My Ph.D. is in operations research. I was interested in making things work better and using mathematics to help do that. So operations research is what I studied as an undergraduate and graduate student. – Alvin E. Roth
I’m getting closer to starting a programme of research and I found out something interesting about it recently.
I was watching a series of video lectures by Russell Ackoff, which you can find at the Deming Cooperative channel. Ackoff did military service and, in one of the talks, described how the military functioned. It has four divisions, he said, administration, intelligence, operations and logistics.
Operations is the only part that comes into direct contact with the enemy. The nature of warfare has changed but back when you still had armies and set-piece battles, this structure made a lot of sense. The increasing mechanisation and sophistication of war also meant that it wasn’t enough just to bravely charge in. You needed help from technology and that’s when scientists started to be pulled in to help with the war effort. For example, work went into doing things like figuring out how to calculate ballistics trajectories for anti-aircraft guns. The point was to conduct more effective operations and research carried out to support this was termed Operations Research (OR).
OR, in its classical form, involves applying maths and science to improve operations and make your side more deadly. A large number of mathematical innovations resulted from this – including algorithms for scheduling and routing and queuing. Once the war was done researchers tried to apply these learnings to other parts of business and industry and society. And they didn’t do a great job after a while.
The thing is that when it comes to war there is a pretty clear thing you need to do. You don’t need to worry about the overall missions or objectives or purpose – you can call those things what you like but the thing you need to do is win. When it comes to life, however, what you need to do is much less obvious. Quite often you think what you need to do because of what was thought in the past and then reality comes along and smacks you in the face. And, of course, when it comes to war people don’t really play a big role. You train soldiers to follow orders and do what they’re told. Civilians aren’t always that compliant and some of them seem to have their own views and opinions on what the right thing is to do.
This whole area of real life is still operations, but one where there is no enemy but societies that are morphing and changing. Recent protests, for example, are seen by some as a dangerous threat to society and by others as a long-needed reformation of the way things work. Pick what you want – climate change, equality, opportunity – the problems are all around us and they are systemic ones and complex ones and whatever you do someone is going to end up unhappy.
This is the world of “soft” operations, a real-life world where you are trying to make things better, from the way you live your life, to the way you run your company to the way you treat others. And we’re still trying to figure out the models and approaches and ways of thinking that will help us make sense of what is going in. Research into this area is called Soft Operations Research, Soft OR, and that’s what I’m hoping to study. The nice thing that I’ve learned from Ackoff, is that the history of this field is not esoteric and ivory towerish. There is no enemy – there people and the world around us. And what we’re studying is how to be better.