Monday, November 30, 2009

O.R. Practice: Doomed by Success?

Did you hear about the dissident O.R practitioner who was sentenced to 'a death by a 1000 cuts' ? Legend has it that his body was found remarkably intact, integral ....

The claim here is that an commercial O.R solution to a real-life problem has a finite shelf-life. The graph of potential improvement for a product is concave, and follows the law of diminishing returns. Most of our recent posts have focused on the need to ensure that the first solution has the 'O.R. inside' stamp, since entrenched heuristics of unknown quality are surprisingly resistant to replacement by more smart-logic based O.R methods.

But what happens after you have something with O. R inside? As a former colleague's professor asked him 'So do you sit around waiting for the model to break?' The answer is sometimes yes. Other times, our twitching O.R genes compel us to keep improving upon the solution and after a while, the effort is not worth the improvement. The better the prior effort was, the less likely that you will be allowed to tinker with it any further. Pretty soon it's set in stone and it just becomes an automaton. After a while, it may even cease to be of much competitive value to a company and the functions are likely to be outsourced to a cookie-cutter vendor.

A car designer can spend an entire career endlessly tweaking cars, but an O.R practitioner has to diversify and cannot expect to retire with the same company by endlessly tweaking a product that she or he created and cherished much. O.R. is such a nebulous and ill-defined field in practice that your next manager or director may not have clue as to what the heck your field is, let alone what it is that you have been doing so far. Without strong backing from the highest levels within the management ("Edelman VPs"), the best O.R. efforts can come to nought or go straight to conference and we, the practitioners, have to move on to a different job.

Anyway, this is just one person's take. It would be instructive to hear the experiences of other practitioners.

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