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What Motivates Operations Researchers?

I was wandering through the Social Science Research Network (a place to which I don’t often go) and I checked out the top operations research papers. The most downloaded paper is by Martin Shubik on 50 years of operations research and game theory. This is an older (2001) paper but makes fascinating reading. I was struck by a paragraph on what motivates people in operations research:

This is illustrated by an event which happened to me at General Electric and another which happened to George Feeney at Stanford Research Institute. I was complaining to one of the vice-presidents that in spite of the fact that General Electric in the 1950s had hired a first class group of operations researchers, the management except for Harold Smiddy (Smiddy and Naum 1954 is still worth rereading) did not appreciate us. Jack McKitterick (the VP of marketing) replied that the trouble with the executives at General Electric was that they had not understood the basic motivation of the group they has hired. He said if they had to do it over again they would have paid us half as much but would have hired a special manager to stroke us and to go around telling each of us how smart we were. George Feeney’s experience at Stanford Research involved explaining what operations research was to one of their vice-presidents who reacted immediately. “I see”, he said, “operations research involves utilizing big minds to work on small problems.”

Ouch. I’d argue with this, but I just spent two days developing an improved optimization approach to scheduling soccer games for five year olds.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Mary Grace Crissey | May 7, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    what a contrast – stroking egos of the OR smart guys in one blog entry – and the business benefit ROI focused entry of the Edelman awards as the other! i agree that OR professionals today are a breed apart — with different motivations (and need for stroking) –and different comfort zones. YOU’ve hit the PRIMARY reason i think analytics are so slow in being accepted by organizations today — we shouldn’t be so APART from the decision managers we strive to support!

  2. Stuart Mitchell | May 10, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Tell me about it I have been spending my time developing a web app for scheduling Jiu Jitsu tournaments I justify it to myself by saying I need the tools for work.

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