Sexy operations research

Ed Kaplan
INFORMS President

Ed Kaplan

Yale’s School of Management is sending about 26 students to jobs or internships at Amazon this summer, so interest was already high when Ed McGavin and Murali Rajamani strolled into a classroom packed with MBAs for a noontime presentation. Representing Amazon Logistics, McGavin (Ph.D. in operations research from Purdue’s Krannert school) is their process engineering leader, while Rajamani (Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Wisconsin and an MBA from Chicago Booth) leads their operations tech implementation team.

As Ed and Murali eased into their talk on the topology and processes underlying Amazon’s fulfillment network, a glance around the room captured student reactions not often seen in such sessions. Said students were nearly salivating from the edge of their seats as Ed and Murali connected facility layout, information systems and their variant of the traveling salesman problem. The audience was not only finding the material interesting; the expression on their faces conveyed an unmistakable sentiment: This stuff is hot!

This reaction is not a one-off. Those same awestruck looks could be seen during the Edelman Prize Gala finalist presentations at the highly successful INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research that took place in Orlando, Fla., this past April, especially when the winning team from United Parcel Service (UPS) showcased their On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION) system. As impressive as its technical accomplishments is the depth to which this project permeates the entire workforce at UPS. This fact hit home when Carl (your member-in-chief’s UPS delivery person), upon learning of his company’s big Edelman win, pulled out his PDA to proudly display the rest of his ORION-generated schedule for the afternoon. He also remarked how great it was that the system helped him avoid making all those left turns. Carl loves ORION too.

David Abney, chairman and CEO of UPS, has certainly been sold on the value of operations research within his own organization. In conversations with Abney and other top UPS brass, ORION team leader and INFORMS President’s Award winner Jack Levis made a rather important point: While fancy modeling gives very smart O.R. types the opportunity to showcase their skill, no matter how cool such work is, it is unlikely to be adopted by private sector organizations unless it solves their business problems. By extension, getting O.R. embedded better in public and not-for-profit organizations similarly requires the resulting analysis to be helpful in some important way.
INFORMS recognizes the importance of having organizations adopt analytics and operations research. After all, operations research is all about decision-making, and most important, decision-makers reside in organizations! Indeed, one of the four goals in the INFORMS Strategic Plan states that organizations will identify operations research and analytics as core components of success and institutionalize their input as part of their decision-making processes.

How is INFORMS tackling this goal? There are several points of contact between INFORMS and other organizations, most of which fall under the purview of the vice president of Practice Activities, a position presently (and ably!) filled by Jonathan Owen, director of operations research at General Motors (which, by the way, received the 2016 INFORMS Prize for effective integration of advanced analytics and OR/MS in an organization). Part of the Practice VP’s charge includes evaluation of the impact of INFORMS programs and activities on practitioners and organizations, to quote our Talmudic Policies and Procedures Manual (Section 12 J).

The VP-Practice is the liaison between the INFORMS Board and the INFORMS Roundtable, a consortium of 50+ organizations, each represented by a seasoned OR/MS professional. Currently chaired by Bill Browning of Applied Mathematics, Inc., the Roundtable provides direct access to the wisdom and experience of top OR/MS leaders who are influential in their home organizations’ employment of O.R. ideas. Indeed, part of the Roundtable’s stated mission is to “improve member organizations through superior OR/MS performance [1].

Also reporting to the VP-Practice is the new Committee on Engagement with Organizations. Chaired by Zahir Balaporia of FICO, and quoting literally from the committee’s charge, this committee was formed to develop and advocate activities and services for, and increase engagement with, organizations. Said committee is externally focused with the goal of increasing awareness of INFORMS and its value to organizations.

One more committee reporting to our VP-Practice is the Analytics Maturity Model (AMM) Committee. Again with reference to the committee’s charge, the AMM helps organizations conduct a self-assessment of how they use analytics. The idea is to help organizations (really analytics missionaries within organizations) design a plan that can help them improve their use of analytics. The AMM Committee’s job is to create the AMM, update it as needed, and bring it to the attention of those who might benefit from it.

It is fantastic that students and some professionals have discovered how exciting O.R. can be. It would be even better if senior decision-makers in leading organizations, whether private, public or not-for-profit, recognize that the benefits of employing O.R. and analytics in their establishments are much hotter than the methods themselves. If our approach to doing stuff with organizations succeeds, INFORMS can make operations research and analytics irresistible!