Operational Research & Analytics

What is Operational Research?

What is Operational Research?

Operational research (OR), also known as operations research or management science*, is the practice of using quantitative models and scientific methodologies in order to improve decision making. Although it may be seen to have its antecedents in the Scientific Management (or Taylorism), OR came to particular prominence during the second world war (for a far more detailed discussion of this early history see Kirby (2003)).

In essence, it was initially conceived moreover as an approach rather than a specific discipline or precise methodology (though it would develop as such): one which endeavored to apply the Scientific Method to making military decisions rather than basing them on intuition or individual experience. This lead to the recruitment of scientists from a variety of fields as OR practitioners to help with Britain’s war effort (e.g. Kirby, 2003; Beasley, 2013). In other words it employed a variety of methods from a variety of scientific disciplines selected on the basis of appropriateness to the task in hand.

At the conclusion of the war, and buoyed by its successes, OR was applied in many state and commercial projects, in particular those involving industrial, manufacturing, or logistical tasks. As its usage grew so too its application, and the approaches began to be used to assist more wide ranging business and managerial decisions.

Over the course of time certain specific methods have become associated with OR, in particular optimisation and simulation. However, as per its original conception, it also employs techniques associated with other disciplines such as statistics or econometrics.

The video below, produced by the Operational Research Society, give a more detailed introduction to OR and its applications in business.

*There is some debate as to whether OR and management science (MS) are in fact the same. Some authors have suggested that MS is more focused on application and OR more theoretical (e.g. Beer, 1968), whilst others that the distinction is that MS is a more interdisciplinary approach (e.g. INFORMS, 2013). However, in practice examples of each show very little difference (e.g. the McGraw-Hill Science & Technology Encyclopaedia). As this issue is contentious, subjective and inconclusive, for the purposes of this post (and all others on the site) the two are treated as the same.



Beasley JE (2013). OR Notes, [Online]. Available from: http://people.brunel.ac.uk/~mastjjb/jeb/or/intro.html, [accessed April 2013].

Beer S (1968). Management Science: The Business Use of Operations Research. Doubleday: New York.

INFORMS (2013). About Operations Research, [Online]. Available from: https://www.informs.org/About-INFORMS/About-Operations-Research, [accessed April 2013].

Kirby MW (2003). Operational Research in War and Peace. Imperial College Press: London and The Operational Research Society: Birmingham, UK.

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