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INFORMS: 30,000 members or 5,000?

When I was elected President of INFORMS in 2000 (my Presidential Year was 2002:  they ease you into the job!), I was very proud to become President of a 14,000 member society (at the age of 42:  don’t let the grey hair fool you).  14,000?  Actually probably 12,000.  Maybe 11,500.  Where did all the members go?  As I looked into things, I was pointed to (thanks Les Servi!) Bowling Alone, which gave exhausting statistical evidence that social capital activities of all types (including professional society membership) were decreasing.   The importance of social capital and the need for societies to increase social capital opportunities became the theme of my presidency.  We did some good things during my year, and many of those have continued.

But INFORMS remains a 10,000-12,000 member society.  Financially, this is currently not much of an issue:  “membership” on the INFORMS books loses money. But the times, they are a’changing.  The main moneymaker for INFORMS is publications, with a very strong emphasis on academic library subscriptions.   INFORMS would be a financially healthy organization if all it did was publish Management Science.  But you don’t need to be a diviner to see that this is not a stable base.  Academic libaries are cutting budgets and alternative publication outlets are increasing in importance.  Even now, I need to stress to my colleagues from a computer science background that they (currently) need to publish in journals:  for them, conferences provide the primary outlet.

Even beyond the financials, having a strong membership is a good thing for our field.  While I was convinced by Bowling Alone that a decreasing membership is not the sign of the death of a field, not everyone buys that argument.  If operations research is as important as, say, economics, why are there 20,000 members of the American Economic Association but only 10,000 members of INFORMS?  (By the way, the AEA table gives a good picture of the issues every society is facing:  is economics really 20% less relevant now than it was in 2001, as given by the AEA membership numbers?).

So, to get to the crux, can INFORMS be a 20,000 (or 30,000 or 50,000) member society?  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics believes there are 58,000 OR analysts, and predicts this to increase to 65,000 in 2016.  I would guess that no more than 1,000 of these are members of INFORMS (I would not fall in this category, and I am pretty typical of INFORMS members).  Is this our market?  How would we get them?  Or are there people in our traditional group (Ph.D.s or students towards that degree, primarily in academia but many in practice or academics with a practice bent) that we should be aiming for?  Or perhaps retention is the issue:  we lose 20-30% per year (I believe), meaning we have to attract 2,000-3,000 new members per year just to stay even.

Or should INFORMS be happy decreasing to to 5,000 members, perhaps while still providing services to a larger group?  Would this be a bad outcome?

I’m on a few committees for INFORMS that look at these issues, but, now that my Board time is done, I don’t speak for INFORMS.  So I am interested in your views, loyal reader of MTORP:  What should INFORMS do?  The easy answer is to provide more at a lower cost.  That is going to be hard to do.

We can provide less at a lower cost: imagine a $30 membership where you get nothing more than a subscription to OR/MS Today (a fantastic magazine).  Everything else is a la carte.  You want to go to a conference:  no member discount (or perhaps you have to be a member, so you have saved $30);  you want a journal:  here’s the cost;  want a subdivision:  they all now charge real dues.  $30 gets you in the door:  everything else has a price tag.  Jim Orlin provided one vision of a lower cost membership.

Or perhaps we increase membership to $250 (it is currently $144).  We upgrade the website to create a true social network.  Everything becomes cheaper (for members!).  But we lose lots of members who don’t want to pay $250.

But I don’t want to provide too many possibilities:  I’d like your views.  What would you like INFORMS to do, and why?

{ 8 } Comments

  1. df | June 11, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mike,

    I’m not a traditional target of INFORMs I guess. I have an undergrad degree in Supply Chain management & work for a Fortune 50 company as an analyst/project manager.

    I’m also a member of ACM. When I look at ACM vs INFORMs it’s like night & day. ACM sends me Communications of the ACM (outstanding versus OR/MS today which is… meh); ACM provides access to Books24x7 and O’reilly Safari (which I use regularly at home & at work).

    I intend to let my INFORMs membership go, because although I’m fascinated by Operations Research (the math & algorithms) I find that I get virtually nothing for my money from INFORMs. Maybe that’s part of the trouble of a group aimed at PhDs. What I want is more knowledge: tutorials on applying statistics, or dynamic programming, or whatever. The PhDs already know that stuff, they want a bunch of conferences (that I’ll never attend) and apparently there is a requirement to have a magazine in order to consider yourself a professional society: hence OR/MS today — which is, again, more social for PhDs than useful to anyone outside of academia.

    So anyway, that’s why I’ll be keeping my ACM membership and letting INFORMs go.

  2. Larry (IEOR Tools) | June 11, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    df brings up an interesting point. What is INFORMS promoting for the Operations Research professional and not just the academics. The publications are great when you can get them but they are costly and mostly reserved for the academic community. I love the blogs because they promote discussions of applied Operations Research in a professional environment. Where else is the discussion of the tools and know-how?

    One suggestion could be promoting the local chapters and getting them involved with the professional community. Help the chapters sponsor speakers, tours, socials, and networking.

  3. df | June 12, 2009 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    Speaking of good practical resources, I like your blog Larry 🙂

    I mentioned to Mike in an email that I shouldn’t have been as blunt as I was. At the time I thought being a little gruff might provoke some debate, but in hindsight it just seems unfair to the folks (like Mike!) that are working on changing the situation.

    So the bright side is that although I’ll be letting my INFORMs membership go, I’ll still be reading Mike’s blog and keeping an eye on INFORMs 😉 If things change I’ll be back. I’m a sucker for professional groups for some reason (maybe it’s the insurance offers).

  4. Sanjay | June 12, 2009 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    Larry are df are essentially correct. For its members, in its current form INFORMS is a self-identifying club, not a value-added guild. Much of its current shape springs from its academic/research DNA. As long as it remains dominantly influenced by the concerns of university faculty, it shall – consciously or otherwise – continue to target itself thus and be ignored by the rest of the profession. INFORMS today has little to offer the non-academic OR professional.

    Unlike Larry, I do not believe that marginal innovations – promoting local chapters and the like – will turn the ship around. We need to rethink the company, as it were. I’m thinking here of the level of reinvention that Apple or IBM exemplify. Today, we’re more like General Motors or the NYT Co., trundling along leveraging an outdated paradigm, wondering why more people don’t want our product.

    On the other hand, it’s also possible that representing the entirety of the field is not in INFORMS’ future. For instance, as you and others have previously discussed, “Analytics” folks are already unlikely to view themselves as Operations Researchers. Perhaps INFORMS has a sustainable trajectory as a research-focused collegium of OR academics.

  5. Francisco Marco-Serrano | June 12, 2009 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Hi Mick,

    My case probably is quite different but can help a little. I’m a spaniard living in Spain, so the benefits from INFORMS are quite restricted… but they exists.
    Although when I joined, around 2004 (don’t remember exactly the dates), I was only hoping to stay on the hook (receive the mag, re-start my research activity, and get ideas through INTERFACES), later on I perceived a more aesthetic value: the sense of belonging to a professional group (call it OR-ers, MS-ers, or people that enjoy applying advanced techniques to solve real problems). However, what I would like to see even further is the recognition, the trademark ‘INFORMS member’.

  6. Karan | June 12, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I really like the idea of $30 membership with everything else being an add on. I thing the same idea can be applied to conferences. Instead of having a $360 registeration fee for all, there should an option to pick and choose parts of the conference that one wants to attend. I am sure this would lead to more OR professionals attending conferences.

  7. Matt G | June 12, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    As a business analyst, with a strong interest in statistics and operations research (mostly discrete event simulation) I agree with the general feeling that INFORMS mostly caters to the academic community. I, for one, would definitely like to see more of a focus towards the practice of OR/MS.

    Since I am stil fresh in my analytics career and I am at a medium size organization, it would also be nice to see more practical applications, especically on a smaller scale. While I find it fasinating how HP, FedEx and other large companies use OR, some guidance, examples or techniques regarding smaller scale projects would be helpful.

    Finally, if the user groups also connected me with peers, rather than mostly academic or sales professionals, I would be more interested in staying with INFORMS. Last year, I went to the NYC Metro meeting. The talk was interesting and the people were friendly, but I just don’t have that much in common with the academic community. Plus at $40-$50 per meeting, I am less inclined to go.

    This year I let my membership lapse, but I think I will probably join again at some point (I LOVE Interfaces and OR/MS Today!) We’ll see. I would also like to go to the practice conference next year.

    Anyway, these are my thoughts. Hope this helps.

    -Matt

  8. Luc Mercier | June 15, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Wow, now THAT’s an active thread!

    I would agree with df about the quality of OR/MS. My main reason to be an INFORMS member is to receive a paper copy of Interfaces (the subscription include one journal to be chosen among all INFORMS journals).

    Interfaces is truly great. It really makes you like OR and gives you tons of examples of applications when your friends ask you “so what is OR?”.

    OR/MS, on the other hand, is so-so at best. There are good things — ads, for example, are informative. The Puzzlor is a good idea. But most columns and editorials are rather meaningless speculations. “Should we rename OR?” seems like the hottest topic, by frequency of articles. Often, it’s about some INFORMS internal issue that most members are not interested in. Great. Even full-length articles are sometimes devoid of content.

    So basically, I would like OR/MS to adopt a the following editorial statement:
    – teach rather than speculate
    – talk about OR rather than about INFORMS

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