Visibility and awareness

President-Elect Nick Hall outlines a bold strategy to enhance INFORMS’ visibility.

Nicholas Hall

By Peter Horner

Nicholas G. Hall’s journey from University of Cambridge economics major to U.C. Berkeley management science Ph.D. student to Ohio State University professor to president-elect of INFORMS isn’t so much a long, strange trip as it is a natural evolution. For example, his doctorate degree made him a perfect candidate to teach project management at Ohio State University, where he has turned the course into one of the most popular electives among MBAs at OSU’s Fisher College of Business (no small feat, given MBA students’ historical reluctance to go anywhere near serious math). Likewise, Professor Hall’s professional background in accounting made him a logical pick to serve as treasurer of INFORMS from 2011-2014.

A prolific author, editor and speaker, Professor Hall has published more than 80 articles in the journals Operations Research, Management Science, Mathematics of Operations Research, Mathematical Programming, Games and Economic Behavior, Interfaces and several other journals. He has served a combined total of more than 42 years on the editorial boards of Operations Research and Management Science. He has given more than 360 academic presentations, including 112 invited presentations in 24 countries, 12 conference keynote presentations and nine INFORMS national conference tutorials. A 2008 citation study ranked him 13th among 1,376 scholars in the operations management field.

In addition to project management, Professor Hall’s research interests include incentives, scheduling and pricing, along with applications of operations research.

In a recent series of online and face-to-face interviews, Professor Hall outlined his bold strategy to enhance INFORMS’ visibility and to address other key issues the Institute will face in the future. Following are excerpts from the interviews as Professor Hall prepares to take the reins as the 24th president of INFORMS on Jan. 1, 2018, including the surprising admission that what he really wanted to be was a professional golfer. Fore!

What is the “state of INFORMS” from your viewpoint in terms of its major activities and its financial status?

The overall state of INFORMS is outstanding, in fact probably the best it has ever been. Recently freed from short-term financial constraints and a culture of day-to-day thinking, INFORMS is moving on to larger and more strategic objectives. These objectives define the theme of my year as president, which is “visibility and awareness.”

Please expand on your plans for visibility and awareness.

Regarding visibility, we are planning a policy conference in Washington, D.C., in 2018, to inform key decision-makers about the contributions that the work of INFORMS makes to society; likely topics include energy and healthcare. This is a new venture for INFORMS, so even with expert consulting help we may not deliver perfectly the first time around, but we will learn and improve. Possible dates are in April or December, taking into consideration the November election cycle. Similar events are planned for 2019 and 2020.

An event of this type, even if successful, is not sufficient after the applause dies down without awareness. That is, we need to develop a broad and consistent reputation among key decision-makers for delivering quality solutions. This objective is quite strategic. Some components we are planning to build awareness include: writing policy white papers, placement of story ideas and op-eds, and conducting in-person briefings with key editors.

As a former treasurer of INFORMS, you have considerable insight into the Institute’s financial situation. How would you describe INFORMS’ current finances?

When I first became treasurer in 2011, INFORMS had experienced five years of operating losses, and had net assets of about $11 million. The working capital barely met financial guidelines for similar organizations. Today, INFORMS is in dramatically better financial condition with about $19 million in net assets. Annual revenue and expenses are about $11.2 million, with an operating surplus averaging about $200,000. We are also much better diversified than previously. When I first joined the board in 2001, more than 70 percent of INFORMS’ revenue came from publications; this figure is now below 50 percent, with the difference being picked up mainly by meetings and some growing analytics revenues.

Are there any specific new or in-the-works INFORMS initiatives you would like to tell the membership about?

There are many current initiatives. Some cost money and therefore require formal board approval, whereas others do not.

Example initiatives within the first category are:

  • The three policy conferences in Washington, D.C., that I described earlier.
  • A substantial upgrade of INFORMS’ membership management software system to a new customer management system that is compliant with newly published standards.
  • Development of the recently initiated and successful student leadership conference into an annual event.
  • INFORMS assuming operational control of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazine.

Example initiatives within the second category are:

  • Development of a Charter for Authors, which specifies reasonable conduct of journal review processes and respectful treatment of authors, and is pending approval by editors and the Publications Committee.
  • Consideration of term limits for editorial board members.

The last two initiatives are pending approval by editors-in-chief and the Publications Committee.

What are the most important things that the membership probably doesn’t know about INFORMS that it should?

Here is a concise summary. INFORMS is a 501c3 nonprofit organization with 54 full-time employees at its office in Catonsville, Md., close to BWI airport. The office has been ably led since 2011 by Executive Director Melissa Moore. Ten functional area staff directors each work with a vice president who is elected to a two-year term. Recently, INFORMS had about 10,500 regular, retired and student members. This number is highly seasonal due to the annual meeting and is projected at 12,500 by year end, closely in line with the 2016 number. Member turnover is about 20 percent annually, which seems too high but is not easy to fix. Regular membership is about 65 percent academic and 35 percent industry/government/military. INFORMS is a leading publisher of scientific research, with about 2 million article downloads annually.

Tell us a little about yourself. You earned bachelor and master degrees in economics at Cambridge, followed by a Ph.D. in management science at U.C. Berkeley. It’s a long way from Cambridge to Berkeley, and it’s a long way from economics to OR/MS. Who or what drew you to Berkeley and management science?

INFORMS President Brian Denton (left) passes the gavel to Nick Hall, who will assume the presidency on Jan. 1, 2018.

INFORMS President Brian Denton (left) passes the gavel to Nick Hall, who will assume the presidency on Jan. 1, 2018.

After graduating with my degree in economics, I joined about half my classmates in starting a professional training contract in accounting. This involved a course in “decision-making,” including something completely new to me called a linear program. It had two decision variables. That graphical solution procedure seemed so inefficient! Why wouldn’t you just rank the constraints by gradient, and pick the two that bracketed the gradient of the objective? This was the first of many mistakes, but nonetheless interesting to think about.

Meanwhile, I was sent to perform a stock count at a large gravel pit. After several hours of walking around on top of the gravel pile in a business suit and rubber boots, and a lot of high school geometry, I confidently produced an estimate of 145,308 tons of gravel. The manager responded that he was happier with his book figure of 110,000 tons. It seemed time to do something else. My office-leaving party at a London casino generated funds for the journey to California, much like the Leonardo DiCaprio character in “Titanic” but fortunately without ice.

Berkeley has long had an excellent program in OR/MS, and was a great choice for me. I learned dynamic programming and stochastic processes from the authors of the classic textbooks, Professors Dreyfus and Ross, respectively. Two others among my instructors, Professors Harsanyi and Akerlof, subsequently won Nobel Prizes.

What mentors or others played significant roles in your early education?

Between the ages of 9 and 11, I was blessed with a wonderful mathematics teacher, Mrs. Truscott. I will always be grateful to her for encouraging my interest in mathematics. It was a sad day for me when she left my school.

What’s the best advice you received in your career?

I join all the other students in my Ph.D. program in appreciating the early career advice and encouragement we received from the late Ernest Koenigsberg. My Ph.D. advisor, Dorit Hochbaum, wisely steered me away from some flavor-of-the-month topics and toward better ones where I could learn much more. My numerous co-authors have greatly improved my choice of research problems and my thinking about them. Recently, [INFORMS Executive Director] Melissa Moore has helped me become more strategic in my thinking about the issues facing INFORMS.

What’s the best advice you would give one of your students today?

First, attend the 90-minute seminar “What They Don’t Tell You in Graduate School about Academic Careers,” which I have given to numerous universities in North America, Europe and Asia over the last 15 years. Second, use this detailed information to decide if an academic career is really what they want. If so, understand that an academic career is a journey, meaning that there will be both good and bad steps along the way. Third, try to find a topic that you expect you will really enjoy studying in the long term, where your research, teaching and other activities will be synergistic. Fourth, keep in mind the proverb, which originates in Arabic and is now widely used in Turkey, “The dogs are barking, but the caravan continues.”

How and why did you became a member of INFORMS? What was your impression of the first conference you attended?

I joined INFORMS at the 1982 fall conference in San Diego, as part of the conference registration package. My university supported student travel to the conference being held at the elegant Town and Country Hotel, but not accommodation, so I booked into the E-Z 8 Motel nearby. The shuttle bus driver summarized his information: “Nine for the Town and Country, and one for the E-Z 8.” I attended my first INFORMS conference session at the tiki hut right next to the pool, where the speaker needed to pause whenever someone dived from the high board. Later, things improved. Two leaders of our academic field, Egon Balas and Jim Orlin, were generous with their advice.

You teach project management to MBA students, and I understand it’s one of the most popular MBA electives. How does one make math and modeling popular with business students, who generally try to avoid such courses?

As I explain in my 2016 INFORMS tutorial, project management is a perfect topic for academic career development, including both research and teaching. It is almost unique to find a topic where innovative practice (e.g., critical chains 1997, agile 2001) is ahead of research. But there is a particular teaching challenge: In my class I typically find several students with five or 10 years of project management experience and the Project Management Professional certification, whereas one-third of the students have never seen a project. Their mathematical backgrounds are similarly diverse.

Obviously, a standard textbook approach will not keep all these students satisfied. So, I teach my course predominantly from hands-on activities: games, exercises, competitions, structured case discussions and online simulations. I have four outstanding guest speakers from local companies who discuss the day-to-day specifics of career choice and development, project execution processes, IT projects and agile methodology, respectively.

Most valuable of all, the students learn about themselves and each other, using a self-assessment exercise that is similar to Myers-Briggs but at a problem-solving level. Students from 10 graduate programs across campus attend my course, for example many students earning a Doctor of Pharmacy degree will need to manage pharmaceutical development projects. Project management is a great opportunity for business schools.

You own your own consulting business. How does your teaching and academic research benefit your practice . . . and how does your practice work benefit your teaching and students?

I own a consulting business, CDOR, registered in Columbus, Ohio. This name stands for “Columbus Discovers Operations Research.” I use it mainly as a hobby, and only accept projects that interest me. My most recent project involved an intellectual property dispute over a heuristic for a really famous O.R. problem that I am not allowed to name. Mainly, I have learned about the importance of good communication over exactly what is needed and about specific delivery. The more immediate connection between work and reward in consulting, compared to research, is certainly appreciated.

Your extensive research and list of publications and citations speak for themselves. At the same time, you’ve delivered hundreds of presentations, more than 100 invited talks and a dozen or so keynote addresses all over the world. What’s behind your obvious joy of public speaking and connecting with a live audience?

It is wonderful to share our ideas, and even more wonderful to influence the early careers of young people. But it is also a valuable learning experience to speak. I will give two examples. First, I once gave a seminar to a group without a strong O.R. background in Asia. But one question from that audience was a gem; it generated a whole section that completed a partly developed paper. Second, I once traveled four hours each way to give a seminar in the United Kingdom, and owing to a double booking, the audience was only two people. Sure, I would have preferred a larger audience, but I had a chance to practice my talk, and I have no regrets about going.

I am usually anxious about speaking. For example, I always visit my classroom for 10 minutes on the weekend before the first class, even though I have been teaching since 1983 and I am familiar with that room. The worst talks I have ever given occurred when, for whatever reason, I was not anxious. Anxious is good.

Based on your equally extensive volunteer work, including more than 42 combined years serving on the editorial boards of Operations Research and Management Science, it’s clear you enjoy volunteer work as well. What drives you to devote so much of your time and energy to INFORMS and other organizations?

Editorial work is extremely interesting and it is possible to learn so much. For those who have not had this experience, it is astonishing how much splendid quality research is submitted to INFORMS’ main journals. I served on the editorial board of Management Science for 16 years. This is currently my 27th consecutive year on the editorial board of Operations Research. I must be a poster child for editorial term limits. I have handled about 350 papers in these two roles, and I wish more of them could have been accepted.

Can you put into perspective how important volunteers are to INFORMS?

There is great benefit in both directions. For INFORMS, almost all the activities outside the office in Maryland are volunteer activities, so those are collectively of great importance. For example, they are essential for successful strategy, sound financial decision-making, professional recognition, delivery of member services and planning of our outstanding conferences.  For the volunteer, they provide an opportunity to become involved in interesting activities and to interact with leaders of the profession. It is easy to start with a small activity, and INFORMS even has a “micro-volunteering” program for mentoring new student members.

What are some of your outside interests?

Growing up, my first choice of career was to be a professional golfer. Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam. [They are not long, the days of wine and roses.] Still, my lifelong interest in following professional golf has taken me to 14 major championships and numerous other events. I’m currently planning my 2018 schedule around Carnoustie [site of the British Open Championship] in Scotland in July. I am still hopeful that the PGA TOUR will adopt the playoff series redesign that I developed with Chris Potts (Interfaces 2012); it would be an improvement.

Since I spend several months a year working on research projects in Asia, I am learning modern standardized Chinese, i.e., Putonghua, from the phonetic Romanization pinyin. My learning process is slow. Some people might call it asymptotic. A lot of wrong information is written about learning Chinese for English speakers. Pronunciation is supposedly hard, but in fact it is easy, and anyway it is all available in a single page online with audio links. Chinese grammar is somewhat different from English, but not much more so than German. The main difficulty is that, with few common roots, Chinese vocabulary is a nightmare. So, the job of the CCTV newsreader remains secure for now.

I love to attend food and wine festivals, whether local or international. In 2016, I attended the best one in the world, Salone del Gusto, which is held every second year in Turin, with 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries and more than 400 tasting events. I hope never to miss it.

Last question: At the end of 2018, on what basis will you measure or grade the success of your term as president?

First, I hope that the policy conference is successful, and it becomes the start of an annual tradition that establishes INFORMS as a recognized major player in national decision-making. Second, I hope that INFORMS members will enjoy the food at the two receptions in Phoenix; otherwise, I expect I will hear about it.

Peter Horner (peter.horner@mail.informs.org) is the editor of OR/MS Today.