What is our business?

Steve Robinson

Peter Drucker, the great business writer, adviser and counselor, used to ask his clients, “What is your business?” He was dismayed by how often the client couldn’t give a coherent answer. In this column I’d like to ask Drucker’s question about INFORMS and to look at how we might answer it if we were asked.

This question is fundamental. Although it might seem abstract, our ability to make decisions about a wide range of very practical issues – new journals, specialized meetings and member benefits, for example – depends on our having a good answer to that basic question. It’s distinct from the question of mission: A mission is something you are supposed to get done, while the business is what you do to get it done.

One approach might be to list what we do: publications, meetings, now certification and so on. But these are only aspects of our business, not the business itself. Why does our business – whatever it is – require us to do those things and not others?

For a different approach, we could examine some of those aspects and try to find something that’s common to all of them. If we could find such a common factor that summarized the main contribution of each, we might think that this common factor was a pretty good candidate for an answer to the basic question. If we found that it also provided good guidance in considering possible new activities to undertake, we’d gain even more confidence in it. Let’s try that with respect to some of the activities just mentioned.

Prominent in our array of publications are the journals that report research in many different areas. Each paper published in one of these comprises a piece of knowledge, developed or compiled by authors, that’s likely to be of interest to a substantial number of readers. A reader will find, for example in a research paper, new facts about or a new way of looking at some important problem in operations research (OR) or management science (MS). By studying the paper, the reader can absorb the facts and techniques that it sets out, and thereby can gain the insight that the author, with much effort, has managed to develop. The article communicates that insight from author to reader.

INFORMS doesn’t develop the insight: We don’t hire researchers. What INFORMS does is to provide a medium to communicate the insight, together with assurance that the paper has been read by independent evaluators who judged that it was worth publishing.

For a second example, consider the annual meetings that we manage each fall. These bring together many attendees—recently, about 4,500—to listen to presentations on all aspects of OR and MS. But as valuable as these are, for many attendees the greatest value is in what happens during personal contacts. Whatever your area of interest, the chances are good that a substantial fraction of the leaders in that area are at the meeting. Whether you want to ask for advice, to suggest collaboration on a research project, or to get insight into how good the person you’re considering hiring really is, personal contact provides opportunities that e-mail, text or phone can’t match. So here we also have communication, but of a much more diverse kind than the carefully organized, formal presentation of the journal paper.

Again, INFORMS doesn’t generate the communication at meetings; in many cases INFORMS doesn’t even know about it. What INFORMS does is to provide the environment in which the communication can happen, and without which it might not take place at all.

Publications and meetings are things familiar to all of us. Let’s take a newer one: the analytics certification process. By passing the Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) examination, a person can provide evidence that she or he is competent in the principles and practice of analytics. To see how this involves communication, think about the problem faced by a client who’s considering hiring a candidate as an employee or consultant. The candidate maintains that she’s well qualified, but the client has no reason to take that seriously. Certification changes the communication by contributing an independent, credible, third-party evaluation: Yes, we tested her and she showed that she really does know what she’s doing. That evidence lessens the client’s risk and improves the candidate’s chances. Each is now better off.

Here again we see communication, but with a different emphasis: INFORMS contributes the assurance of quality, just as in the case of publications, but it provides no medium. In fact it does provide a medium, in the form of the Career Center activity at meetings, but in contrast to the publications example, here the medium is separate from the assurance of quality.

The examples we’ve considered here point to a simple formulation of INFORMS’ business: to promote communication among people concerned with analytics (including OR/MS), by providing key tools such as media – broadly interpreted – and quality assurance. This year I’ve been using that as a provisional answer to Drucker’s question, and so far it has worked well.

Steve Robinson - INFORMS President