PRESIDENT'S DESK

Why does INFORMS have members?

Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson - INFORMS Presidentpresident@informs.org

No, the title isn’t a joke. It’s a question that I’ve heard many times in the last 30 years, in discussions at INFORMS board meetings, as well as (with the name changed) at meetings of the ORSA Council and of the TIMS and ORSA Joint Councils. The issue usually came up during discussions of the business operations of the organizations, when we would look at various departments and something like the following set of imaginary comments would emerge:

“Publications … they’re doing very well. In fact, they’re providing most of our revenues. Anyone can buy them and, fortunately, many do.”

“Meetings … doing fine. Well attended, by many nonmembers as well as members. Lots of students, too. Plenty of demand there.”

“Membership … hmm. Results are OK; dues probably cover our costs for member services, administration and the magazine. This area doesn’t seem to throw off money  like the others. So is there really any incentive for us to try to recruit more members? Do we know the marginal value of a member?”

“Come to think of it, why should we have members at all? Looks like we could do just fine with publications and meetings. Does anybody know why we have members?”
Although discussions like this came up repeatedly, I have never heard anyone give a convincing answer. The most common answer was, “Well, we’ve always had members and the constitution and bylaws say that’s what we do, so we do it.” That’s a perfectly good legal answer, but it never seemed to me to be convincing, and I had the impression that nobody else was really convinced either. It seems to me that we in INFORMS need a good answer to this question: If we can’t convince ourselves, how can we convince anyone else?

In this column two months ago, I suggested that INFORMS’ business is to promote communication among people concerned with analytics (including OR/MS), by providing key tools such as media – broadly interpreted – and quality assurance. I think this provides a starting point for developing one possible answer to the membership question.

To start the process, let’s think about the people among whom we’re trying to promote this communication. In order to locate others to whom they’d like to talk about professional work and who’d like to hear from them, they have to know with whom they have interests in common. Some of that comes from general professional contacts, which tend to increase with seniority. But for more junior professionals it can be much more difficult.

Things that they might initially try include reading INFORMS journals – and, we hope, encouraging their institutions to subscribe – as well as submitting papers to those journals. That helps them to find out who else is working on problems of interest to them, as well as to advertise their own work to others. They may also submit abstracts for lectures at INFORMS meetings, both for increased visibility and because presenting the work in person lets them see who comes to hear it, and perhaps get to know some of those who do. Later, as they gain seniority, they’re likely to be asked to organize a session, or even a cluster of sessions, at a meeting. Determining themes for such events and finding speakers who will address the themes require more subject knowledge, as well as hard thinking about what to stress and what not to.

Another avenue that’s very important for many members is joining one or more subdivisions. This puts a person in touch with others interested in a particular field, as well as providing focused meetings – and tracks at INFORMS annual meetings – for research to advance the field.

In parallel with these efforts, they’ll probably be asked to serve on one or more INFORMS and/or subdivision committees (more as they get older!), and perhaps to chair some. As these committees typically focus on particular areas of INFORMS’ interest, they’re good ways to get acquainted with other members who are interested in those areas. Eventually, if they’re interested in more governance work, they may hold offices in the subdivisions and/or in INFORMS itself.

Now look back on this sequence of person-INFORMS interactions. What difference has the presence of INFORMS made? It hasn’t employed the people; they did these various things as part of research communication and professional service. For most of them the INFORMS participation has required a relatively small fraction of their total working time. Again, what difference has it made?

INFORMS has turned a disconnected aggregate of people into a network. It has provided the infrastructure that made it possible for the network to form, and hence for the people to communicate better and to be more effective in their professions than they would otherwise have been. INFORMS is a catalyst.

In the discussions I cited at the beginning, we saw only the infrastructure, not the underlying reason for it. Without the members who form the actual network, there would have been no need for the infrastructure. The presence of those members provides INFORMS’ most basic reason for being.