Should you go back? OR revisited

Long ago, in an airport far, far away
My first job was in Operational Research. If this doesn't mean much to you, it was a discipline that originated in the Second World War to provide mathematical problem solving for challenges like what was the best pattern to drop depth charges to be most likely to hit a submarine. After the war it became popular in nationalised industries and when I joined the soon-to-be-privatised British Airways in 1977 it was going strong there.

Last Friday was a 60th anniversary reunion of people who had worked in OR at British Airways over the years. I must admit I had mixed feelings about going. My general principle is 'never go back.' I really can't understand people from Oxbridge, for instance, who return to their college to make use of their 'dining rights'. Why go all that way to have a so-so meal in uncomfortably formal surroundings with a bunch of academics you don't know? But this was rather different - a chance to see a whole bunch of people many of whom I haven't come across for 20 years or more, and I'm glad I went.

When I first worked at BA I was trained in an office in a building called Comet House (now demolished), and of the circa 8 other people working there 6 were present, which was wonderful. Of maybe 150 people present, I knew at least half, and it was a constant, pleasant stream of 'Oh, what are you doing now?'s and even the occasional 'I've read one of your books!' or 'How do you keep putting so much rubbish in your blog?' (or words to that effect).

There was one of those inevitable Powerpoint shows with a panoply of events of the years - I was honoured to get a mention, though with the bizarre twist of memory, I had totally forgotten the event I was mentioned for. I had championed a new PC software environment, something called 'Microsoft Windows' in the company. According to the slide, the IT department decided it would never catch on...

There is still a thriving Operational Research department at BA - what I don't understand is why OR isn't more common in large companies. The ability to do flexible decision making and problem solving using mathematical and hi-tech solutions is surely of demand everywhere, but OR still seems to be largely limited in the UK to a very small range of industries. (If you want to find out a bit more about OR, take a look at the OR Society's 'learn about OR' website.)

All in all, though, an excellent evening - and a good example of when 'never go back' does not apply.


  1. Nice write-up. As one of the 6 people who was privileged to be in that office, I also don't understand why OR has such a low profile, compared with other practices. Talking to another person there, we surmised that people were too busy doing good work to dream up buzzwords and become 'gurus'.

  2. Thanks, Sally. I suspect quite a lot of people do overlapping stuff, but for some reason, while most big businesses will say 'we need an accountant' (say) or 'we need a statistician' they wouldn't know to say 'we need an OR analyst.' There was the infamous joke from my early days at BA where someone is asked what they do at a party and after various attempts to explain what OR is end up saying 'I work with computers'.


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