Russell Ackoff passed away

ackoff1Russell Lincoln Ackoff passed away October 29, 2009.  Ackoff was one of the most controversial researchers in operations research.  A prolific writer, his early work was pure operations research, as it was understood in the early 1960s.  Ackoff was an early (1956-57) president of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA, a forerunner of INFORMS) and co-wrote an influential textbook on operations research with Churchman and Arnoff in 1962.

By the late 1970s, Ackoff was disillusioned with operations research, penning articles with titles such as “The Future of Operational Research is Past”.  Kirby has a nice article outlining his changing views.

I have a number of Ackoff’s books and enjoy his writing very much.  I particularly enjoy “The art of problem solving (accompanied by Ackoff’s Fabes)“, which contains a number of stories that I use in my classes.

I was a teenager when Ackoff split from operations research, and the issues Ackoff brings up do not resonate with me.  There are lots of ways to solve problems.  Not every business problem is a linear program.  But not every business problem can be solved by bringing together a dozen people to draw circles and arrows.  Operations Research has its place, as does the direction Ackoff went in.

Criticism from a source as well respected as Ackoff has been salutary for the field, I believe.  Understanding the limits of what we do is as important as understanding our successes.  While perhaps Ackoff could have headed off in new directions with a little less rancor, our field is richer for having had him both within it, and outside of it.

But I think the best of operations research is still to come.

3 thoughts on “Russell Ackoff passed away”

  1. Your two posts today mention some great operations research books. Do you have a listamania or annotated bibliography of other books you recommend?

  2. Perhaps this letter, which Peter Drucker wrote to Russ a few years before he died, will be of some assistance in understanding Russ’ place in OR. It was sent to me by Russ’ long-time colleague (and my friend), John Pourdehnad…

    Subject: Peter Drucker’s message to Ackoff

    Russ truly cherished this message. It is still hanging on his home office wall

    “I was then, as you may recall, one of the early ones who applied Operations Research and the new methods of Quantitative Analysis to specific BUSINESS PROBLEMS — rather than, as they had been originally developed for, to military or scientific problems. I had led teams applying the new methodology in two of the world’s largest companies — GE and AT&T. We had successfully solved several major production and technical problems for these companies — and my clients were highly satisfied. But I was not–we had solved TECHNICAL problems but our work had no impact on the organizations and on their mindsets. On the contrary: we had all but convinced the managements of these two big companies that QUANTITATIVE MANIPULATION was a substitute for THINKING. And then your work and your example showed us–or at least, it showed me–that the QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS comes AFTER the THINKING — it validates the thinking; it shows up intellectual sloppiness and uncritical reliance on precedent, on untested assumptions and on the seemingly “obvious.” But it does not substitute for hard, rigorous, intellectually challenging THINKING. It demands it, though — but does not replace it. This is, of course, what YOU mean BY system. And your work in those far-away days thus saved me — as it saved countless others — from either descending into mindless “model building” — the disease that all but destroyed so many of the Business Schools in the last decades — or from sloppiness parading as ‘insight.’”

    Peter Drucker

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