Past Successes, Future Challenges

By Mike Trick INFORMS President

These are interesting times for OR/MS and INFORMS. In practice, our field seems to be more and more successful with greater influence in business and government. The trends over the last decade have been ever-increasing computing power and easy access to huge amounts of data. And our field has, at its heart, the goal of harnessing computing power to use data to make better decisions. The result has been a long series of successful uses of OR/MS to improve business operations and even redefine the business environment.

What would the airline industry be like without revenue management, optimal crew scheduling, ticket auctions and the host of other successes we have had? How would today's large corporations work without strategic models to integrate far-flung operations into a coherent whole? How could companies handle their e-commerce activities without data mining and other methods to extract information from data?

A quick perusal of the articles in this magazine and in Interfaces shows the breadth and applicability of what we do. The Edelman Competition for outstanding practice consistently shows the importance of OR/MS to successful companies.

These successes in practice have parallels with successes in research and academia. In almost every subfield we represent, the last decade has seen important advances. Whether it is improved methods for handling large integer programs or better models of financial markets or more general auction systems or the myriad of other results, the research advances suggest a bright future for our field.

INFORMS itself seems on a similarly strong trajectory with new activities across the board. Our already strong publication suite will soon be joined by a new journal on decision analysis. We have successfully added a new conference in the form of our practice-oriented meeting, to be held May 19-22 in Montreal.

Our information systems centered around INFORMS Online continue to grow in popularity. Every day more than 2,000 different machines access IOL to learn about what we do.

Financially, we are in wonderful shape. Our institute operations are covered by our income from membership and other sources. Our investment committee has successfully brought us through a difficult year with very little loss, leaving us with an endowment that is the envy of many much larger societies.

Despite all of these successes, there are certainly some challenges ahead. As a field, we continue to be under-recognized for what we do. Many of the successes in OR/MS are viewed as successes in other fields. This is caused, in part, by a continuing inability to properly brand ourselves as a field. Are we "operations research," "management science," "the management sciences," "OR/MS," "systems analysis" or any of a host of other possible labels?

How can we, as a field, better let people know who we are and what we do?

As the troubled worldwide economy begins to regain its feet, the role of OR/MS is in flux. On one hand, a more competitive environment should force companies to be more efficient, which is difficult to do without our field. On the other hand, as companies contract, a shortsighted view may deem our sort of analysis as a luxury. Consulting firms, a key segment for us, have slowed or stopped their hiring. Further, given the rapidly changing knowledge in our field, continuing education for our members takes on a stronger importance. How can we help our members get rewarding jobs in academia and business, and how can we keep them up to date on developments in our field?

Our position in academia is also not as solid as we would like. Our role has been decreasing in many MBA programs, and there are signs that our doctoral programs are under threat. How can we improve this situation?

As an organization, INFORMS' greatest challenge is the continuing decrease in membership. Every year, almost 20 percent of our members decide not to renew their membership. Our marketing efforts attract sufficient new members so that the overall decline is only about 5 percent per year, but this is still unsatisfactory. Given the success of our field, we should not be declining at all. A number of groups within INFORMS have looked at this decrease, and many of the new activities are designed to make INFORMS more useful to its members. For instance, the new practice-oriented meetings are designed to provide value to members who are well-advanced in their careers, a group that often substitutes membership in other organizations for their INFORMS membership. How can we better address the needs of all of our members?

Subdivisions are a key component of attracting and retaining members. It is through subdivisions that people will find the community they seek in membership. For instance, student chapters are a great mechanism for attracting the student members who are the lifeblood of our field. How can we better support and nurture subdivisions to ensure their continued success?

INFORMS exists in order to further the goals of its membership. I hope at the end of this year, every member will see improved services and will believe that INFORMS membership is critical for their own success. If you have thoughts on what we can do to make INFORMS work better for you, please drop me a line at trick@cmu.edu.