What should OR professionals know, and how will they learn it?

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.

  1. Use the subject requirements very carefully.   We should make sure that our students have knowledge that will be useful to them as professionals.
  2. Expect that our students will learn a lot on the job.
  3. Admit extremely smart and knowledgeable students, and claim full credit for their accomplishments.
  4. 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.

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5 Responses to “What should OR professionals know, and how will they learn it?”

  1. Sanjay Says:

    A meta-comment: Among other recent efforts in this direction – I suspect there’ve been others over the decades – INFORMS’ Practice and Practitioner Committee (PAPA) explored the issue of continuing education issue ca. 2004-06. The current activity re Certification is another take on this perceived need. Certainly the society is taking it seriously. Whether the status quo will improve remains to be determined.

    The upcoming Practice meeting in Phoenix will feature a general panel discussion on certification. Clearly, such an undertaking goes nowhere without discussing, evaluating, and formalizing continuing ed. And even if the carrot of certification doesn’t materialize, there is a general sense in the OR community that continuing ed is necessary. (This was also supported by a limited PAPA canvass of members.)

  2. Larry (IEOR Tools) Says:

    As you may already guess I am an advocate of Free Libre and Open Source Software. I believe that allowing community involvement free from the restrictions of licensing and proprietary ownership can help foster growth, continuing education and empowerment. Since Operations Research is linked very closely to computer science and software there can be a very complimentary relationship with the Open Source movement. So which leads me to you two main points…

    1. Continuing Education – Get the tools to the OR community freely and openly without the restriction of licensing or proprietary copyrights. These need not be end-user type products. They can be simple as software development kits, theory abstracts, student projects, or maybe even journals.

    2. Limit resources – Let there be no barrier to entry and provide the tools free of charge. Let the community own it and provide back to the community.

  3. Les Servi Says:

    It may be interesting to be reminded that members of the medical profession are legality forbidden to practice their profession (i.e., their medical license cannot be renewed) unless they have 100 hours of continuing education every two years.

    There are both some inexpensive methods for them to get their continuing education (e.g., read an article or listen to a canned lecture and then take an exam) as well as more elaborate methods (go to a very nice place and each day attend four hours (-this is an IRS requirement) of intense lectures from a nationally known speaker and spend the balance of the day enjoying the place).

    What drives the process is a now long standing belief that the impact of the continuing education greatly exceeds the cost which is implicitly passed on to the customers.

    I believe it is a very tough challenge to do what it takes to gain a strong enough consensus of the value of OR (broadly defined) continuing education for our consumers to implicitly agree to fund it. The challenge is not because the facts don’t support it but rather because consensus building is extraordinarily difficult.

    That it is a daunting tasks does not lessen my belief of the importance to do so.

    • jimorlin Says:

      Les, Thanks for your response. I agree that it will be very hard to get customers to fund anything that is expensive, given that OR is so broad that consensus on topics will be very difficult.
      My mental model is that OR practitioners should spend 5% to 10% of their time in continuing education and professional development each year, depending on the needs of their position. But it is up to the professional (in consultation with the management at their firm) to decide how to allocate this time. It may turn out that only 2% to 4% of the time is spent improving their OR skills, and much of this may be job specific. What INFORMS can do is (1) help identify the needs of OR Practitioners, and (2) help facilitate the OR parts of continuing education and professional development in as cost effective a manner as possible. If INFORMS takes full responsibility for much of the continuing education, it may be too much of a challenge and too expensive.

  4. Intechne Blog » Blog Archive » Orthogonal Skills Says:

    […] As described elsewhere here, and elsewhere (the issue is elegantly covered at a high level here by Jim Orlin), the INFORMS professional society is stepping to the […]

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