The Consequences Of Obscurity

In a recent blog post, Polly Mitchell-Guthrie, when referring to an operations research project at UPS, wrote: “Does it really matter what we call it, if people value what was done and want to share the story? If it leads to the expansion of OR I don’t care if its called analytics.” In a 2011 blog post Professor Michael Trick went even further, stating: “The lines between operations research and business analytics are undoubtedly blurred and further blurring is an admirable goal.”

The desire for an association with the very popular, and wildly hyped terms, analytics and business analytics, is perhaps, understandable. Unfortunately, these terms are associated, not with the problem-centric paradigm of operations research, but with the data-centric world of IT/big data. I have been told by people who would know — an entrepreneur in the analytics space and a leader of a data science team — that when executives and IT leaders talk about analytics, they do not include operations research.

The terms analytics and business analytics are strongly associated with the word data: gathering it, cleaning it, mining it, analyzing it, presenting it, and attempting to gain insights from it. These activities in turn, are closely associated with disciplines such as statistics, data science, computer science, and information technology. As a result, the analytics universe is diverse, and much larger than the operations research community. (Interestingly, Professor Trick, in the above mentioned post, acknowledges that:  “We are part of the business analytics story, but we are not the whole story, and I don’t think we are a particularly big part of the story.”)

Blurring the distinction between operations research and analytics would obscure the distinctive approach, and unique capabilities, of operations research, creating a situation in which operations research no longer has a unique identity, and becomes lost in a larger data-centric universe that is characterized by extreme, data-focused publicity. Were this to occur, you should consider how the following questions would be answered:

  • Will students decide to spend years of their lives studying operations research? Will they even know that such a discipline exists?
  • Will universities continue to offer programs in operations research? Will they continue to require MBA students to take operations research courses? Will they continue to hire professors who specialize in operations research?
  • Will companies form new operations research groups, or maintain existing ones? Will IT leaders decide to add operations research analysts to their data science teams? Will jobs and consulting assignments exist for operations research analysts?

I am afraid that obscurity will not lead to the “expansion of OR”; it will lead OR into oblivion.