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I truly had a great time at the 2013 INFORMS Conference for several reasons, including:
- The sessions I attended were captivating and insightful.
- I saw many old friends and colleagues, and met some more this year.
- An outstanding job by the INFORMS staff and committee to provide us with a well-run conference.
However, there is something I would like to share with everyone that isn’t quite so positive. Consider the quote:
“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.”
– Edmund Burke, First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796)
In particular, my thoughts were drawn to this on a few occasions near the end of sessions, where session attendees decided they had something better to do than hear the end of the speaker’s presentation, listen to or participate in the question and answer period, and got up to leave the room. Most tried to do so quietly, but this activity is still distracting to both the presenter and other attendees. Please consider this observation when you attend next year’s conference in Boston and try to show everyone that you also believe that “manners matter.”
When I first came to what was then known as the INFORMS Practice Conference in 2008, it was like Christmas – presents of knowledge everywhere and it seemed like the conference lasted forever, just like Christmas did as a kid. As I look back on these past few days and the work that led up to it, it’s much more like Christmas as an adult – plenty of work, lack of sleep, but even more enjoyment, because you know that what you and others did are what made the magic for others. And then, in a flash, the day is over, the presents are everywhere, and it is time to go back to work. So I will do that in the morning, made far richer by the insights gained, the old friendships renewed, and the new friendships made. Looking forward to seeing everyone again in Boston in 2014!
At the waning close of the very successful INFORMS San Antonio conference, hotel workers are threatening to remove my table and chair and I fear the WiFi will soon be shut-off. Awaiting my departure, I had some final ‘big thoughts’ associated with the Edelman competition that I also hope summarize some themes raised during the conference related to decision making.
Firstly, a big Texas ‘gefeliciteerd’ to the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis for their 2013 Edelman Award achievement. As well, congratulations on the impending coronation of Willem Alexander to King of the Netherlands. His close connection to water management no doubt presages a vigorous implementation of the Delta Works renewal plan as outlined.
As a dual U.S. and Dutch citizen myself, the CPB team’s presentation provoked some self-reflection in me concerning how the U.S. could similarly improve its long-term infrastructure management approaches, particularly surrounding flood defenses.
One aspect the presentation touched upon was the highly political nature of these big-budget, long-timeframe, high-risk megaprojects. While formal methodologies can be used to identify optimal solution sets, scoping related to the quantification of objectives (minimized costs) while addressing constraints (aggregate damage measures given risk thresholds) are the outcome of rigorous stakeholder politics. Even a seemingly targeted measure such as property damage is itself a highly contentious measure, embedding a multi-stakeholder ‘satisficing’ perspective balancing the variable perceived value of issues related across qualitative (and dispute) humanitarian / health, historical / cultural, environmental / sustainability, continuity / security / reputational, and industrial / economic measures.
The CPB presentation alluded to the ‘real politiks’ regarding megaproject planning and budgeting, revealing that the Dutch planning process went through a number of contentious iterations which were susceptible to the changing profile of fluctuating national politics. The Netherlands, is a royalist-chartered coalition-based multi-party system, itself within the ‘evolving experiment’ that is the European Union (EU). Proposals at the scale of the Delta Works renewal go through a tortuous ‘sausage grinder’ of committee and coalition political analysis, debate, and review.
The Dutch culture has a long tradition of collaboration-based political consensus building, going back, by some accounts, to the Middle Ages, forcing governance, industry, workers, and experts to come together in rough coalitions in order to build and maintain the dykes that protect common interests (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polder_model). There is of course a level of inefficiency that arrives in such heavy-handed, discussion-heavy consensus building. While the Eskimos have 16 words for ‘snow’, the Dutch language has a befuddling grab-bag of terms for the word ‘meeting’, each with fine-grained distinctions meaningful only to Dutch bureaucrats However, if we are to look at aggregate outcomes over long-periods of time, by many standard measures of health, education, happiness, and wealth, the tiny Netherlands is a testament to long-term, high-quality decision outcomes.
A dramatic sequence in the presentation graphically displayed the effects and costs of a recent spate of U.S. flood-related disasters. The implication that disaster infrastructure planning could be improved in the U.S. was hard to escape. Politics, political processes, decision making, and decision outcomes having been the background to the Delta Works project, the U.S. could gain a good start on tackling growing infrastructure challenges by critically examining its own decision making mechanisms as related to megaproject-scale challenges. Is the U.S. two-party system, almost a religious institution, nuanced and efficacious enough to process multi-stakeholder decision perspectives to the degree needed to handle the scale, generational timeframe, and complexity of such projects?
It would be incorrect to imply that the Netherlands is utopian: large and daunting national challenges beyond flooding loom, including a rapidly aging population, flirtations with far-right politics, and challenges in effectively integrating ethnic minorities. As well, it has been said that the current government has too forcefully adopted economic austerity measures, exacerbating current low-growth and high unemployment problems (http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21574028-imf-delivers-unexpected-message-dutch-focus-growth). Such challenges will further constrain governmental budget leeway on projects such as the Delta works renewal.
However, this does not absolve the U.S. from needing to think more deeply about how the current political climate, and perhaps system, hobbles the ability to tackle large-scale, high-risk, long-timeframe initiatives. At root is an inability to agree on principles and targets which underlie basic physical infrastructure goals: how do we value initiatives associated with broad pubic good, but which simultaneously involve high social cost? How do arrive at a single value calculation when multi-perspective challenges abound: humanitarian, social, economic, cultural, security-focused, etc.?
Considering more deeply how the U.S. might improve otherwise moribund coalition building and pro-social consensus-building political decision making processes would be an excellent start. Beyond this, the financial architecture for assessing and funding such initiatives is otherwise anemic. The stalled proposal to establish a U.S. National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank would be, in particular, a step in the right direction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Infrastructure_Reinvestment_Bank).
These are big thoughts, fit for a conference that was full of big ideas and a group of attendees that, no doubt, have the energy and intelligence to tackle such big problems! Perhaps next year we will see the newly minted U.S. National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank analytics team at the Edelman competition.
For more blog articles on decision making, analytics, and organizations, see: www.sctr7.com
- Scott Mongeau (www.sark7.com)
I just finished up for the day to head back to Colorado. Overall I’d say that this conference was a hit. Some of the talks I found the most informative and impactful were:
- The New “V’ in big data – even as a newbie, I can understand how the viability of your data is crucial.
- The INFORMS perspective of soft skills – this talk gave me a great understanding of the full cycle of soft/interpersonal skills necessary for business analytics.
- Infographics – I think this talk was key in informing professionals in a very quantitative industry how important the presentation and image of your data is.
Also, I ate at the Iron Cactus the other night. I highly recommend it for anyone staying tonight that hasn’t eaten there yet. The food was delicious and they had great margaritas!
Good luck to everyone and I hope to see you all next year!
Day 2 started off with a reprise presentation by the 2013 Edelman Prize Winners: Dutch Delta Commission. They gave an excellent presentation, covering everything from the methodology to the project’s impact. Their project saved billions of dollars in maintenance costs of flood-prevention technologies. Fun fact: two thirds of Netherlands’ population lives in areas that are below sea level.
Sitting in at the second keynote we are now learning about interesting developments in social business and Analytics. IBM’s Sandy Carter is presenting innovative approaches to leveraging social media data for deriving insights and making decisions. Something that is relevant to me is her idea that going from academia to working it becomes less about memorizing/hoarding knowledge to finding reliable data quickly. I think this is an important point to make. It echoes the idea of continuous learning after graduate school. It is tempting to think that once you graduate there is no more learning to be done, especially after a couple years of intense academic research. Students with this mindset will be disappointed. In Analytics and Operations Research you will be learning constantly. There will be no exams and no professor feedback. Your progress will be measured in other way: are you creating value? To create value consistently you need to be on top of new trends. One of the best ways to do this is to attend conferences!
I actually have an algorithm for it. Maximize your learning and entertainment while considering the limited time you have and the departure time for home. It is a mixed integer linear program.
No, no, just kidding. But, wouldn’t it be great? For my practitioner friends out there, if you had a solution I’d buy it. Instead, I have the following checklist:
- Meet three new people: coffee breaks and the networking lunch are the perfect opportunities for it.
- Attend two talks, one in your area, and one out of your area: by the way, did I mention I am presenting today? Please join me at Track 19 at 1:50, right after lunch. I promise you won’t be frowned upon if you snooze a little.
- Go visit the exhibitors booth, if you have not done so yet: I actually love visiting the booths on the last day when it is less crowded. You get more attention that way, get all of your questions answered, and learn about new books and new technologies.
- Go by the posters that are on display today. It is a great way to get a good sense of high quality applied work in one shot.
Let me know if I am missing anything!
The theme of the day for me (apologies to Scott Mongeau for stealing his theme) is Effectiveness = Quality x Acceptance from Jerry Allyne’s keynote. Actually, it’s been the theme of the conference, after an interesting discussion last night about why clients love to see Excel models and have a hard time with anything more advanced, even though there are many far more advanced tools out there. There’s an inherent acceptance to Excel due to growing up with it, that there simply isn’t with anything else. Yes, there are quality control and auditing issues with spreadsheets (hard coded numbers, lack of explicit trace between tabs, etc), but people just _like_ it.
Taking charge of flood protection is not for the meek. At the one hand flood protection is expensive, prohibitive to economic growth and generally not conducive to your popularity. On the other hand when rising waters ruthlessly expose incompetence, the powers that be are lucky if they get run out of the country. As early as the 11th century, the local rulers in what is now the Netherlands realized that difficult decisions like these are best left to the people, giving rise to water boards, which must be among some of the oldest still functioning democratic bodies. Many other important innovations have had their part in water management, such as (skipping the extensive tinkering with windmills to pump water) some of the largest steam engines ever built. As OR practitioner it is wonderful to see that Operations Research has officially joined this renowned list of innovations. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the weather stays nice in the Netherlands.
Part of the pleasure, and indeed a good part of the value, of conferences such as ours is the informal discussions and exchanges that occur between, during, and after the formal proceedings. Applying fuzzy set analysis, such exchanges, in aggregate, begin to suggest dominant themes, hopes, and concerns for a discipline. While survey-based data collection or even interview coding and subsequent cluster analysis is beyond the desire of even the most motivated of us, one does tend to apply heuristics to extrapolate themes and stories…
I’ll dispense with the painful analytics allusions at this point, lest I begin to annoy even myself ;-) The main thing is that a major theme I have encountered, crossing between sessions and discussions, is a vigorous interest in developing soft skills. In sessions, conversations, and INFORMS scope, soft skills are taking an increasingly central role. Qualifying for CAP certification requires an independent soft skill reference and the exam addresses organizational topics explicitly. INFORMS offers focused soft skill training. Little surprise here, perhaps: this growing interest signifies a natural desire to carry the message and power of business analytics (BA) deeper into the business by improving the ability to frame and communicate the goals and value of analytics.
However, this is also partially fear-based: with the intense spotlight on BA, there is a concern that the discipline will ‘trip and fall flat’ during its ‘scheduled centerpiece dance routine’, so to speak. Those from an IT background are quite aware of, and have seen (many times), the codified Gartner Hype Cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle), which traces the Cassandra-like cyclical building of expectations surrounding a ‘hot topic’ into a ‘Peak of inflated expectations’, after which there is the inevitable plunge into the dreaded ‘Trough of disillusionment’.
With analytics being branded front-row and center by consulting and software firms alike, many experienced practitioners have an uneasy giddiness, a sense that the ‘good times’ run the risk of ‘wheeling dizzily into a karma-driven comeuppance’, and expecting the inevitable subsequent grim, driving hangover of disappointment and regret.
The panacea of choice, if one is to follow conversations and themes during the conference, is to brush-up on one’s soft-skills, the goal being to make a concerted attempt to better frame and communicate the position and value of the BA discipline within modern enterprise. Several associated challenges abound, the first of which being (although I lack formal data), a likely preponderance of ‘Introvert’, ‘Intuiting’, ‘Thinking’, and ‘Judging’ personality types on the Myers-Briggs scale, or some combination of these tendencies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator#Four_dichotomies). In other words, those who gravitate towards analytics as a discipline may not always be the most extroverted or even fluid in the soft skills department.
The upshot, for those new to the Meyers-Briggs tool, and apologies for the broad generalization, is that many of us ‘analytics heads’ tend individually to be more in the ‘Mr. Spock’ category, preferring to devise detailed architectures, strategies, and solutions via well-considered research, testing, and planning, rather, as with Captain Kirk, beaming down to the unknown planet and getting into fist fights at the drop of a hat.
All is not lost, though, as the I-N-T-J and variant Meyers-Briggs types also can grow into central communication and leadership roles in organizations, with Winston Churchill and Carl Jung being luminaries in the ‘master architect’ typology. Indeed it is a common misperception that introverts shy from communication and leadership. Rather, introverts engage as leaders and communicate in different ways, preferring to plan, gather data, research, consider closely, and deliberate in private before leaping into the fray. Such an approach does not fit in all organizations, but the good news is that the interest in analytics suggests an increased desire to consider, experiment, and plan more intensively, rather than to take the cowboy shoot-point-and-aim approach, with apologies to our Texan hosts for the close-to-home metaphor. Evidence-based management airs on the side of pointy-headed planners and considered thinkers, as long as they can evidence results and ROI.
In the way of advice for building soft skills, an introvert is likely to plan out a concerted skill-building approach, rather than to simply start attending random cocktail parties in the hopes of amplifying one’s ‘patter quotient’. Here, a program of attempting public speaking (i.e. Toastmasters, volunteering to present at conferences) would be a good approach. Similarly learning more about group and interpersonal communication theory would be helpful (i.e. reflective communications, stakeholder interest and influence analysis, small group dynamics, multi-criteria analysis, even). Even Aristotles’ ‘Art of Rhetoric’ would likely be of interest to many analytics folks, as, no surprise, the Aristotelian approach to this ‘soft subject’ is quite structured and methodical. Finally, having recently taught some courses at the university level recently, I can recommend getting actively involved in teaching and training. It certainly forces you to work on your ability to engage and hold interest levels, especially, as with me, if you are faced with the daunting task of teaching statistics and economics to a large group of jaded 18 year old undergraduates, constantly glued to their smartphone texts, MacBook, and Facebook feed. Without engaging teaching skills, I worry about the future of humanity, never mind OR/MS and BA!
Finally, I encourage analytics practitioners to consider a proposition: organizations, from a certain perspective, large, flawed, frustrating decision making computers. Group communications and politics, all driven by soft skills, are the main ‘communication bus’ driving signals, however imperfectly, across and between decision making stakeholders in any organization. BA is aware of stakeholder mapping, RACI diagrams, organizational charts and similar artifacts for understanding organizations. However, the last decade has seen a rapid advance in social sciences methodologies in the ability to analyze and characterize organizations at deeper levels. Network analysis, multi-criteria analysis, satisficing, game theory, and multi-agent simulations are all methods used in the organizational business research toolkit to better understand the deep-level mechanisms of organizational decision making.
The upshot here is that using the tools of analytics to better understand organizational decision making and political coalition dynamics as a structured social phenomenon may be an excellent ‘on ramp’ for an introvert profile BA to start building better savvy on soft skill themes. For instance, understanding organizational conflict as a network communication challenge, often based upon conflicting incentives and lack of information sharing, may be a good way to approach organizational problem solving. Is there a gatekeeper impeding the flow of information? Do two stakeholder groups simply not talk enough? Are two groups simply not incentivized to reach common ground in terms of decision making?
Such frameworks are comfortable territory: suddenly the thought of hosting an inter-departmental analytics strategy ‘brown bag’ session in your company seems less ‘soft’, and more a probabilistic prescription to encourage network coordination within the organization. Likewise, considering departmental conflict as a nonlinear optimization problem or multi-criteria satisficing problem provides a structure to thinking about entrenched organizational politics. Whereas many millions of professionals go to work ‘fed-up’ with political games in their organization, seeing it as a computational challenge may bring new perspectives and energy…
Organizational social networks are immensely powerful; we often fail to understand or even perceive patterns and logic in network dynamics, being constrained as we are into our narrow individual ‘agent’ perspectives. By applying analytics methods and metaphors to our consideration of soft skill challenges within organizations, we can better prepare ourselves as BA advocates and even leaders in the organizations we inhabit.
For more on this topic, please see my analytics blog at: www.sctr7.com
For more information on SARK7 Analytics Consulting: www.sark7.com
Scott Mongeau at today’s poster session:
Techno-economic analysis for innovation valuation: http://www.sark7.com/docs/technoeconomic.pdf
Innovation decision orchestration via integrated modeling and simulation: http://www.sark7.com/docs/integrated_analytics.pdf
Yes, I am talking about the Edelman prize finalists. It is remarkable to see all of the impact the operations research has made on very important problems.
The first presentation was the Kroger team. To say the very least, it had all of the great components:
- a very hard, practical problem where the lives are at-stake;
- academia industry connection to approach and solve the problem;
- a data-driven, analytical approach to a very complex inventory problem;
- adaptive and dynamic solution approach for different stores of Kroger and for different demand patterns; and
- huge impact with reduction in out-of-stocks, reduction in inventory, increase in customer satisfaction, and increase in annual revenue.
As I was listening in the presentation, I was also contemplating what a great case paper and classroom learning experience this project would make for my students.
That’s what I call an “analytical” touch down! We will see later if this the “winning” touch down or not in the Edelman Gala.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the SPRIG officers are looking for feedback and to encourage further participation, whether from current SPRIG participants or from those who aren’t current members but who are interested in spreadsheets and OR/MS. We will be at Table 48 at tonight’s Edelman Gala for a robust discussion.
At last night’s Career Connection, a mini job fair for employers looking for analytic talent, I repeatedly asked one question, “Why don’t you look to Economists to meet your analytic talent shortage?” Some said they did, but most did not. I informed those interested that the American Economics Association has an active job posting board called JOE (Job Openings for Economists). I was also met with something that surprised me. One person said that so many economists were not “applied.”
Perhaps I am committing a “fallacy of composition” because I am an economist who worked with messy observational data, but I would say that more economists are applied than conventional wisdom suggests. It might be a recent phenomenon, but the rise of the Steven Levitt/Nate Silver-type economists has transformed the economics profession. Economists now collect their observational from the web, process it in mainstream data management tools, engage in robust statistical analysis and perform reporting.
Sounds like data science to me. :)
If you are interested, the annual economics meetings (ASSA) are in Philly this year
BTW, I ate at LUKE last night. It is worth the walk.
I had an action-packed, enjoyable first day at INFORMS, beginning with the Executive Forum. There were presentations from Anne Robinson, INFORMS Preseident, Jake Breeden, author of “Tipping Sacred Cows”, and Lisa Kart from Gartner. I particularly liked Breeden’s quote (from Reid Hoffman) that “if you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you released too late.” My take: sacred cows, or conventional wisdom, or whatever you want to call them, are neither inherently good nor bad. Going along with the crowd doesn’t make you right, but neither does being an iconoclast.
The best part of the Executive Forum, and the general reception afterwards, was the chance to talk with colleagues, old friends, and students. I had the chance to chat with two intrepid Carnegie Mellon students for about 30 minutes on a range of topics: the world of online media, privacy issues associated with data collection, deploying analytics solutions, and so on. Their enthusiasm and ideation capacity (apparently without the aid of caffeine) was refreshing.
Looking forward to a great day of talks, including my own later this afternoon.
The main INFORMS conference begins this morning with keynote speeches and track presenters (including my talk at 11:30am). But yesterday was has pre-conference fun. In the afternoon the software vendors conducted workshops to show off what their tools can do. Their power is impressive.
Prior to the 7:00pm evening social reception in the exhibitors hall, there was sort of jobs fair where attendees could meet-and-greet potential new employers. That room was packed. A warning to employers. Keep your existing analysts happy. Many appear to be on the prowl to change jobs.
In the same jobs fair room there was a panel discussion including sage advice from Booz Allen Hamilton’s Cenk Tunasay and IBM Global Business Service’s Arni Greenland. Most of the discussion was not about technical equations and dealt much more with behavioral change management issues and how to get buy-in. The conclusion is that technology, software, and lack of data are no longer obstacles that are slowing the adoption rate of analytics. The big impediment is social and cultural – mainly human nature’s resistance to change, preference for the status quo, and fear of knowing the truth.
In a discussion about the pre-requisite need for executive leader sponsorship to drive the adoption of analytics, one panelist suggested that the executives that do not will eventually be fired and their replacements will get on the “analytics” bus.
By Gary Cokins
Founder; Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC
919 720 2718 Cary, North Carolina, USA
After a quick run to registration to get my bag of goodies (Who doesn’t love the nametags? Perfect for storing business cards, am I right?), I went to mingle at the newcomers registration and met up with Lisa Pell and Sarah Hertel. Since all three of us are new to the INFORMS conference, we got some of our important newbie questions answered, like what a poster presenter is (I’ve never seen one before, but I am looking forward to it). It sounds as though the registration area will be transformed, with mini presentations limited to the space of a traditional poster, and folks will wander through learning about various projects staying as long or as little as they like. The most fun answers we got were around “What should we wear to the Gala?” The answer was that the gala was meant to be less formal and business-y than most functions and we should dress as you would for a nice party.
As the main networking event started to ramp up, we moved upstairs and I met Alan Austin and Donald Buckshaw at a table. They had taken the new CAP testing this morning and were a bit fatigued from the testing – it sounded like a tough test, since it focused on both OR and analytics. They rallied, though, especially Donald, who pointed out several notable folks presenting in the upcoming days, and even provided recommendations on which topics to see. Pretty soon, Lisa and Sarah joined our group and I had so much fun discussing how analytics was reinvigorating OR. We discussed (briefly) big data analytics — definitely my background — and I was excited to learn INFORMS is intending to do a conference focused on Big Data soon. We also discussed the best place to live and I believe Texas WAS the winning location (or maybe I just wasn’t hearing anyone else’s opinion?).
We were having so much fun that Michael Dost stopped by our table to join in. We had an interesting conversation about the labels on the badges and occasionally we enviously watched someone with four labels on their badge stop by for an introduction. We also discussed how CAP may be the thing all of us will want to have on our business cards in the future. I may need to look into taking the exam, but sounds like I’ll need to study to catch up my skills on the OR side first.
As the time moved into the “WORMS” dessert networking event, we coaxed the guys to continue the fun. As a woman in a field where women often are a minority, it’s great to have an event to recognize women, but that’s it’s open to everyone to come and attend. I also wanted to see how they managed to make the slimy creatures edible, but disappointingly there were no worms in the dessert. I guess we’ll have to save that one for next year. :) From there we continued to have a blast and made plans to cause anarchy by arranging it so we could all sit at the same table at the gala.
If the point of networking is to pass out the most business cards, then I certainly failed tonight. But I think if it is instead to find fun-loving folks to connect and have fun with for the rest of your time at the conference – I completely succeeded!
Missing having a blast? Come by and check us out — the rebels at Table 41.
Blog: Marketing Math Girl
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