Organizing OR Societies: Obstacles and Enablers

Like all professionals, OR workers gain a lot from membership in a grouping where they can share their knowledge and benefit from the experiences and expertise of others. This is the reason why national Operations Research communities play a very important role in ensuring the continued health and development of the discipline within a geographical area.

INFORMS, for example, has very active communities of educators, scientists, students, managers, and consultants, enabling them to communicate with each other as well as with other professional societies and clients of the profession’s research and practice. The organization makes available to its members access to journals, news from other members, national and international conferences for academics, professionals, various interest groups. Thus, professionals learn from the experiences of others and avail of resources that would hardly, or not at all, be available to non-members.

This is what drives practitioners and academicians to seek membership in OR societies. In cases where this is not available in their place of work, they resort to membership in OR societies located elsewhere. For example, the Operations Research Society of the Philippines (ORSP) includes in its membership roster, three Filipinos working in the Middle East. On the other hand, INFORMS includes among its members, nationals of various countries. While these members, specifically those who have no local national societies to join, can tap the “offshore” society publications and web-based resources and attend conferences once in a while, it is hard to keep in regular touch as well as share experiences and problems encountered in the environment of the worker. In some cases, this may even lead to frustration when the gap between “what could be” and “what is” becomes very palpable. Why then are there not as many OR societies as there should be?

My personal experience as founder of a national society, corroborated by an informal survey of thirteen OR society experiences, reveals some factors that affect the difficulties and survival of OR societies:

1. Society organizer – Experience of setting up the OR societies among the interviewees showed a very strong correlation between which sector (academe or industry) organized it and who later on got involved with the organization. Among the interviewees, 30% reported both academe and industry were involved in the organization of the society. The other 70% were put up by people from the academe. This 70% reported a difficult time getting people from practice/industry to be involved in the organization. In this case, one respondent said that the only people from practice who joined the society are those who were previously in the University but later went to work for industry. Even among the academe-organized society, some people reported difficulty in getting the academe from other schools involved. It would seem that getting a broad range of people involved in the formation of the society will mean that the society will continue to attract a diverse group throughout its life. This is true for the case of the Operations Research Society of the Philippines (ORSP), which was founded through the initiative of industry but which had a good balance of people from industry, the government and the academe among its founders. At the present time, involvement from these same sectors is maintained, except for those from companies which have closed down their OR departments.

2. Involvement from Senior People – Of those interviewed, 50% explicitly mentioned that it was important to have highly-placed people, whether in government, industry or the academe, involved to a great extent especially in the formative stages of the organization. Their stature is a necessity in terms of helping the organization gain the visibility needed particularly in the setting-up stage. Importantly, too, these are the people who would have access to financial and manpower resources as well as connections who could be brought in to the organization. The Korean OR Society mentions the significant impact of the election of a former MS professor at the Seoul National University who was at the time of his election, the Deputy Prime Minister for Finance to the visibility, financial viability, industry connections as well as the success of the regional conference APORS 1988 which they sponsored.

3. Involvement from Young People – The difficulty of attracting young people to join the society was expressed 20% of the time. This had the effect of not having future leaders and supporters of the organization. However, this was cited as the result of lack of rules regarding people being re-elected several times, thus preventing and discouraging the younger people from taking up greater responsibilities in the organization. ORSP thinks that this is solved from their end by encouraging and supporting the activities of student chapters. At least three members of its current Board were active leaders of the student chapters.

4. Administrative Support – At least two societies expressed the difficulty of administering the organization, because of the small size of their society and the lack of skills and resources needed to sustain it. The common practice among developing countries is to have the President’s personal secretary do the tasks for the organization. In this situation, record keeping cannot be expected to be at the best level and the President is more often than not burdened with the requirements of the organization.

The Slovenian OR Society tackled this problem by working together with a related society, the Informatika. The mutual support the two societies extended to each other was made possible because they had at least one common officer in Lidija Zadnik. In case of the ORSP, sharing admin costs with another volunteer organization made it possible to have one permanent, affordable administrative office.

5. Achieving and Maintaining a Critical Mass – A small membership puts a lot of constraints on a society. As Hector Cancela of the newly-formed Uruguayan OR society said, “We are still a small community, and people have many activities, so it is not easy to count on volunteer work for organizing initiatives of the society. On the other hand, also as a result of the small number of members of the society, the finances do not allow to have a support staff to help. This means that we are quite restricted to volunteer work and can only put into practice initiatives in subjects which strongly motivate some of our members.”

A critical mass is needed to form any organization. In general, especially in developing countries, there are few OR workers. For example, while the Philippine Computer Society and the Philippine Institute of Industrial Engineers have at least one thousand members each, ORSP peaked at over a hundred qualified members. Why so? There is only one company which has an internal corporate OR group that has existed for more than 10 years and which still exists at the present time, while the three others were formed not earlier than 5 years ago. On the other hand, while there are vendors supplying OR software, external local consulting firms rarely exist.

Although the Singapore OR Society has more members, they are still concerned about “finding common threads through disparate fields of application, e.g. in military, government, academia, industry that OR covers.” This makes it hard to create various interest groups.

On the academic side, the discipline is normally included as a course in several fields of studies such as Engineering, Business, and Applied Mathematics. The small enrolment for OR in the school for Applied Math has led to its closing down in the University of the Philippines. The “decentralized” offering of OR (divided into mathematicians, engineers, business managers, according to MZ Mamun of Bangladesh), aggravated by the fear of Mathematics among students, leads most private university administrators, to treat it as a marginal course with low priority for faculty funding, training and networking.
The concern about the decreasing students of OR was expressed by Sung Joo Park of Korea, as follows: “Not many schools offer OR as a core and there’s no OR department in the University or in business.” Lidija of Slovenia wants to know how to succeed in bringing OR into the curricula of new university programs to counteract what she perceives as the decreasing hours allocated to OR courses. Luka Neralic of Croatia mentions that the two years master degree study in OR has been decreased to a one year specialization in OR and optimization. He observes that in the last two years, there was not that much interest. There is also no Ph. D. study in OR, which is the same situation in the Philippines.

Critical mass does not seem to be a problem for the Operations Research Society of China where OR courses are a basic requirement in the business schools and engineering departments of almost every university. This is reflected in the society membership numbering around 500, distributed among a dozen chapters throughout the country. While majority of their chapters have memberships from the academe, the chapter located in the largest oil industrial base and home to 500 of the biggest companies in China, is as can be expected, composed of members from industry.

Grants from the government sector such as the National Natural Science Foundation (NNSF) are available to OR workers. They can do research or provide consulting services to the central government, local government or industrial sectors. The output of these work are usually traditional OR models and algorithms built into software that are given to the decision-makers for their use.

Visibility of the discipline – While not a problem for the ORSC, this is a problem that is expressed by most of the respondents and to which the low membership numbers were attributed. This lack of visibility translates to the low demand for OR people in the industry, which then discourages students from taking up the course. In turn, the schools do not give emphasis to the OR program. This problem of visibility for OR has been discussed and is a major IFORS concern, and is currently being addressed by such societies as the INFORMS and the UK based Operational Research Society. This small number of OR professionals both from the academe and practice has consistently been mentioned as a major obstacle in forming and sustaining the activities of an OR society.

Despite this problem, small OR organizations continue to exist and serve their constituents. The interviews indicate these common characteristics which make small societies succeed in spite of being small:

1. An active core group which holds informal exploratory meetings, arranges workshops and seminars, and eventually formally organizes the society is always an ingredient of small but successful OR societies. It is the work of these pioneers who have seen the organization through at least three years after formation that contribute to the survival of the organization. These people are the tenacious, resourceful and creative types whose collective energy sustains the organization. It does also help that there is usually one person in the group who gets the rest focused on the task at hand.

2. Development of future leaders ensures the continued existence of the organization.These leaders not only take over from the pioneers, but more importantly, inject new ideas and start initiatives. Andres Weintraub expressed confidence that young people who have taken an interest in the leadership of the national OR society of Chile will do well in keeping the society successful and active.

3. Regular activities bring people together and draw them closer as a group. The activities not only serve as a unifying force, but became a source of funds that is critically needed at the early stages. All the interviewees traced the origins and growth of their societies to regular activities prior to and after the formal creation of their societies. In particular, the nation-building project of the ORSP which involved providing OR services (consultants do not charge professional fees) to the government not only brought the membership together, but also attracted a lot of new members who wanted to contribute into the group.

4. Support from other organizations come in the form of funds, administrative, information, and being a part of a larger network.

Funds and administrative support that may have come from other organizations through its activities or by virtue of influential contacts that were made was a recurring theme in the interviews. It may be support from a government agency or a senior executive who allowed resources of his office to be used by the society. For the case of the Philippines, work of the society with the government afforded access to offices and funds that would not have been available had the projects not been carried out.

Resource persons. According to Han Chun Kwong, encouragement of people he met at OR conferences from whom he sourced copies of existing society by-laws was a big help in starting the formation of the OR society of Malaysia, Help from other national societies and nationals based in foreign countries played a great role in the formation of the Croatian national society.

Activities in the wider community. Past EURO (the regional grouping of IFORS in Europe) President Alexis Tsoukias thinks that societies within Europe are motivated to form societies and join the regional grouping to participate in such activities as the EURO Summer Institutes, the EURO and mini-EURO conferences, and the Working Groups. They also become part of the region management, as they take part in choosing the participants to the EURO Summer Institutes, suggesting subjects and candidates for the EURO awards, giving their inputs and hearing from the experiences of others during the annual “strategic discussions.” Special attention to inactive societies in terms of visits from the region had also reminded these societies that they belong to a wider community which is willing to help them. Tsoukias adds: “Moreover, the big societies within EURO (the British, the Germans, the Spanish, the French) have activities that go beyond the borders of their respective countries and attract neighbours including trans-national initiatives such as joint conferences and

As to their membership in the IFORS, respondents were united in expressing support for the Exchange programs and scholarships that they feel gives opportunities for young researchers to develop their skills and their international network. However, they would like to see more resource people who will lend expertise on OR matters and who will support their conferences. Also expressed was the help that IFORS could give in terms of boosting the visibility of the discipline, something that they think is seriously hampering their efforts to become bigger.

Putting up an OR society
Learning from the experiences of others will greatly help in avoiding future obstacles in putting up an OR society. With an understanding of the realities and unique characteristics of their environment, OR workers can start networking on joint activities, and having secured the critical support from some quarters, start activities to form their national societies. Established OR societies in the vicinity or the regional groups to which they belong can be approached for help. IFORS can assist in identifying, assisting, and even providing resource people who may be positioned to build on the solid groundwork of the local initiators. The organizers must be prepared for a process which requires intensive work in the first few years, and must not lose their focus on the rewards that having their own OR community would bring for them and the future OR workers in their locale.

The author would like to acknowledge the following people for their help in providing materials and answers to my questionnaire:
MZ Mamun (Bangladesh). Andres Weintraub (Chile). Xiang-Sun Zhang and Degang Liu(China). Luka Neralic (Croatia), Josef Jablonsky (Czech Republic), Jakob Krarup (Denmark), Alexis Tsoukias (EURO), Heiner Muller Merbach (Germany), Sung Joo Park (Korea), Han Chun Kwong (Malaysia). Lai Kah Wah and Sim Cheng Hwee (Singapore). Lidija Zadnik (Slovenia), and Hector Cancela (Uruguay)

* This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of OR/MS Today. Reprinted with permission.