Monday, 2 February 2009

When should one use O.R.?

Last week I had to go up to London (why is it always "up to London"?) for a meeting. Three and a half hours in a train to get there, three hours back, and two hours in the meeting. Every time I visit the capital, I am struck by the differences between Exeter (population 110,000) and London (population 7.5 million). This time my attention was caught by the advertisements on the London Underground (OK, I should get a life!). Several stations now have adverts projected across the tracks. But, the advert which caught my eye was on the walls of the escalators, where flat panel screens have replaced some of the static adverts. The advert was for T-mobile, and featured the company's recent TV advert, of a pre-arranged, choreographed flash-dance at Liverpool Station. "Life is for sharing" was the punch line.

Back home, I found the advert in full on Youtube, and also the director's background story behind an amusing and challenging project. Having enjoyed them both, I wondered whether there would be any place in the making of the advert for O.R.. How could "The Science of Better" make the production "Better"?

I suppose that the main traditional O.R. techniques that could have been used would be forecasting and scheduling. Forecasting to make sure that there were enough resources at the right time and the right place. Scheduling to make sure that resources were used as well as they could be. But there is actually little incentive to use O.R. in such a project. Either the people were ready for the advert on the morning of January 15th 2009, or they were not. There's no 95% confidence. It is a one-off event. And there is probably the answer. The director and his team worked to a deadline, made decisions as they were necessary and used a great deal of experience and common sense. And it worked.

Maybe if the director had to make such a film every two months for the next two or three years, then there would be a place for analysis and improvement, but that is not how the advertising world works. Perhaps an analyst can offer suggestions for improvements next time ....

And the other problem with the idea of scheduling is that you are dealing with people. It is often said that many O.R. techniques work better with machines and inanimate objects than when people interact!

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