Sunday, May 29, 2011

April 1963 discussion: OR v Analytics

While digging through old scientific articles trying to ascertain when O.R gained a solid foothold in India, I stumbled on this gem from 48 years ago. The pdf version of this article that was published by "the defense documentation center for scientific and technical information, Cameron Station, Alexandria, Virginia" can be found here. The article is interesting for a variety of reasons. Among other things, it critically appraises the work of Russel Ackoff and Mahalanobis (about whom this non-blog will comment on in a later post) on using OR models for solving nation-planning problems in developing countries.

Words from the original document are in italics and any emphasis below in 'bold' is mine.

Ackoff asserted that a large role was both feasible and desirable. He predicted that extremely high returns would result from addressing national planning problems with operations research techniques in these countries. In striking contrast to this viewpoint, the ORSA president (Dr. Charles Hitch) at that time, stressed the risks of over-selling what OR has to offer the underdeveloped countries at the level of national planning, and apparently wanted OR'ers to focus on tactical and commercial applications at the project and industry level since 'OR is the art of suboptimizing' On the other hand, the document also notes that since then, Hitch has been a pioneer in adapting OR to national defense problems in the United States as Assistant Secretary of Defense (Comptroller). Hmm.

Other dissenters similarly commented on the characteristics of problems to which operations research can be most successfully applied, e.g., abundant and reliable data, a well-structured model, and a clear, reduceable objective function. [Dorfman] concluded that the conditions that are most propitious for the use of operations research tend to occur in "routine and technical problems" at lower and middling levels. The document includes examples that apparently point out the hazards of applying operations research techniques too quickly and broadly.

Salient features of this document include:
1. An open and frank conversational style of writing
2. The presence of constructive and sharp dissent without disparaging the worth or the author of that prior contribution
3. A strong emphasis on the practical method, which really distinguishes OR from other disciplines

- all three of which is mostly missing in the 'sterile' articles that we see published in recent times. When we arrive at the last paragraph that precedes the main body of work in this document (which consists of copious amounts of what we would almost certainly classify as 'analytics' today, e.g., causal statistical regression models, etc), we read this:

First, I am not particularly concerned with whether it might be more appropriate to apply the labels "econometrics," or "systems analysis," rather than "operations research," to one or both of these examples. Methodological purists may find it preferable to fit the examples into one or the other of these categories, but for my purpose, what we are concerned with is the application of quantitative analytical techniques to decision problems in the underdeveloped countries. From this standpoint, econometrics applied to practical, policy problems Is operations research.

At least for me, this argument amicably settles the non-debate on the dual noises emanating from our tribe on 'OR v analytics', but of course, it is wishful thinking that this practical discussion will fix the larger contemporary issue that is centered on 'brand labeling' and 'image perception' than anything that practically and directly affects our customer base, which should have been our #1 priority. An inclusive dual identity for a person is fast becoming the norm in this non-homogenous, 'globalized' planet, and to paraphrase Shakespeare, OR by any another name would add the same value to our customers.

The author of this informative 1963 document is Dr. Charles Wolf, Jr. A brief bio of this distinguished gentleman, and another one can be found here. By sheer coincidence, the May Informs blog challenge appears to be about 'OR and Analytics'.

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