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Where Have All the Management Scientists Gone?

(Before we start, yes, this is probably the worst reference we have ever tried to pull off in a title.)

Since coming to UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, three subjects have made me say, “Goodness gracious, sakes alive, how did I not know this?” The first is advanced statistics (which I will cover in another series). The second is “organizational behavior”. (The military would make a fantastic case study for almost every theory I learned.)

The final field is “operations research” (OR), or its more modern sounding name, “management science”. Wikipedia describes OR as “the application of advanced analytical methods to make better decisions.” (Yes, “OR” is already an acronym; it will fit right in with the rest of the Army’s acronyms.)

Want to know why your paperwork takes so long at the S1 shop? Operations.

Want to know why every single weapon designed by the Pentagon runs over budget? Operations.

Want to know why it takes so long to get a flight to Afghanistan? Operations.

Naturally, before I started business school, I assumed that the Pentagon and the larger U.S. Army didn’t have any experts on operations. In fact, my post, “Hire an Efficiency Expert” basically asks for management scientists to work for the Pentagon, though I didn’t use that language.

So imagine my shock when I discovered this week--while listening to a podcast (“The Science of Better”) on operations research (Yep, that podcast exists.) from the Institute For Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS)--that the Army created operations research. (Well, the British Army, followed closely by the U.S. Army.)

Physicists created OR to improve the use of the new technological tools they were creating. While most scientists were hired to run technology like radar or sonar, Baron Patrick Blackett, who’d already made his physics career and later won a Noble prize, decided that he needed to apply scientific rigour to the defence of Britain. So he started running experiments using mathematics to change tactics--changing anti-aircraft firing patterns, testing depth charges and other experiments.   

Baron Blackett’s commanders credited him with helping save England during the Battle of Britain. (This fantastic blog post on “Survivorship Bias” on YouAreNotSmart.com describes the role of operations researchers in America during the same time period.)

How does this relate to contemporary times? Because British Army officers never trusted Blackett, especially when they first met him. While Blackett created a whole intellectual field and helped defend Great Britain, he had to continually prove himself to military officers. No matter which organization he joined, they always told him, initially, that he couldn’t help. With all their military expertise and experience, they didn’t need a physicist to tell them how to manage (er, lead?) better. Later, after the data proved Blackett correct, the officers embraced OR.

Which begs the question, “Where were the management scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan?” With hundreds of patrols and millions of data points, couldn’t a few OR researchers have really helped out? That war begged for the use of predictive and prescriptive analytics. (The U.S., at best, uses descriptive analytics.) Maybe a Multi-National Corps HQ had some...or deep in some office in the Pentagon they have them...but we didn’t have it at the brigade, battalion, company and platoon level. So I ask again:

Where have all the Management Scientists gone?

two comments

Before anyone mentions it, we are aware of the career functional area, “Operations Research/Systems Analyst”, which we will talk about in our follow up on Wednesday.

Have a look at the naval warfare-related military theory publications. They tend to be very, very OR-heavy. Wanye P. Hughes’s book “Fleet tactics and coastal combat”, for example.

These publications also expose (unintentionally) the weak spot of OR; it works best on rather simple problems and becomes hopelessly simplistic in actually complicated or complex problems. It’s very, very hard to integrate enough influence factors into a model to ‘calculate’ an entire conflict.
Simple tactical problems such as the correct choice of a formation or other organisational stuff are the real niche for OR.