History Lesson: The evolution of INFORMS

ORSA + TIMS = INFORMS: A look back at 65 years of problems, solutions, mergers, achievements and anecdotes.

By Peter Horner

With visions of their fledgling field’s success during World War II still dancing in their heads and eager to train their technical talents on peacetime problems in industry and business, 73 individuals from academia, the military and corporate America gathered at the Arden Estate in Harriman, N.Y., on May 26, 1952, to map out plans for a professional organization that would carry the operations research banner forward in the United States. They emerged at the end of the historic day as the founding fathers of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA).

Philip M. Morse, the first president of ORSA.

Philip M. Morse, the first president of ORSA.

MIT professor Philip M. Morse, who literally wrote the book on the subject (“Methods of Operations Research,” co-authored by George Kimball), led the assembly. Already considered the “Father of O.R.” in the Unites States thanks to his contributions to the war effort, Morse was the obvious choice to serve as ORSA’s first president. The head of the U.S. Navy’s famed Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Research Group during the war, Morse was joined at the Arden Estate by a Who’s Who of O.R. pioneers, including Kimball, Russell Ackoff and C. West Churchman.

Before the year was out, ORSA would publish Vol. 1, No. 1 of its flagship journal, Operations Research, and organize its first national meeting, held at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. Four hundred members and guests attended. The world seemed full of interesting, complex industrial problems that cried out for operations research-type analysis.

“The early ORSA meetings were attended by a couple of hundred people, almost all of them employed by industry, government or the military,” recalled longtime ORSA, TIMS and now INFORMS member Sid Hess. “The best parts of the meetings were late night bull sessions in the cocktail lounge where students, faculty and practitioners argued and exchanged views.”

But all was not cozy in the O.R. community.

Recalled Andrew Vazsonyi, one of the first “associate” members of ORSA, who passed away in 2003: “There was a feeling among [some of the members] back then that ORSA was too strongly oriented toward mathematics, that its leaders were just interested in military applications. ORSA was dominated by the Philip Morse and George Kimball crowd, people who were always talking about the things they did for the military during World War II. Many of us thought that ORSA needed another approach, something oriented toward management, but we didn’t think we could get the Morse crowd to change. It turns out we were right.” ORSA’s early focus on military matters at the expense of management, combined with its perceived restrictive, layered membership policies, prompted several disenfranchised members to consider establishing a new society that catered to their needs. Not long after ORSA was founded, Melvin Salveson organized the first in a series of informal meetings on the West Coast to explore interest in the venture. Almost simultaneously, similar groups with similar designs sprung up on the East Coast. David Hertz, then teaching at Columbia University, hosted one such meeting at his New York apartment.

“There were about 10 of us,” said Hertz, who passed away in 2011. “Bill Cooper was there. Merrill Flood was there. We spent a long night talking about the creation of [what would become] The Institute of Management Sciences. The big question, with ORSA already up and running, was, “Why are we doing this?” We were doing it because a lot of people, myself included, were not satisfied with the idea that ORSA didn’t seem to be concerning itself with the management world. We believed we could make important contributions in this area by applying the techniques of operations, which we called management science.”

Raising Another Banner

Just 18 months after ORSA was founded, a room full of economists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, astronomers, philosophers, attorneys and, yes, erstwhile operations researchers met on a cold winter’s day at Columbia University to ponder the possibility of joining forces under another banner, this one called “management science.” The guest list included four future Nobel Prize winners and one future recipient of the National Medal of Science, George B. Dantzig. They debated where the new organization should go, how it should get there and whether the effort was even necessary, given the existence of ORSA.

William W. Cooper, the first president of TIMS.

William W. Cooper, the first president of TIMS.

At the end of the day, they decided that the effort was indeed worth it, and thus was born The Institute of Management Sciences. The date was Dec. 1, 1953. William W. Cooper was elected the first president of TIMS. Several of the men who had attended the founding meeting of ORSA 18 months earlier traveled to New York for the founding of TIMS. Prominent among them was Churchman, who would become the founding editor of TIMS’ flagship journal, Management Science.

For a profession that strives to bring clarity to management decision-making, TIMS got off to a confusing start. For one thing, Salveson reportedly showed up at Columbia having already collected about $60 in dues for an as yet non-existent institute.

“That really got Dantzig upset,” recalled Cooper, who passed away in 2012. “I remember I got in a big argument with Salveson over the nature of management science. He was looking, in a scientific sense, for laws and regularities that he believed governed management. I thought management science meant developing methodology, improving the way we do things. Looking back, I would have to say I was right.”

Churchman, meanwhile, squared off with Dantzig over the issue of ethics. “George and I didn’t see eye to eye on linear programming,” Churchman, who passed away in 2004, recalled. “I’m a philosopher. When they said optimize, I thought they meant optimize in an ethical sense. You can optimize the decision-making function in linear programming and find out that it is only optimal in terms of what management perceives to be the monetary benefits minus cost. LP’s only constraints are physical or purely financial, not ethical.

“George and I were like any two old professors who recognized that the other SOB was simply off somewhere else,” Churchman added. “George was a mathematician, I was a philosopher. George was selling LP, and I was trying to sell ethics. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious that George did a better job of selling than I did.”

The eclectic cast of characters at Columbia managed to put aside their individual differences long enough to agree to proceed with the formal founding of TIMS. The founding fathers adopted a constitution and bylaws, elected a slate of officers, appointed an editorial board and established a committee to incorporate TIMS. In true Jeffersonian fashion, Constitution Chairman Merrill Flood and company authored an objective statement that holds up as well today as it did 64 years ago: “The objects of the Institute shall be to identify, extend and unify scientific knowledge that contributes to the understanding and practice of management.”

Meeting of the minds: The head table (rear of the photo) at TIMS’ Second Annual Banquet, held in New York City in 1955, featured many of the profession’s most notable pioneers including (left to right) Roger Crane, Ezra Glazer, George Kozmetsky, Herbert Simon (vice president), William Cooper (past president), Merrill Flood (president), Melvin Salveson, C. West Churchman, Gifford Symonds, Alex Orden, Andy Vazsonyi and David Hertz.

Meeting of the minds: The head table (rear of the photo) at TIMS’ Second Annual Banquet, held in New York City in 1955, featured many of the profession’s most notable pioneers including (left to right) Roger Crane, Ezra Glazer, George Kozmetsky, Herbert Simon (vice president), William Cooper (past president), Merrill Flood (president), Melvin Salveson, C. West Churchman, Gifford Symonds, Alex Orden, Andy Vazsonyi and David Hertz.

The founding fathers of TIMS might have been wise in their ways, but they weren’t perfect. In crafting the constitution, they created the position of past president, and bestowed upon the position a number of important duties, not the least of which was the power to open meetings and chair the Council. After adopting a constitution and electing officers, the Institute found itself in a dilemma: Without a past president, the meeting could not officially begin.

After briefly considering abolishing the five-minute-old Institute and changing the bylaws, the charter members came to their senses and elected Vazsonyi to the post of past president. Thus Vazsonyi will always be remembered in TIMS lore as the only past president of the Institute who never served as president.

About that same time, over in the ORSA camp, the operations researchers found themselves embroiled in a similar debate concerning elections. Should officers be elected by a majority, a plurality or some other means of counting? The hour was late. Everyone was tired. Lengthy discussions had failed to produce an answer. Finally, George Kimball stood up and simply said, “The one who gets the most votes wins.” End of debate.

From the beginning, ORSA and TIMS staked their reputations on using sophisticated mathematical modeling to solve complex operational problems. At the same time, good operations researchers and management scientists know that sometimes all it really takes to solve a problem is a little common sense.

Brothers (Up) in Arms

Like two rival brothers who have much in common yet can’t seem to see agree on anything, ORSA and TIMS went their separate ways, only to reunite later in life. In 1954, ORSA appointed its first (and long-serving) business manager, Norvell Miller III, and presented its first award, the Frederick W. Lanchester Prize for the best English language paper in operations research. In 1957, the Case Institute of Technology awarded the first Ph.D. degree in operations research, and ORSA became a charter member of the International Federation of Operational Societies, extending its worldwide reach.

TIMS, meanwhile, was busy building its own flagship journal, Management Science (1954), appointing Harold Cauvet as its first executive director (1958) and approving its first college (Planning, also in 1958).

By the end of the 1950s, ORSA membership stood at about 3,000. Membership in TIMS soared to more than 2,600, boosted by a meeting in Paris in 1959 that included membership dues as part of the registration fee. A significant number of people such as Hess, who joined ORSA and TIMS in 1957, maintained memberships in both organizations.

ORSA, the “older brother,” was generally considered the stronger of the two, at least in a financial sense. A series of unsettling events in the early 1960s stopped TIMS’ growth in its tracks and brought the Institute to the brink of bankruptcy. The tumultuous period was marked by a revolving business office (three moves to three different cities) and executive directors (four in six years). Things settled down with the 1968 appointment of Mary DeMelim as executive director, a post she held for more than 25 years. (Patricia Morris, whose career closely mirrored DeMelim’s, added stability to ORSA as its executive director during much of the same timeframe.) The late 1960s ushered in a second wave of sustained growth that pushed TIMS’ membership past 6,500 by the end of the decade.

MIT professor John D. C. Little (photo), who attended his first national ORSA meeting in 1955, recalled the 1960s as a time when the emphasis in O.R. was on methodologies, which evolved into an increase in the “mathematization” of the field. By the 1970s, Little said, “We returned to putting more attention on applications in the universities and journals.”

MIT professor John D. C. Little (photo), who attended his first national ORSA meeting in 1955, recalled the 1960s as a time when the emphasis in O.R. was on methodologies, which evolved into an increase in the “mathematization” of the field. By the 1970s, Little said, “We returned to putting more attention on applications in the universities and journals.”

MIT professor John D. C. Little, who attended his first national ORSA meeting in 1955, recalled the 1960s as a time when the emphasis in O.R. was on methodologies, which evolved into an increase in the “mathematization” of the field. By the 1970s, Little said, “We returned to putting more attention on applications in the universities and journals.”

The 1970s also marked a reunion of the long estranged “brothers” – ORSA and TIMS – highlighted by the joint publication of Interfaces and the first joint U.S. meeting (held in Boston). In 1971, TIMS established the College on the Practice of Management Science and the Management Science Achievement Prize Competition, which was later renamed the Franz Edelman Award for Management Science Achievement. Franz Edelman, the longtime leader of the management science group at RCA, was widely considered the “quintessential” management science practitioner.

In 1974, ORSA established the Kimball Medal for service to the society and the profession, and the John von Neumann Theory Prize. From the narrow military focus of its early years, operations research broadened its scope to include a dizzying array of theoretical research and applications in the industrial and service sectors. By the end of the decade, the fuzzy line that had historically distinguished ORSA and TIMS, and operations research from management science, had all but disappeared, prompting the first serious talks of merger.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, the competition between the two organizations was almost unfriendly,” Hess recalled. “Gradually those of us who lived and worked in the overlap – whatever that was – helped encourage cooperation.”

Winds of Merger

Merger seemed inevitable, but it required many more years of joint meetings, joint journals, joint councils, joint proposals, joint counter-proposals and good, old-fashioned lobbying before ORSA and TIMS would officially tie the knot. In the meantime, both organizations enjoyed impressive growth in terms of their journals, subdivisions and meetings. At the first ORSA national meeting, all of the technical papers were delivered in a single one-day session. In comparison, the combined 1988 TIMS/ORSA National Meeting in Washington, D.C., chaired by Saul Gass, drew 2,879 total registrants – a record that stood for many years – and included dozens of tracks spread over four days. Whether the quality of presentations kept pace with the quantity of presentations is a whole different question.

Dantzig’s work on linear programming and the simplex method in the late 1940s jump-started the profession. Logic says that the growth of ORSA and TIMS should have thrived by the development of the desktop computer, the increased access to data and the creation of landmark theories, algorithms, methodologies, applications and publications.

History, however, often defies logic. Sometime in the 1970s, right about the time Apple started making personal computers for the masses, the growth rate of membership in ORSA and TIMS began to slow down. In the 1980s, a decade when Narendra Karmarkar’s interior-point LP solution method marked the first fundamentally new LP algorithm in nearly 40 years, and the O.R. group at American Airlines pioneered the concept of yield/revenue management that revolutionized how airlines and other industries do business, ORSA and TIMS membership growth slowed even further. In the early 1990s, at a time when computer power was growing exponentially and the business world was floating in a sea of data generated by virtually every desktop in the world, membership growth stopped altogether.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

It’s not a question of what went wrong, but where did the demand for OR/MS-type skills go. The classically trained O.R. professional was a generalist, but the market began demanding specialists. Many companies that had historically supported separate O.R. groups or departments began to disperse their analytical talent throughout the enterprise. Individuals armed with advanced O.R. degrees who ended up in a financial department, for example, began to think of themselves in terms of finance rather than operations research. The individuals were still doing O.R.-type work and using O.R.-type tools, but over time they became more in tune with the folks in finance rather than those in O.R., and perhaps they changed their professional affiliation as well. That might explain why at the time the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics kept saying that there were 50,000 to 80,000 (depending on the year and the definition of “operations research”) O.R. analysts running around the country, only a fraction of them called ORSA, TIMS or later INFORMS home. In other words, the number of people “doing O.R.” was almost certainly increasing; they just weren’t calling themselves operations researchers or joining INFORMS.

At the same time, traditional management science courses started losing ground in business schools. It turns out that MBAs were more interested in making money than making mathematical models. Go figure. The net result: Many business schools responded to their customers’ (i.e., students) demands by reducing or eliminating the once-required management science component of their curriculums. That, in turn, further dampened the profile of OR/MS in the corporate world and no doubt led some analysts to reconsider their professional affiliation or to drop an affiliation all together.

INFORMS Emerges

Whether people were wandering off the OR/MS reservation to affiliate with other fields or simply choosing to “bowl alone” and go it on their own, concern over dwindling membership in both ORSA and TIMS was one of the factors that brought the issue of merger to a head in the mid-1990s. Merger was widely seen as a logical next step for two kindred organizations that already shared about half of their budgets and activities. Along with streamlining internal inefficiency, the merger was sold as a means to gain more external clout with a united front while creating “a big tent” organization that would foster the growth and independence of existing subdivisions and perhaps attract new, related societies and professional organizations.

During the summer of 1994, members of ORSA and TIMS voted overwhelmingly in favor of a merger. On Dec. 31, 1994, ORSA and TIMS ceased to exist. On Jan. 1, 1995, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences was born. John D. C. Little, a former president of both ORSA and TIMS and one of the primary architects of the merger, was elected to serve as the first president of INFORMS. Alfred Blumstein, another past president of both ORSA and TIMS, was voted to the post of president-elect.

As INFORMS carried the banner of O.R. in America into a second half-century, the Institute had much to celebrate, as INFORMS continued to expand and improve its products and services. The Institute boasted 10 respected titles in its portfolio of journals, all of them ranked at or near the top in their specialties, and the two flagship journals, Operations Research and Management Science, were named to a list of the 12 most influential business journals in the country.

In addition, INFORMS had created a strong Internet presence; Informs Online received thousands of hits a day, and the Institute’s successful online publication program opened up an important new stream of revenue. Meanwhile, the INFORMS annual meeting continued to draw well, the new practice-oriented meeting established a reputation for quality, and the Institute stood on solid financial ground.

Despite all of its successes, however, two key problems still haunted the Institute. The merger did little, if anything, to boost membership. After reaching a high-water mark of nearly 15,000 (combined ORSA and TIMS) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, membership slowly retreated to about 10,000 at the turn of the century. Even more perplexing was “the name issue.” Despite countless attempts at “branding” its product, the Institute still had not found an effective way to clearly define, let alone market, what its members do and why the world should care. More than 50 years after its founding, and despite a well-funded “Science of Better” marketing campaign, the terms “operations research” and “management science” didn’t get much traction outside the walls of the OR/MS community.

Born in the crucible of World War II with the fate of a free Europe depending on its success and buoyed in the post-war era of rapidly expanding industrial and management opportunities, was the field of OR/MS destined to be forever bewitched by a public and corporate world that neither understood nor appreciated its many contributions? David Hertz, who hosted the first TIMS planning meeting in his New York apartment in 1953, had a one-word answer: “nonsense.” His expanded explanation, spoken in 1993 upon TIMS’ 40th anniversary, still resonates today:

“In any long journey, detours are inevitable. Membership grew, we almost went broke. TIMS set out to bring the kind of science represented by operations research to the management world. Its members did so in many, many ways and I think it was successful.

“In a way, growth is somewhat of a handicap. Today, you hear a lot of complaining from our members about a lack of recognition. That’s a bunch of bull. I don’t have any sympathy for those who complain. The people who do exceptional work are always recognized – with full professorships at major institutes, with major jobs in industry, with big appointments in government, with research grants.

“I think the problem is there are too many people who like to call themselves management scientists. There are 500,000 lawyers in this country. Are they all recognized? I believe a great deal can be done, but it’s not going to be done by complaining. In my opinion, we’re crying over the wrong issue. Recognition is not the issue. Good work is. You’ve got to understand the world of management, the managed and managing.”

Expansion and Recent Initiatives

Needless to say, the Institute and the profession have undergone many changes since the merger of ORSA and TIMS created INFORMS more than 20 years ago. The increase in data mentioned above has since turned into a data tsunami of unfathomable depths, produced not just by desktop computers but by all manner of devices, from sensors in big rigs and refrigerators to smart phones and wearable technology on seemingly every person. The widespread availability of “big data” has made it not only possible but imperative for companies to make sense and gain insight from massive amounts of data in order to optimize their corporate decision-making and “compete on analytics.” That in turn has given rise to a whole new set of monikers such as “data scientist” and “analytics professional” to comingle with “operations researcher” and “management scientist,” further confusing the 65-year-old “name” issue: How do I best describe, let alone market, myself and my profession to the corporate world?

Expansion and new initiatives, none more prominent than the decision to embrace the analytics movement, have marked the more recent history of INFORMS.

Expansion and new initiatives, none more prominent than the decision to embrace the analytics movement, have marked the more recent history of INFORMS.

Expansion and new initiatives, none more prominent than the decision to embrace the analytics movement, have marked the more recent history of INFORMS. Along those lines, the Institute remade and then rebranded its spring conference as the “INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics & O.R.,” changing the focus from a largely academic exercise to a high-end, practitioner-oriented event aimed at analysts, managers and C-level execs. In 2008, INFORMS launched Analytics magazine, an online-only publication whose reach and readership now far exceeds that of the INFORMS membership magazine OR/MS Today. To further cement itself as a leader in the worldwide analytics community, INFORMS supported an Analytics Section that quickly became an Analytics Society as membership soared past a thousand; created a continuing education program; and launched the Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) and the Associate Certified Analytics Professional (aCAP) programs to help analysts separate themselves in the job market and to help companies find qualified candidates for their analytics teams.

On the academic side, INFORMS added several journals in recent years to its world-class portfolio, including Decision Analysis (2004), Service Science (2012) and Strategy Science (2015).

Over the past 15 years, other notable highlights include:

  • In 2002, the Institute introduced its inaugural class of INFORMS Fellows in recognition of their lifetime achievement in operations research and the management sciences, as well as service to the profession and INFORMS.
  • On the meetings front, the INFORMS Annual Meeting now routinely attracts well over 5,500 attendees, including an all-time record 5,827 in San Francisco in 2014, a record that was nearly matched by Nashville in 2016.
  • INFORMS membership passed the 12,000 mark last year for the first time since the merger.
  • In 2015, the INFORMS Women in OR/MS (WORMS) Forum celebrated its 20th anniversary, a reflection of the growing impact women have had in all phases of the OR/MS community, particularly leadership roles in INFORMS. For the record, from 2007 to 2015, six of the nine presidents of INFORMS happened to be women.
  • INFORMS staff, which used to be spread across offices in the Washington, D.C., area, and Providence, R.I. (a holdover from the pre-merger days), is now consolidated under the leadership of Executive Director Melissa Moore in a modern office complex located just minutes from the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Upon this 65th anniversary of the founding of ORSA, we’ll once again leave the last words to ORSA’s original resident philosopher, C. West Churchman: “Everybody’s daily life consists of problems arising from what you decided yesterday. Managers understand that. Mathematicians want to solve a theorem, publish the results and walk away clean. Managers never walk away clean. The real world is a very dirty place. Clarity is supposed to be the objective of science. I disagree. I think the objective of science is confusion, because confusion carries you into problems.”

After 65 years of merged history, INFORMS still finds itself knee-deep in Churchman’s preferred choice of confusion. While plenty of pressing problems have been solved, many pressing problems remain.

Peter Horner (peter.horner@mail.informs.org) is the editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazines. The author again thanks the late Saul Gass for his many comments and suggestions on previous versions of this article, and salutes the many other pillars of the profession who contributed their time, expertise, wisdom, service and leadership to INFORMS dating back to its ancestral roots 65 years ago.

Acknowledgment

2017 marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Operations Research Society of America in 1952, which eventually merged with The Institute of Management Sciences to create INFORMS in 1995. This article is an updated version of an earlier article, “History in the Making,” marking the 50th anniversary of ORSA, which appeared in the October 2002 issue of OR/MS Today. That earlier version, including some passages and quotes, was itself based on published accounts of ORSA, TIMS and INFORMS that have appeared in OR/MS Today over the last 25 years, most notably articles on the 40th anniversaries of ORSA and TIMS in 1992 and 1993, respectively, and the merger debate that led to the creation of INFORMS (1994-95), as well as John R. Hall’s “An Issue-Oriented History of TIMS,” that appeared in Interfaces in 1983 (Vol. 13, No. 4, pgs. 9-19).