The Natural Drift: What Happened to Operations Research?

Charles J. Corbett, Luk N. Van Wassenhove
1993 Operations Research  
The aim of this paper is to provide a critical view on the growing number of writings about the "crisis" in the OR/MS community. In contrast to most writings found in the OR/MS literature, however, this paper also considers articles from the Harvard Business Review, in order to provide a managerial perspective. Six main issues appearing in the debate are distinguished: the scientific versus technological nature of OR/MS, customer relations with users of OR/MS, the learning effect of an OR/MS
more » ... dy, tactical versus strategic importance of OR/MS, tool versus problem-orientation in OR/MS, and the interdisciplinary character of OR/MS. We believe that the problems signalled are due to a phenomenon of "natural drift" between the scientific and the technological natures of OR/MS, as a result of which some fundamental aspects of OR remain underdeveloped. Finding better ways of managing the natural drift is needed to turn the so-called crisis into an opportunity. The natural drift hypothesis Definitions of operational research and of management science generally revolve (to a certain extent) around the concept of "applying a scientific approach to practical decision problems". For this reason, we consider here the position of OR/MS with respect to this "scientific approach" and these "practical problems". In general, the relation between science and practical problems can be depicted, in a highly simplified way, as follows: real applied basic world engineering sciences disciplines We briefly discuss each of these domains, and the links between them, in turn; obviously the following discussion is no more than a rough outline. The basic disciplines (BD) include disciplines as chemistry, economics, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology etc. The highly specialised scientists working in basic disciplines are strictly knowledge-oriented, and not so concerned with direct applicability of their work. Explanatory power but also aesthetics are important value criteria here. In applied sciences (AS), the objective is to develop theories that are potentially applicable, be it to real-world problems, to other applied sciences or to a basic discipline. The orientation is still predominantly towards knowledge, but relevance to someone somewhere is now also an explicit value criterion. The basic disciplines provide knowledge for the applied sciences to use, whereas the applied sciences signal to the basic disciplines which areas are in need of deeper research. The real world (RW) occupies the other end of the spectrum: executives, politicians, or other citizens, often face a decision situation. (Note that their problem might not be well-defined, but simply a feeling of unease.) Occupants of the real world are oriented towards tackling specific, individual problems. To help them with complex problems, there are the "engineers" (E). The term should not be taken too literally here, but is meant to include both independent consultants and people working in staff departments. Their objective is to add value where no standard simple solution exists; although they are principally problem-oriented, this includes generic problems and not only specific instances. "Engineers" draw upon the knowledge and methods accumulated in
doi:10.1287/opre.41.4.625 fatcat:4gcnmztvpbeelfpgsad6sgxw5i