected with the future pipeline of those entering or engaged in the science of better decision making.

Changes to publishing with the wider adoption of open access will continue to change the balance of revenue for the Society. We will continue to diversify income streams and seek out new and innovative projects and initiatives to best meet the needs of our community, achieve our vision and mission and retain a sustainable financial position for the longer term. Embracing these opportunities will enable the society to remain vibrant, visible and valued for the next 75 years and hopefully beyond.