Conferences are about the people you meet

Air Force INFORMS Prize

One of the best parts of any conference is the people you meet, and my experience attending this year’s INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics was no exception. I sought out connections in health care, where I have not worked before, and learned a great deal from the experience of others. But sometimes the connections that make the biggest impression are those that are surprises.

Most of us live in our own worlds, which we come to know well, and remain unaware of the many other worlds orbiting out there in the universe. This limited awareness is natural, because time is finite  and our brains can only process so much information. But as one of my new peers reminded me before I left for this trip, sometimes you learn more from those outside your world.

As a member of the planning committee for the Executive Forum, on Sunday night I facilitated an informal conversation for a small group. The table where I sat chose to talk about fostering an analytics culture. There were many interesting people seated with me, but the one who stuck out for me was Jackie Henningsen, who was recently retired from a civilian role in the Air Force, which is one of those worlds whose orbit I have never entered. She said she had served as Director for Studies and Analyses, Assessments and Lessons Learned. I later learned from other Air Force attendees at the conference that as a civilian this role is equivalent to a three-star general! She apparently was the first civilian and first woman in this role. The others I spoke with held her in awe and said the Air Force had even named an award after her.

Not knowing these details, I was just impressed with her comments. She talked about leading a group of analysts and believing strongly that aligning everyone along one vision was critical to fostering an analytics culture. Someone else at the table asked about how to foster a culture of analytics where it doesn’t exist, and Jackie spoke of how she explained to the senior leaders she worked with that analytics could provide fireproofing to help their decisions, but that the reverse was also true – if there weren’t open to the analysis her team could provide she could NOT fireproof their decision. She still offers analytic fireproofing as a consultant, and that term is on her business card!

What made such an impression on me was that she has a rare combination of humility and confidence while being very approachable and delightful person with whom to speak. One person told me that when she first took on her role as Director she felt her group needed more visibility and managed to get them moved to report directly to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, which was quite a feat. I learned that she taught high school math for many years before returning to graduate school for a second MS and then a Ph.D. in industrial and management systems engineering. We spoke again few times during the conference, and I asked her if she’d encountered bumps along the way as a woman and as a civilian. She said she had, but that she had always preferred to focus on the results and not call attention to herself for being a woman. Her idea of progress would be when gender is not noteworthy on its own.

Meta Brown recently wrote an article for Forbes on women in analytics, and her call to action at the end was to “post about an analytics professional who deserves more recognition.” The photo above is of a group from the Air Force accepting the INFORMS Prize “for their pioneering and enduring integration of operations research (O.R.) and analytics programs into their organizations.” Jackie is the one holding the red plaque. And while I’ve clearly discovered that she is very well known in Air Force and military OR circles, I expect many outside those orbits aren’t familiar with her accomplishments. I am glad to see her years of leadership in the Air Force recognized with this award, and I’m adding to that recognition with this post.