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The Need for a Paradigm Shift in Operations Research

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Manish Agarwal


The current paradigm in the field of Production and Operations Management (POM) is of mathematical modeling, with competition from empirically based theories. Empirical studies have been the basis for theory generation in marketing and organizational behavior. However, POM remains relatively poor in theoretical developments, resulting in a trend of devaluation of the field. This paper will discuss how adapting the competing paradigm may arrest such a downward trend.


Swamidass (1991) states, "Operations Management research has a very distinctive focus; it is the application of operations research, statistical theory, and computer simulation experiments to operations management problems in order to retrieve prescriptive solutions."

Meredith (2001) mentions predictions from the 1970s and 1980s, relating to contractions in the field of Operations Management/Management Science (OR/MS). Similarly, Horner (1997) notes that operations research courses are under attack at more and more business schools to the degree that tenure-track positions for OR professors remain difficult to find.

Moreover, this is apparently not just an academic phenomenon. Samuelson's (1996) job data indicate a decline of 20 to 50% in OR/MS industrial positions during the early 1990s, with a decline in every major industrial sector as well as the service sector. This, he states, is indicative of the "devaluing of this kind of work."

In the following sections, we will detail the reasons for the mentioned devaluation and how this trend can be corrected.


Westbrook (1995) enumerated four main issues with the way POM research is conducted. These help provide some reasoning for the reduction in the valuation of OR/MS research. The issues listed by Westbrook (1995) (p.6) were:

1. POM research has been traditionally based on modelling techniques. Although business and government can point to many useful cost saving applications of such models, the relevance of the published results to operations managers has been questioned.

2. The influential developments in practice over the last decade or so (JIT, TQM, benchmarking) have not come from POM academics but from practitioners and consultants.

3. Prescriptive solutions to well-defined problems have been pursued at the expense of broader contributions to theory. Partly for this reason, POM remains relatively poor in theoretical developments.

4. There is a need for POM research to address complex problems and interrelated issues across organizations which were not well structured.

In addition, Miller et al. (1981) listed the methodological weaknesses of POM research. Many other POM researchers have argued that the scope of POM cannot be captured and explained in its entirety by purely deductive tools such as mathematics and its extensions such as operations research or statistics. Their argument has merit because, unlike mathematics and logic, operations management is embedded in the empirical universe, which makes it subject to observations that make empirical investigations possible.


It should be noted that the lack of empirical dimension in POM research is not a reflection of the nature of the discipline. However, it is a reflection of the unbalanced research emphasis in the area, which is correctable by increasing the pace and quality of descriptive, empirical investigations in the area.

Westbrook (1995) states that real world operations often face unstructured problems, which cannot be modelled but must be managed. The aim in such cases is to compromise rather than optimize. Thus the traditional techniques of POM research, such as simulation and mathematical modelling, are unlikely to be the main methods for research in these situations. Hence, the principal research methods should be the various types of empirical research.

There are a variety of empirical research methods, and the social sciences have considerable experience in using them. Since operations management also involves people and groups in organizations, this experience can be used. Other disciplines have used it, including the discipline of Management Information Systems (MIS), with which POM also has affinities.


Surveys usually provide a snapshot of practice or attitudes, across a number of respondents at a point in time. Data are collected by postal questionnaire and/or interview and analysed by standard statistical techniques. Subsequent surveys may be used to see how or if the patterns have changed over time. The survey is efficient in use of research time or because the scope for hypothesis testing is a link with natural science and thus endorses a particular view of academic integrity.

Certainly a major strength of survey research is that, with the appropriate sample size and structure, we can draw conclusions which are generalizable across different firms, industries, or countries. Its weaknesses include the possible bias of the sample of respondents, who, with a questionnaire-only survey, will be partly self-selected. Additionally, there may be little opportunity for dialogue to discover what questions should have been asked but were not.

Case studies

A case study documents, in an appropriate degree of detail, the operational activity of a single organization. It has the merit of being integrated, involving all relevant variables, and clearly real-world. The obvious defect is the difficulty of making valid generalizations beyond the individual case. Nonetheless major POM single case studies can be influential, especially when they are purposely non-representative, perhaps reporting major innovations in practice.

Multiple case studies, by looking at several sites, attempt to reach more generalizable conclusions than those provided by a single case. But they inevitably suffer from the number of the variables that change from case to case, and the difficulty of interpretation that this presents. Nonetheless some deductions can be made and the differences of the situations duly acknowledged. Their real value will be in building a theory from the observation of practice.

Case research is not always an efficient method; many visits may be needed to develop a comprehensive view of operations and to identify the significant elements.




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