Jim Orlin, professor of OR at MIT, and coauthor of one of my favorite books (Network Flows: Theory, Algorithms, and Applications with Ravi Ahuja and Tom Magnanti), has just started a blog. It looks like it will be a little more wide-ranging than this one, including education and politics along with operations research. His first OR post is on a great topic: what do you say when someone asks “So what is Operations Research?” Most of us go “well, ummm…, its kinda something with computers” and we lose a great opportunity to educate. So what should we say?
Jim’s preferred definition is “The science of decision making” (I go with something similar: “The science of better decision making”, showing a certain loyalty to the INFORMS “Science of Better” campaign). He follows that up, in the best OR tradition, with an algorithm:
Algorithm for describing operations research to a friend or colleague.
Step 1. Find out a system about which the other person is both interested and knowledgeable. (e.g, sports, entertainment, communication, travel, or anything relating to a person’s job.
Step 2. Develop a plausible scenario based on the system in Step 1; e.g., scheduling sports teams, designing wireless phone systems to provide for the best possible reception, or designing queuing systems at Disneyworld. (I have found that it is very useful to give an example that addresses a problem at the other person’s work that he or she just told you was important.)
Step 3. Explain how operations research can be used to find an excellent solution for the scenario in Step 2 or provide very useful information for the scenario in Step 2.
I like his algorithm, and think it is probably more effective than my version, where Step 1 is “Find a system about which I am knowledgeable and interested…”. My approach tends to lead to a lot of “Oh, look at the time, I must be going!” followed by frantic rushing out of the room. But Jim’s approach does require a bit more thinking on one’s feet: “Oh… so you are interested in the novels of Jane Austen. Well, operations research is, ummm….”
Welcome to the Blog-OR-sphere, Jim!