Operations Research Analysts - What They Do

Operations research analysts formulate and apply mathematical modeling methods to develop and interpret information that assists management with policy formulation and other managerial functions. Using analytical techniques, operations research analysts help managers to make better decisions and solve problems. The procedures of operations research were first formalized by the military. They have been used in wartime to effectively deploy radar, search for enemy submarines, and get supplies to where they are most needed. In peacetime and in private enterprises, operations research is used in planning business ventures and analyzing options by using statistical analysis, data mining, simulation, computer modeling, linear programming, and other mathematical techniques.

In addition to the military, operations research analysts today are employed in almost every industry, as companies and organizations must effectively manage money, materials, equipment, people, and time. Operations research analysts reduce the complexity of these elements by applying analytical methods from mathematics, science, and engineering, to help companies make better decisions and improve efficiency. Using sophisticated software tools, operations research analysts are largely responsible for solving complex problems, such as setting up schedules for sports leagues or determining how to organize products in supermarkets. Presenting the pros and cons of each possible scenario, analysts present solutions to managers, who use the information to make decisions.

Analysts are often involved in top-level strategizing, planning, and forecasting. They help to allocate resources, measure performance, schedule, design production facilities and systems, manage the supply chain, set prices, coordinate transportation and distribution, or analyze large databases.

The duties of operations research analysts vary according to the structure and management of the organizations they are assisting. Some firms centralize operations research in one department; others use operations research in each division. Many analysts work with management consulting companies that perform contract work for other firms. Analysts working in these positions often have areas of specialization, such as transportation or finance. Because problems are very complex and often require expertise from many disciplines, most analysts work in teams.

Teams of analysts usually start projects by listening to managers describe problems. Analysts ask questions and search for data that may help to formally define a problem. For example, an operations research team for an auto manufacturer may be asked to determine the best inventory level for each of the parts needed on a production line and to determine the optimal number of windshields to be kept in stock. Too many windshields would be wasteful and expensive, whereas too few could halt production.

Analysts study the problem, breaking it into its components. Then they gather information from a variety of sources. To determine the optimal inventory, operations research analysts might talk with engineers about production levels, discuss purchasing arrangements with buyers, and examine storage-cost data provided by the accounting department. They might also find data on past inventory levels or other statistics that may help them to project their needs.

Relevant information in hand, the team determines the most appropriate analytical technique. Techniques used may include Monte Carlo simulations, linear and nonlinear programming, dynamic programming, queuing and other stochastic-process models, Markov decision processes, econometric methods, data envelopment analysis, neural networks, expert systems, decision analysis, and the analytic hierarchy process. Nearly all of these techniques involve the construction of mathematical models that attempt to describe the system. The problem of the windshields, for example, would be described as a set of equations that represent real-world conditions.

Using these models, the team can explicitly describe the different components and clarify the relationships among them. The model’s inputs can then be altered to examine what might happen to the system under different circumstances. In most cases, a computer program is used to numerically evaluate the model.

A team will often run the model with a variety of different inputs to determine the results of each change. A model for airline flight scheduling, for example, might stipulate such things as connecting cities, the amount of fuel required to fly the routes, projected levels of passenger demand, varying ticket and fuel prices, pilot scheduling, and maintenance costs. Analysts may also use optimization techniques to determine the most cost effective or profit-maximizing solution for the airline.

Based on the results of the analysis, the operations research team presents recommendations to managers. Managers may ask analysts to modify and rerun the model with different inputs or change some aspect of the model before making their decisions. Once a manager reaches a final decision, the team usually works with others in the organization to ensure the plan's successful implementation.

Work Environment

Operations research analysts generally work 40 hours a week; some, however, work longer. While most of their work is done in an office environment, they may spend time in the field, analyzing processes through direct observation. Because they work on projects that are of immediate interest to top managers, operations research analysts often are under pressure to meet deadlines.

Education & Training Required

A bachelor’s degree coupled with extensive coursework in mathematics and other quantitative subjects usually is the minimum education requirement. Many employers, however, prefer applicants with a master's degree in operations research, management science, or a closely related field—such as computer science, engineering, business, applied mathematics, or information systems. Dual graduate degrees in operations research and computer science are especially attractive to employers. There are numerous degree programs in operations research and closely related fields in colleges and universities across the United States.

Continuing education is important for operations research analysts. Keeping up to date with technological advances, software tools, and improvements in analytical methods is vital for maintaining their problem-solving skills.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Those considering careers as operations research analysts should be able to pay attention to detail because much time is spent on data analysis. Candidates should also have strong computer and quantitative skills and be able to perform complex research. Employers prefer analysts who understand how to use advanced operations research software and statistical packages. Although not always required, having programming skills can be very helpful.

Since operations research is a multi-disciplinary field, a background in political science, economics, statistics, engineering, accounting, and management can also be useful. Operations research analysts must be able to think logically, work well with people, and write and speak well.

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