Thursday, August 26, 2010

OR Theory, as opposed to OR Practice

An interesting exchange at where else but OR-exchange on "will OR take over the world" ? I would suggest a read-up there and to post your views to keep the discussion going. As one of the participants, a suggestion was made that OR has gone well beyond its mandate and overtaken the world (which gives me a convenient excuse to link to the good old pomo generator. We should build an OR-theory version some time :-), and that there was a crying need to get back to Terra firma.

Sadly, OR practice has very little to do with OR theory now-a-days. It doesn't matter if the department is part of the school of engineering, humanities, or management. Yes, theory has its place. OR theory is particularly enchanting, but an equal part of OR-academia has to be about training kids to think about practical solutions for the real world today, where OR enables a better understanding of real problems for real human beings. This balance is skewed today.

In short, academic OR (today) is almost all about answers, but in OR practice, the 'value-add' comes from asking the right questions. Given the right question, finding a good prescriptive answer in practice is, relatively speaking, a piece of cake (NP-Hard or not, bleeding-edge solver or not). Going to the customer and saying they have an unsolvable problem scenario because the solver that sliced thru your complex MIP model said it was 'infeasible' is just not done. Playing the good OR guy and walking your customer through a well-intentioned slide slow of analyzing an irreducible inconsistent subsystem to explain it is not much better. All that we have done so far is show how ineffective our efforts has been so far! After all, the customer was in business for decades without OR and did pretty well. So a first step in OR practice is to somehow get the customer to tutor us on how they optimized their business well enough to feed their families in this world (when we were happily experimenting with n-dimensional representations in hyperspace until our advisor kicked us out of school with a PhD), so we at least don't make a complete fool of ourselves. A second step would be to apply common sense, but then OR programs rarely get ranked and papers seldom get accepted based on such uncool stuff.

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