As my operations-research readers know, analytics has become the word en vogue in the community - the INFORMS Practice conference was recently renamed INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research to reflect this trend, as Mike Trick pointed out in this blog post of his. My non-operations-research readers will be left thinking: what exactly is operations research anyway? Research on operations? That is partly true - OR (as we call it, which makes for some interesting Google queries since the web service mistakes it for "or" (as in "either/or") emerged from the need to improve military logistics during World War II, but has become much broader than that, now representing the broad field of quantitative decision-making.
According to this Wikipedia page, "operations research is an interdisciplinary mathematical science that focuses on the effective use of technology by organizations"; this certainly is the most awful definition of OR that I've ever seen. The second paragraph is more accurate, stating: "Employing techniques from other mathematical sciences --- such as mathematical modeling, statistical analysis, and mathematical optimization --- operations research arrives at optimal or near-optimal solutions to complex decision-making problems."
Few non-OR trained people will naturally come to the same conclusion when first faced with operations research, and the issue of how to call what we are doing is one that we have all struggled with, whenever anyone asks us about our profession. (I stick to: "I do mathematical models for business.") In contrast, analytics has become a much more accepted term in the business community, where books by Thomas Davenport and Jeanne Harris have emerged as market leaders: "Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning" (2007) is a landmark book in that respect, and was followed earlier this year by "Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results". These books are published by Harvard Business Press, which certainly added to their legitimacy.
Mike Trick recently posted on his Twitter feed a graph, using a new Google Labs tool called n-grams, showing the incidence of words like "operations research" and "analytics" in books; when this morning a friend and reader of this blog sent me a more complete graph including "industrial engineering" and "systems engineering", I figured it was time for a blog post. Here is the graph, courtesy of Andrew Ross. You will notice that the use of "operations research" abruptly rose in the 1950s and peaked in the early 1960s, to undergo a fast-paced decline ever after. This is not good news for our profession, as "operations research" is part of the brand we communicate to the media and potential business collaborators. Analytics, on the other hand, is currently the most popular of the terms by far, and the trend does not seem to be slowing down by far...