A career in OR
What we call Operations Research is also known as Management Science as well as Quantitative Management. Unfortunately, these names all suffer from the same weakness - they don't really tell us what we're talking about. The problem with the names probably results from the fact that it is difficult to describe the subject briefly. But let's try…
Operations Research (OR) is concerned with decision making in business and industry, in government and society. The decisions may be about large-scale undertakings such as the building of a new gold mine, or about small ones such as the re-routing of a local bus service. They may be concerned with long-term plans for the redevelopment of a whole area of a city, or with the immediate problems of selecting a port to handle exports of cars, or how to balance predator and prey populations in a National Park. In any of these situations, OR can help to get a better decision.
Operations Research is concerned with what makes things tick and how to make them tick in a better way. The approach used is that of the scientist. Operations Research uses the scientific method to improve the way in which decisions are made.
The tasks of the OR scientist are
• to find out what the problem really is and to work out the objectives of the study;
• to collect data and determine the main factors of the problem;
• to propose and test various ,ways of solving the problem until one of them can be accepted as the best practical proposition. This often involves mathematical models;
• and finally, to help make this solution work in practice.
Operations Research is not based on any single academic discipline. It can draw upon physical science, logic, engineering, social science, economics, statistics, mathematics and computing, but is none of these on their own.
OR is concerned with problems which cut across several disciplines and attempts to tackle problems on their merits using relevant tools from any source.
The basis of the subject, the scientific method, has been with us since science began, but the name 'Operations Research' was only coined in the late nineteen thirties. OR is not a dry subject, for being about change, it also has to be concerned with people and how they react to change.
Thus the OR worker must also be prepared to search out and understand people's attitudes, preferences and fears. Also, change-making is not possible all the time, but when one has helped to bring about significant and worthwhile change, the level of satisfaction can be very high.
What Do OR Scientists Do?
OR is widely used in South Africa in various sectors of commerce, industry and the public sector. The following are some examples of its use:
OR in mining
South Africa is one of the world's foremost countries in the field of mining. It is therefore not surprising that OR is actively involved in this sector. Some typical titles of papers read at recent OR Society conferences:
• A three dimensional open-pit mining optimisation system
• Long-term mine production scheduling
• A model for the evaluation of coal reserves
• Long term manpower forecasting in the mining industry
• Simulation of a X-Ray recovery plant at a diamond mine
OR in banking
OR has diverse applications in this multi-disciplinary environment, from providing decision support to modelling operational systems. Some examples are:
• Asset / liability management and risk management
• Simulation of queues at bank branches
• Modelling multiple criteria decisions
• Using quantitative techniques in lending
OR in industry
OR is used in industry in scheduling the flow of work through factories, determining optimal manufacturing and purchasing quantities, planning extensions, etc. Recent topics in this field include:
• Planning and control of a processing and distribution operation
• Re-usable industrial containers: an estimate of quantities
• A mathematical model for stock piling of certain items
• A simulation approach to plant investment and production planning in a multi-product batch process system.
OR in the public sector
The National and local government departments differ from many private enterprises in that they generally have a wide range of varying and sometimes competing objectives. Because of their position in Society, they are more exposed to criticism and must therefore be seen to take account of many interests. Various state departments make extensive use of Operations Research. In this sector OR is normally used for the allocation and development of resources, including personnel, funds and facilities, in areas such as transport and telecommunications, health, education, water and resource use, etc. It is also more generally used for overall planning purposes.
OR and environmental issues
In recent years Operations Researchers have become increasingly involved in assisting with decision making in environmental management issues. Some examples of projects are:
• Decision making on conservation management options in national parks
• Optimal stocking rates and culling policies in game reserves
• Assessing conservation priorities for elephant and rhino in South Africa
• An optimal Hyrax-Lynx culling strategy in a sheep farming environment
• An interactive multi-criteria decision model for establishing fishing quotas off the Cape coast.
The following titles demonstrate some of the wide range of applications in other areas such as agriculture, engineering, ecology etc:
• Short term forecasting of supply and demand in the wine industry
• Analysis of when to plough out a sugarcane field
• Minimisation of earthworks: siting of houses in undulating terrain
• The application of systems simulation and analysis techniques in ecology
• Portfolio selection on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange
• Some pitfalls in determining the economic life of vehicles.
Operations Research is still a relatively new subject, and basic research into the methodology is a continuing activity where developments are sometimes rapid and spectacular. This activity is also taking place in the Republic, and compares well with that in developed countries. Research of this nature is primarily carried out at the CSIR and at Universities, although contributions also come from other sectors.
Typical Operations Research careers
Let us now introduce to you some of the people who have worked on the type of applications we have described. Their careers may serve as an indication of what ambitious Operations Researchers may achieve.
Mr Andrews joined the CSIR after he completed his B.Sc Honours degree in Operations Research. His B.Sc degree included subjects such as Mathematics, Statistics, Computer Science and Introduction to Operations Research. While at the CSIR he worked on a wide range of Operations Research applications for industry, and at the same time completed an M.Sc. After a few years at the CSIR he decided to set up his own consultancy business with a friend, offering companies in the private sector professional assistance with problems related to Operations Research.
Mr Barnard graduated four years ago with a B.Sc Honours degree in Operations Research. Since then he has worked in an Operations Research section at a large gold mine and has on several occasions acted as section head. His work is varied and interesting and ranges from statistical analysis of sample values from underground to development of methods for optimising long-range plans.
Ms Coreejes completed her studies a few years ago. She has specialised in the theory and practice of forecasting and is working on a Master's thesis on that subject. After a brief stint as a lecturer, she joined the investment division of a large financial institution and is now a member of a team which looks into the financial futile of the country as a whole, as well as evaluating individual investment proposals. This involves not only collecting official statistics, but also researching the background of companies and their investments. The team which she works in consists of herself, a mathematician and two economists. Ms Coreejes enjoys the teamwork and the responsibility implicit in the important projects the team undertakes. After completing her Master's thesis, she envisages taking an advance course in financial management. The present executive manager of the section under which she falls was also trained in Operations Research and joined the institution in a similar position.
Mr Dlamini is the head of an Operations Research group within a large company closely associated with the Defence Force. He graduated about twelve years ago, has served in the Defence Force, has completed an M.Sc since Joining his present firm and is currently writing a Ph.D. He says that although his group is very practically oriented, research work is also undertaken in order to establish new technologies relevant to future defence needs. He finds the diversity and impact of applications in the defence environment, together with opportunities for research, rewarding and interesting. Although Mr Dlamini is more interested in specialising as an Operations Researcher, there are ample opportunities for his advancement in managerial positions, as is evidence by the fact that two of his predecessors now hold senior management positions in his company, while another has successfully gone into business on his own in an associated consulting business.
Dr Els teaches OR at a large university where she is able to combine her talent for teaching with an opportunity to solve both theoretical and practical problems. She says that the commonly held notion that an academic career is an exercise in isolation could not be further from the truth. Today's professor is expected to develop new knowledge, transmit it and help in its application to real life problems. This means that she must do research, teach and apply OR to practical problems. She is pleased with this combination. Over the years she has developed a number of contacts in commerce and industry who regularly ask her advice in matters that seem to require the use of a mathematical model.
Some of these problems Dr Els hands to her students as class examples or final year projects, while others require his personal attention. As a result Dr Els spends a fair amount of his time consulting with businessmen. This is obviously reflected in her teaching and as a result Dr Els' lectures are different every year. Others in the Operations Research department concentrate somewhat more on basic research such as the development of more general models or more efficient methods of optimisation. Generally, the department attempt to strike a balance between research, teaching and consulting.
Where do I start?
The first step is a BSc or BComm university degree, where you can major in Mathematics, Statistics, Computer Science and possibly, depending on the individual university, Operations Research / Quantitative Management or other equivalent; or a BSc degree in Industrial Engineering. Ancillary subjects will have to provide as much as possible of the training in the other, often nonmathematical fields which are important to the practice of Operations Research. In particular, some basic knowledge of Economics (the objectives studied by Operations Researchers are often of an economic nature) and computers (most Operations Research problems require some computer solution) is virtually essential.
Further, some background in accounting and management principles would be useful in its own right, and would facilitate communication and cooperation with other disciplines. This first degree could then be supplemented by an Honours degree in Operations Research, which can lead after a number of years of appropriate experience to registration as a professional natural scientist, specialised in Operations Research.
The second path is a BSc in a different, but numerate discipline, probably followed by an Honours year or a second degree in Operations Research. These are a variety of ways in which this path may be followed, depending on the different university curricula. Many successful Operations Researchers were originally trained in disciplines such as Physics, other sciences, various branches of Engineering, Computer Science, and so on, and some started their professional lives with non-numerate degrees. Many employers will help their staff to achieve a second qualification while in employment.
Universities also offer other training in Operations Research for certain engineering and business administration students. This training is not intended to prepare them to start a career in Operations Research.
These less specialisedz courses, which may be part of a post graduate diplomas, are aimed at giving an appreciation of Operations Research to those in associated professions, to help improve communication between managers, engineers and Operations Researchers.
The environment of the Operations Researcher differs markedly from that of many scientists. Furthermore, recognition comes not so much from the judgement of scientific peers as from that of the employer or client. Success for the Operations Researcher thus depends largely upon the extent to which he can gain the confidence of those whom he advises.
The ambitious potential Operations Researcher may be deterred by the fact that the primary function of Operations Research is to assist decision makers and not necessarily to take the decisions themselves. As suggested in some of the cameos of careers in this field, however, there is nothing that prevents the Operations Researcher form becoming a decision maker. Indeed, knowledge and practical experience of Operations Research and its use on real world problems places practitioners in a strongly competitive position for advancement into managerial posts. This is to the advantage of all, as the manager who is thoroughly acquainted with Operations Research will know where it may best be utilised.
In summary we see that a wide range of opportunities opens up for those with the motivation and ability to undertake this subject and apply it in the hard realities of life. Whether as a manager or as a senior consultant, the Operations Researcher will be found where the important issues are decided, and the rewards will be commensurate with this.