Tools and problems

Emergence, reverence, and irrelevance.

Via Jerry Michalski, here’s a great text by Russell Ackoff, a pioneer of Operations Research (pdf file), that sketches what I feel is the usual arc trajectory of successful fields of knowledge.

The life of OR has been a short one. It was born here late in the 1930’s. By the mid 60’s it had gained widespread acceptance in academic, scientific, and managerial circles. In my opinion this gain was accompanied by a loss of its pioneering spirit, its sense of mission and its innovativeness. Survival, stability and respectability took precedence over development, and its decline began.

I hold academic OR and the relevant professional societies primarily responsible for this decline-and since I had a hand in initiating both, I share this responsibility. By the mid 1960’s most OR courses in American universities were given by academics who had never practised it. They and their students were text-book products engaging in impure research couched in the language, but not the reality, of the real world. The meetings and journals of the relevant professional societies, like classrooms, were filled with abstractions from an imagined reality. As a result OR came to be identified with the use of mathematical models and algorithms rather than the ability to formulate management problems, solve them, and implement and maintain their solutions in turbulent environments.

Eventually the tails begins wagging the dog. “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

[…] In the first two decades of OR, its nature was dictated by the nature of the problematic situations it
faced. Now the nature of the situations it faces is dictated by the techniques it has at its command.

There’s an interesting passage on interdisciplinarity as a sign of the aliveness of a field:

Subjects, disciplines, and professions are categories that are useful in filing scientific knowledge and in dividing the labour involved in its pursuit, but they are nothing more than this. Nature and the world are not organized as science and universities are. There are no physical, chemical, biological, psychological, sociological or even Operational Research problems. These are names of different points-of-view, different aspects of the same reality, not different kinds of reality. Any problematic situation can be looked at from the point-of-view of any discipline, but not necessarily with equal fruitfulness.

[…] The fact that the world is in such a mess as it is is largely due to our decomposing messes into unidisciplinary problems that are treated independently of each other.

Don’t miss the ironic postscript, too.

A related earlier post of mine is Information systems research: towards irrelevance?

[Seb’s Open Research]

Written almost 25 years ago, this gem from Ackoff captures why I’m back in the real world and was never a particularly good academic. I’ve always been more interested in making some progress against interesting problems than in solving toy problems.

I helped pay for my college education as a stage carpenter and electrician. I learned a lot of valuable lessons about tools. Probably the most important was that the tool you could get you hands on now was a lot more useful than the perfect tool back in the shop. The second was that if you had a reasonable collection of tools, you could usually adapt one to the problem. But you could rarely fit the problem to the tool.