As its name implies, operations research involves "research on operations." Thus, operations research is applied to problems that concern how to conduct and coordinate the operations (i.e., the activities) within an organization. The nature of the organization is essentially immaterial, and, in fact, OR has been applied extensively in such diverse areas as manufacturing, transportation, construction, telecommunications, financial planning, health care, the military, and public services, to name just a few. Therefore, the breadth of application is unusually wide.
The research part of the name means that operations research uses an approach that resembles the way research is conducted in established scientific fields. To a considerable extent, the scientific method is used to investigate the problem of concern. (In fact, the term management science sometimes is used as a synonym for operations research.) In particular, the process begins by carefully observing and formulating the problem, including gathering all relevant data. The next step is to construct a scientific (typically mathematical) model that attempts to abstract the essence of the real problem. It is then hypothesized that this model is a sufficiently precise representation of the essential features of the situation that the conclusions (solutions) obtained from the model are also valid for the real problem. Next, suitable experiments are conducted to test this hypothesis, modify it as needed, and eventually verify some form of the hypothesis. (This step is frequently referred to as model validation.) Thus, in a certain sense, operations research involves creative scientific research into the fundamental properties of operations. However, there is more to it than this. Specifically, OR is also concerned with the practical management of the organization. Therefore, to be successful, OR must also provide positive, understandable conclusions to the decision maker(s) when they are needed. Still another characteristic of OR is its broad viewpoint. As implied in the preceding section, OR adopts an organizational point of view. Thus, it attempts to resolve the conflicts of interest among the components of the organization in a way that is best for the organization as a whole. This does not imply that the study of each problem must give explicit consideration to all aspects of the organization; rather, the objectives being sought must be consistent with those of the overall organization.
An additional characteristic is that OR frequently attempts to find a best solution (referred to as an optimal solution) for the problem under consideration. (We say a best instead of the best solution because there may be multiple solutions tied as best.) Rather than simply improving the status quo, the goal is to identify a best possible course of action. Although it must be interpreted carefully in terms of the practical needs of management, this "search for optimality" is an important theme in OR. All these characteristics lead quite naturally to still another one. It is evident that no single individual should be expected to be an expert on all the many aspects of OR work or the problems typically considered; this would require a group of individuals having diverse backgrounds and skills. Therefore, when a full-fledged OR study of a new problem is undertaken, it is usually necessary to use a team approach. Such an OR team typically needs to include individuals who collectively are highly trained in mathematics, statistics and probability theory, economics, business administration, computer science, engineering and the physical sciences, the behavioral sciences, and the special techniques of OR. The team also needs to have the necessary experience and variety of skills to give appropriate consideration to the many ramifications of the problem throughout the organization.

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