Introducing operations research to the layperson

by Hari Balasubramanian on October 11th, 2009

All operations researchers will agree that it is difficult to explain to the lay person what they do.  The term operations research itself is baffling. You could call it briefly as  “the science of planning well”, ” the science of efficiency” or the well known “the science of better”. But these terms, while concise, don’t reveal the full picture.  A few days ago, I decided to give readers on my blog (these readers are unfamiliar with operations research) a sense of what the field is about.  I felt an analogy between engineering that the lay person is familiar with and systems that operations researchers engineer might strike a chord.

Here is an excerpt from my attempt– let me know what you think:

We are surrounded by technological marvels. It seems magical – to me at least – that a plane carrying hundreds of passengers and tons of luggage, actually manages to take flight; that there are such things as wireless phones; that there is a large, scattered yet miraculously unified network called the “Internet”. Amazing right? But behind each there is solid engineering that makes clever use of the underlying science, be it fluid dynamics, signal processing, or fiber optics. The engineering is not always obvious, but the lay person is aware that there are specialists — aerospace engineers, computer scientists, electrical engineers to name just few — who make these things work.

In the same way, do you wonder how your FedEx package from the Philippines arrived without delay to the small Midwestern town you live in; how the Netflix movie you ordered gets to your address exactly on the day their email claimed; how large airports, such as Heathrow and JFK, manage their flights, schedules, and air traffic? We take these systems for granted, but they work because they are engineered. This type of systems level engineering – the science of allocation, planning and scheduling in the face of uncertainties and the fluctuating dynamics of supply and demand – is called operations research. In business schools it is called management science. Because it is a less tangible kind of engineering, the lay person is generally unaware of it.

You might argue that many systems are rarely well managed. What’s in a science that produces long lines and sapping delays? True, systems may be dysfunctional because of bad planning but this is not unique to operations research. A mechanical problem – arguably caused by the traditional “nuts and bolts” engineer – can stop a flight from taking off as well. In fact, a well managed airline will have a contingency schedule that minimizes the traveler’s disruption in case of a cancellation. Think of all the flight groundings and cancellations that happened on and post 9/11. Have we given close thought to what it took to bring everything back to normal?

Operations research is a mongrel field. Like other engineers, the operations researcher uses mathematical methods, but she also may dabble in statistics, economics, and computer science. She will also need knowledge of the domain she is working in; and importantly, if her domain involves people, she will need to know that people do not behave as rigidly or rationally as her math models assume. This mongrel quality of the field makes it breathtakingly versatile – applications have advanced well beyond the “operations” realm and have entered even areas such as designing beam angles for radiation therapy. The flip side of the coin, however, is that some think of it as an “anything-goes” field with no real identity.

The full post is here.

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