No one understands all of the talks at an INFORMS conference, which has 60 parallel sessions covering a wide range of topics. One would need about 75 years of education. (Note: I made up that number.) We can reliably conclude that this is not the measure of what an OR Professional should know. But what is the right measure?
There seem countless valuable things for an OR Professional to know — especially a consultant — and there is very limited time to learn them. We traditionally emphasize probability, statistics, optimization, and mathematical modeling. But one can also make strong cases for operations management, transportation and logistics, artificial intelligence, economics, computer science, knowledge of computer software such as MatLab and Excel, systems analysis, soft management skills, and possibly lots more. For Masters programs we try to fit the required knowledge into anywhere from 4 to 6 subjects.
It’s even worse. Even in the best of graduate programs, students probably don’t learn enough about a subject to employ it in an expert manner, assuming that OR in the real world is harder than OR on problem sets. So, what can be done? Here are some high level suggestions, with all of the key details left for open discussion.
- Use the subject requirements very carefully. We should make sure that our students have knowledge that will be useful to them as professionals.
- Expect that our students will learn a lot on the job.
- Admit extremely smart and knowledgeable students, and claim full credit for their accomplishments.
- Provide continuing life-long education. (Note added 2/22/09: when I refer to continuing education, I am thinking in the broadest sense of the word. It includes learning from books and websites, and is not restricted to courses offered at Universities or by firms in the private sector.)
The fourth point is a really interesting one for INFORMS. How can we as a society foster life long learning in OR? We currently provide some continuing education in our annual Practice Meeting. But only a small fraction of OR Practitioners attend in a given year. (Maybe 10%. I don’t know.) And for those who attend, an OR conference accounts for about 1.5% of a professional’s work time during the year. Put another way, if a practitioner attends 50 to 75 years of conferences, he or she is putting in a comparable effort to a Masters program in OR, except that there is no studying and no testing. This is not enough continuing education.
Can we draw upon the talents and energies of our professionals – especially academics – in order to help our practitioners in continuing education? And can we do quality on the cheap? Before you laugh at this last question, remember that the quality of Wikipedia is quite high. Sometimes there are innovative solutions that are both effective and cheap.
So, we need to figure out how to support continuing education, and do it in a way that doesn’t require many resources. But, what do we need to support, and how can we support it? I encourage you to post any suggestions you have as comments to the post. I will alert those in charge of strategic planning at INFORMS to be on the lookout for good suggestions.