Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Spreadsheets and O.R.

The journal Interfaces from the U.S. O.R. Society (INFORMS) is one that I have always enjoyed reading. It describes itself as the "Journal on the Practice of Operations Research" and has often published detailed descriptions of case studies. Older members of the O.R. community will recall that for many years it was edited by Gene Woolsey, and he contributed anecdotes about his practical experience; it wasn't always the received wisdom of O.R. academics, but it was based on genuine experience of getting ones hands dirty doing our discipline.

The March-April 2009 issue of Interfaces has arrived (it takes time to cross the Atlantic) and includes an article "How Electronic Spreadsheets Changed the World" (Rick Hesse and Deborah Hesse Scerno). There was a great deal to which I could relate, as we ran a spreadsheet modelling course in the degree programme in Mathematical Statistics and O.R. at Exeter University. (From the launch of the programme, we taught students to write simple programs in Fortran, then Pascal, Simula and Smalltalk. I recall telling applicants that we expected them to use computers as a tool to help them solve problems, so we stressed a thoughtful approach to programming, and the willingness to use computer packages sensibly.)

Spreadsheets came on the scene in the 1980's -- and provided many companies and individuals with a reason for buying a personal computer. Then spreadsheets were used in schools, with the result that university entrants and others joining the job market had a basic knowledge, often of Excel. But that basic knowledge did not extend to much model-building. We found that we needed to share ideas from computer programming with students in order to help them build appropriate models. As the article emphasises, spreadsheets are wonderful -- used in the right fashion. And O.R. people need to recognise that their fashion is different from that of other professionals, and so their spreadsheet skill set needs to be honed suitably. And that takes time!

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