We've probably all had people ask, "Operations research, what is that?"

What are the best quick definitions describing operations research? The kind that you'd give to someone if you only had the duration of an elevator ride to describe it...

I'll start off with my favorite, which doesn't actually answer the question unless you already know what OR is!

"Operations research is the art and science of obtaining bad answers to questions to which otherwise worse answers would be given."

asked 22 Apr '10, 10:09

DC%20Woods's gravatar image

DC Woods ♦
accept rate: 5%

retagged 24 Nov '11, 10:55

fbahr's gravatar image

fbahr ♦


Oh, I love that definition!

(22 Apr '10, 15:09) Michael Trick ♦♦

I can't claim authorship of it, unfortunately. I heard in my first OR course at uni.

(23 Apr '10, 11:56) DC Woods ♦

While I love that definition I can't imagine giving that answer on job interview.

(27 Apr '10, 14:15) larrydag 1 ♦

Somewhat similar to Dr. Rubin's definition, but geared more towards a layman -

'OR is the science of using mathematical theories as an aide in making better and smarter decisions in our day-to-day practical life'


answered 23 Apr '10, 13:23

Rajeev%20N's gravatar image

Rajeev N
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Operations Research is the science of making better decisions.


answered 22 Apr '10, 12:47

larrydag%201's gravatar image

larrydag 1 ♦
accept rate: 9%

A few definitions we used in a presentation about OR:

  • applying advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions
  • a quantitative way of looking at business problems
  • solving business problems as if they were puzzles

answered 23 Apr '10, 14:19

CLC%201's gravatar image

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I like the last one

(20 Oct '17, 05:04) kr1zz

The other one I used to use was:

"Operations research is about figuring out ways of finding good solutions to complicated problems that people could figure out if they had lots of time, but it would take thousands of years. Computers can "think" much faster, but you have to tell them how to go about it, so OR is about teaching computers techniques to solve these problems."


answered 22 Apr '10, 11:42

DC%20Woods's gravatar image

DC Woods ♦
accept rate: 5%


This strikes a chord for me. I was once describing OR achievements in helping interventional radiologists point their beams at tumors to a doctor, and at one point, he asked, "Why don't they just use a computer to figure it out?" When I pointed out that computers don't work by magic, the value of OR in this field suddenly hit him.

(22 Apr '10, 16:12) Isaac Moses

For me, it is building quantitative models to characterize the behavior of systems, and then using those models to make good decisions.

But a propulsion engineer at NASA might think I was describing her job.


answered 22 Apr '10, 14:28

Paul%20Rubin's gravatar image

Paul Rubin ♦♦
accept rate: 19%

Some ways to explain Operations Research: - The least known area of expertise with the most impact - Applied mathematics to solve real world decision problems - Operations Research is about making sound judgements and fact based decisions Best way to explain it, is to tell a story on what has been accomplished when OR was applied.


answered 22 Apr '10, 16:13

John%20Poppelaars's gravatar image

John Poppelaars
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I would say it is a kind of data analysis, with emphasis on optimality aspects.


answered 22 Apr '10, 11:49

Karsten%20W.'s gravatar image

Karsten W.
accept rate: 0%

The "President's Desk" column in the August 2010 issue of OR/MS Today quotes the National Academy of Engineering definition of OR (which I retype here, so any typos are my fault):

Development and use of analytical methods to describe, analyze, plan, design, manage and integrate the operations of systems and enterprises that involve complex interactions among people, processes, materials, equipment, information, organizations and facilities to provide services and produce goods for society.

It's not suitable for answering "What do you do?" at a cocktail party, but perhaps someone could construct a message digest for it. Susan Albin goes on in her column to point out the key distinction from mainstream engineering disciplines: engineers deal with physical processes, whereas we deal with operations processes.

Now we just need to find a way to distinguish ourselves from "operations management".

I'll also point out, since it apparently escaped us when this discussion first started, that INFORMS Online has a short definition on their home page.


answered 29 Aug '10, 15:56

Paul%20Rubin's gravatar image

Paul Rubin ♦♦
accept rate: 19%

I would define it as a process where you encapsulate a thought process and hand it over to the computer to compute within that encapsulation and get the best answer possible.


answered 02 Jun '10, 19:43

Venky's gravatar image

accept rate: 15%

Hmm. I think that also could be a (partial) definition of expert systems, and maybe of computer programming in general.

(04 Jun '10, 15:12) Paul Rubin ♦♦

Mathematics turned into a science.


answered 28 May '10, 03:01

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Asked: 22 Apr '10, 10:09

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Last updated: 20 Oct '17, 05:04

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