Raising Social Capital

By Mike Trick INFORMS President

Over the last year, many people within INFORMS have been pondering a fundamental paradox: How can the present and future of OR/MS look so bright while the membership numbers of INFORMS continue to decrease? At its inception, INFORMS had more than 15,000 members; now it has less than 13,000. In recent years, the membership decline has averaged 5 percent per year, despite extensive marketing and outreach efforts. How should this decline be interpreted?

One possibility is the dreaded "death of OR," a subject that has been hashed and rehashed many times in my relatively short professional career, and many times before that. I don't think OR is dying. You can read my column from the last issue for a few reasons, but more convincing are the successes and enthusiasm shown in the articles in any issue of OR/MS Today or Interfaces. No field that has had the string of successes that we have had can be considered sickly, let alone dying.

Another possibility is that INFORMS as an organization does not do well in meeting the needs of its members. INFORMS exists to meet the needs of its members, and if the members are dissatisfied, INFORMS needs to change. The organization is always striving to improve, and there are some areas where significant improvement is possible. However, I don't think this is the issue.

When you examine our main products and services, there are clear signs of continuing quality. Both Management Science and Operations Research were picked as part of a listing of the dozen most influential business journals. All of our journals are ranked at or near the top in their specialties. Our last conference in Miami might have been our largest ever except for the twin disasters of worldwide terrorist threats and Miami-threatening hurricanes. Our Practice Meeting last year in La Jolla, Calif., was a tremendous success in bringing together those interested in the practice of OR/MS. Our Web pages get thousands of hits daily. While we are not perfect, membership surveys suggest we are broadly successful as an organization. So why is membership decreasing?

While I was pondering this, a colleague suggested I read the book "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam, published by Simon and Schuster (it is now available in a paperback edition). No short column can do justice to this thick and statistics-filled book, but the main thesis of the book is that for many of us, our stock of social capital has greatly decreased over the years. Social capital, as many of our members know, refers to the value we gain from social networks, with an emphasis on the value that arises from ongoing, repeated interactions. Social capital is not just a "feel good" concept: it is a measurable, vital component of existence, with clear economic and social implications.

Putnam argues that by almost any measure, the activities that lead to social capital have been decreasing over the last quarter century. We sign fewer petitions, are less likely to volunteer for a political party, are less likely to invite people to dinner, and are less likely to join organized sports (like bowling leagues, from which he derived the title of the book). In one of Putnam's more amusing statistics, at a particular set of stop signs in rural New York, the percentage of people who stopped at the intersection went from 38 percent in 1978 to less than one percent in the late 1990s! Most tellingly, however, people are less likely to join professional societies.

Putnam offers a number of hypotheses on why these changes have occurred. Television and technology appear to play a strong role, with the effects strongest among the younger cohorts. He makes a strong case that society is weaker due to this decrease in social capital activities, and that people need to value social capital more.

I think this issue is particularly salient for OR/MS professionals. Many of us strongly rely on interaction with others to generate creative research directions and to identify and solve important practical problems. As such, I think it is important for us to recognize the important role social capital plays in our professional lives.

It may be that INFORMS declining membership is part of a broad trend. This does not mean that this decline is acceptable or unavoidable! Rather, now that some of the issues have been identified, we can work to directly face them. The Practice Meeting in La Jolla had a large number of structured opportunities for interactions, including "birds-of-a-feather" breakfast tables and assigned seating at lunches so people would meet new people. These activities will be expanded this year in Montreal.

Students, the key source of long term members to INFORMS and part of a generation less likely to join, will have a special focus for a number of groups within INFORMS. I also think INFORMS and its members can be at the forefront in exploiting new technology to create mixed online/live communities. To date, there have been relatively few success stories for online communities: our field is ideally placed to change that. And, in keeping with this issue's international focus, INFORMS can be a leader in increasing international interactions in OR/MS. Such "international social capital" has tremendous value!

I am very much taken with Putnam's book and with the issues of social capital. I have a Web page at http://mat.gsia.cmu.edu/ORAlone that expands on some of these issues. I am convinced that we can offset these trends and INFORMS will not be like that irrelevant stop sign in rural New York.

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.