April 1996 € Volume 23 € Number 2


President's Desk



Reaching Out with the Right Name

By Alfred Blumenstein



One of INFORMS' major challenges lies in outreach to a wide variety of constituencies. These include consumers of OR services; employers who might establish -- or disestablish -- OR groups; government agencies that allocate research funds; others that award research grants; and groups that provide recognition, such as the National Academies and National Research Council panels and committees. We want all these groups and individuals to recognize our field and its current and potential contributions.

This mission involves telling the world about our many accomplishments, but -- most important and complex -- having them identify those successes with us. Many of our successes have been methodological, and we have gained recognition for those, but not enough has happened lately.

Many of the substantive contributions have resulted in major paradigm shifts in existing disciplines. John Little has been a major innovator in shifting marketing, Dick Larson has made major contributions in allocation of police and other emergency services, Jon Caulkins has had significant impact on drug-enforcement policy, Tom Cook has re-shaped the travel industry, and Bob Herman has transformed the way people look at traffic flow. In criminology, a number of colleagues and I at Carnegie Mellon, including Jacqueline Cohen and Daniel Nagin, have contributed to a significant reshaping of that discipline.

The readers of OR/MS Today all recognize these important contributions as coming from "operations research," or perhaps from "OR/MS," but it is very difficult to make that linkage clear to larger outside communities. They take these contributions to be of the original field, and they are, but they came from us entering the field.

It is particularly difficult to get the press to recognize "OR" as part of the contribution. In my own case, for example, when a reporter calls me for comment on some story (as has happened quite often recently), they usually end up with questions of my identity -- what am I a professor of? When I say "operations research," they suddenly become very baffled. They ask what that is, they wonder how that would qualify me to their readers as an "expert" in the field, and they become anxious about how their editors -- and especially their readers -- will deal with that term. Even after all these identity questions are answered clearly, I almost always get identified as a "criminologist" (which is not inherently incorrect, but not in accord with my prompt and not my professorship), and "operations research" is almost never mentioned.

This experience is much too common and widespread to be a quirky coincidence. It is an important indication of a fundamental problem we face -- how to develop an identity for our field that will become recognizable and that will gain us the widespread recognition we fully deserve. Sid Hess, in various surveys, established that most of us like and identify with "operations research." This is especially true for those whose civil-service or military job classification uses that name. "OR/MS" (or the spelled-out version, "operations research and the management sciences," as incorporated into the INFORMS name) represents a continuation of the overly complex accommodation we have used for the past 20 years to maintain the joint, symmetric relationship between ORSA and TIMS.

Now that we have a new unity, one of our major challenges is to establish that unity under a single identity that we can live with and that will trigger a positive and appreciative response from the outside world. We can do that in two ways. We can try to make our own favorite, "operations research," much more widely recognized and appreciated outside our own community, and that is a major challenge for INFORMS and all its members.

Alternatively, we can try to rally under some other name. Names that have been suggested include "decision engineering" or even "decisioneering," "systems engineering," "decision science," and many others represented by the diverse names of academic or corporate departments one finds in our directory. I am most pessimistic that we will be able to rally under any of those.

Another possibility is to adopt a neologism that we might all accept, and then try to transmit that to the larger community. Feedback-systems engineers did that with "cybernetics" some decades ago, and captured considerable attention for their work as a result. One possibility that emerged during the merger discussion was "aristology," meaning "the study of the best," but that never generated much support.

Addressing the name problem is one of the challenges being faced by the Outreach Committee, chaired by Sid Hess (hesssw@aol.com). This committee is responsible for developing strategies for increasing our effectiveness in appealing to our diverse constituencies. They are also concerned with recruitment of member and journal subscribers, but we recognize that success in identity will certainly feed recruiting. As you think of ways to help this Outreach Committee to do its job, think of how salient the name problem is in that mission, and let's see if we can come up with some better name suggestions.

Computer scientists have gained great recognition through the computer-chessmaster competition that offered a $400,000 prize to the first computer scientist to beat the human chessmaster. Is there anything we can do that will similarly capture the public's imagination about us? If it were to work comparably, it would certainly be worth our $400,000.


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OR/MS Today copyright 1997, 1998 by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. All rights reserved.


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