Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Introducing myself and OR

This is the first item in the Blog of the IAOR editor. So it is a place to do some introductions. I am David Smith and one of my responsibilities is to edit IAOR, the International Abstracts in Operations Research. As I shall often refer to OR, I'd better explain. OR is the abbreviation for Operations Research or Operational Research, depending on where in the world you live. There are many places which define OR, so I will not waste space describing the subject in detail, but simply give one illustration.
From time to time, people ask me what I do.
First answer: "I work at the university".
Some people change the subject; others ask: "What subject?"
Second answer: "I teach a branch of mathematics."
More people change the subject, or admit that they did not get on with mathematics; however, some ask a little more.
So I explain that OR is not really a branch of mathematics, but a subject in its own right, which uses mathematics and other ideas to answer questions for business and commerce, either "What's best?" or "What happens if ...?" And my standard, simple illustration is the local supermarket, and the number of cashiers on duty. The best number is somewhere between too small and too many; too few, and the queues get big, and the customers start to go to another store; too many, and there are no queues, but the cashiers are not working fully. So there must be a "Right number" -- the problem is mathematical. But the number depends on the time of day, day of the week, month of the year. So you need to forecast the number of customers who will shop on different days at different times. More mathematics. And you need to devise a shift system for the staff of the store so that the full-time and part-time employees have regular work patterns. More mathematics (or OR!) So what started as a simple question, "How many?", has become a much larger problem for the company.
Having explained that, my audience starts to realise that OR is useful in their world, and I can recount other applications that often surprise and fascinate them.

I meant to introduce myself, but it has turned into an introduction to explaining OR to my dinner guests.

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