December 10, 2020 in Q&A with Steve Graves

President Ponders Pandemic Problems, Practitioner Promotion

Q&A: Incoming INFORMS leader Stephen Graves eyes issues and opportunities in 2021 after a year like no other.

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INFORMS President-Elect Stephen Graves was never interested in being “a real engineer” designing engines and cars, but after taking college courses in operations research (O.R.) and management science and summer interning at organizations that introduced him to the power of O.R. to inform and impact real-world operational problems, he set his sights on earning a Ph.D. in operations research. In 1977, he joined the faculty at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he’s been teaching students how to solve complex operational problems ever since.

Given his background in O.R. and management science and interest in solving operational problems, Graves gravitated toward the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) and The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), which merged in 1995 to create INFORMS. The Institute and its predecessors have been Graves’ professional home since his grad school days, and since then he has been a very active volunteer, serving as the VP of Publications (1994-1995), editing the special Edelman Award issue of Interfaces (now the INFORMS Journal on Applied Analytics) from 1989-2007 and taking on many other positions. He returned to the INFORMS Board in 2020 as president-elect and will take the reins as president on Jan. 1, 2021.

Now the Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management and a professor of operations management at the Sloan School, Graves is an INFORMS Fellow, a fellow of the Manufacturing and Service Operations Management Society and the Production and Operations Management Society, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

We interviewed Graves via Zoom on Nov. 3, shortly before the Virtual 2020 INFORMS Annual Meeting, to get his take on a wide range of topics, including the state and strengths of INFORMS, the impact of the coronavirus, his long record of service to the Institute, and his vision for INFORMS and the profession going forward. Following are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and length. 

Given the pandemic that significantly reduced revenue in 2020, how will INFORMS continue its financial recovery during your presidency?

Fortunately, we have a very good financial buffer in our reserve account. Over the next year or two, we’re going to run a deficit because our revenues will be down, from meetings in particular but also from membership and possibly from journals. We’ll have to monitor this as we go along. We’ll be cautious and careful as we proceed, but not make radical cuts. We’ll still do our conferences, our journals, our advocacy initiatives. We have to be prepared to adapt as necessary. 

Can you give us a brief state of INFORMS from your viewpoint in terms of its major activities?

I was pleasantly surprised to see what great shape the society was in at the start of the year. The journals are doing gangbusters and expanding in terms of their impact, size and reach. As for the conferences, the 2019 Annual Meeting was the largest conference by far we’ve ever had, and the Analytics Conference is in great shape and is a huge value to the profession. We have a good mix of specialized conferences that are serving particular needs of members. INFORMS membership is strong, particularly on the academic side. We’re doing pretty well with practitioners, but there’s great opportunities to do better. 

A national search resulted in a new INFORMS executive director. What impressed you most about Elena Gerstmann?

As you might imagine, we did this by Zoom, and I was personally blown away with how effective she was. Elena’s fantastic in terms of having incredible knowledge and experience with associations that are related to INFORMS. She’s been with IEEE and then with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), so she fits very well with us. She’s a strategic thinker, and she’s going to be a great leader for us. Melissa [Moore] left big footsteps. I think Elena is going to come in, fill them and make us even bigger and better over the next 10 years or so. 

What are INFORMS’ greatest strengths?

We have the top journals in O.R. and analytics: Management Science, Operations Research, Marketing Science, Transportation Science, Organization Science, M&SOM and so forth. They certify our work and help disseminate our work. As an academic, that’s important. Similarly, we’ve got the top-tier conferences in O.R. and analytics that bring people together to share their work, learn from each other and build networks. Other strength comes from the community and the membership, the people who over time become colleagues, supporters and volunteers to make the organization what it is. 

In your president-elect statement you indicate that this is a good point in your career to spend more time giving back to your professional association. Why is that important to you?

There are lots of different phases in your career, and as you go through these different phases, you make changes in how you spend your time between work and family and relaxation, etc. I’m in a phase where I’m probably going to be doing less research, less teaching, but I still want to do things, and one thing I can do is service. I do service within my institution, MIT, and I want to do service within my professional community, which is INFORMS. Over the years, I’ve done service with INFORMS, usually in terms of editorial-type stuff. I just thought, okay, this would be a good point to do more. I feel like I can afford the time that it will take to do the job. 

You also indicated in your statement that as president, you would “do whatever you could to promote the profession and celebrate its successes.” Can you elaborate?

I know [former INFORMS President] Ed Kaplan well, and he was very good at this. In that sense, he’s a role model for me. We want to listen to the members and understand how we on the INFORMS Board and at INFORMS headquarters can provide more value to them, can support them in terms of whatever they are trying to do and wanting to do, service opportunities and so forth. What do they want to get from INFORMS? We must be sensitive to the needs and interests of the membership, and then respond in terms of making connections and providing value and opportunities. 

Are there any new goals or in-the-works INFORMS initiatives that you could share with the membership?

We are undertaking a strategic planning exercise and possibly things will come from that. For example, we’ll possibly identify new revenue sources, but it’s a little hard to know right now. I hope, if not next year then the following year, that we will do something to create a forum to highlight the great work that our community has done during the crisis and helping us get through it. There’s lots of work, some at the national level, some at the community level, some at the institutional level, that our community is doing in terms of bringing O.R. and analytics to address and fight the crisis, making for a safer world. That would be important for us to recognize and celebrate.

Many universities now have master’s programs in business analytics. I know INFORMS has done some work trying to bring the programs and the directors together into a consortium of these programs. This may be a great opportunity for the society to think about how do we support and serve not just these programs, but the graduates that come out of the programs. When these graduates go out and do analytics in industry and government, it’s a huge population of practitioners that we want to better understand and be of value to them. 

Can you share your thoughts on the STEM MBA, the classification instruction program (CIP) that defines it, and the demand that’s driving it?

(Note: for more on STEM MBA programs, click here.)

Many, if not most, business schools have STEM certified either their program or particular tracks within their program, and the STEM certification is largely through the management science CIP code. A couple observations on this: The main driver is to allow these programs to be competitive and attract international students. A secondary driver is the recognition that there’s lots of STEM-related jobs for their graduates, and that international students can get an extension of their stay from one to three years if they go through a STEM program. From an INFORMS standpoint, it’s not completely clear what we can or should do, but as a starting point, there’s value in facilitating some sharing of information as to what the different schools have done. This way, some ideas may emerge as to how we, as a society, can better support this effort. Certainly, it’s good for us having more analytics, management science and O.R. courses within business school curriculums. It’s happening in response to student interest and market demand, and the people that hire our students.

Diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM has always been an issue but has been brought to the forefront this year. Do you plan to continue the work 2020 INFORMS President Pinar Keskinocak has started with the DEI community at INFORMS?

The short answer is yes. Certainly, we will continue to do that and support it, and my sense is there’s a lot of energy there; it’s off to a good start. I participate on the DEI Committee that launched the Ambassadors Program, which is quite innovative and some very good ideas will come from that. I want to be very supportive, receptive and open to new initiatives and ideas that can further strengthen this mission. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What drew you to O.R. and management science?

I studied applied math at Dartmouth and didn’t know what I wanted to do other than I wasn’t that interested in being a “real engineer.” After my junior year I did an internship at Educational Testing Services (ETS) in Princeton – the people that do the tests – and I was assigned to their O.R. person. Over that summer I was exposed to operations research for the first time. I did a scheduling project and another project on routing materials from the library; they needed to route journals so different people could see them in a particular sequence. I put together a routing algorithm.

In my fourth year at Dartmouth, I entered the MBA program at the Tuck School and took a class on operations research and another class on operations management. The next summer, I did another internship at a manufacturing company that made cutting instruments and saws. I don’t know what my title was, but I did O.R. projects for them that summer. I built a model for locating warehouses; I built some other models for scheduling work in their job shops and managing inventory. That gave me more exposure to working on problems and writing code. I finished my MBA and I recognized at that point that unlike my other classmates, I didn’t have an aspiration to work in the real world and try to become the CEO of General Motors. Instead, I got my Ph.D. 

What about those O.R. problems attracted you?

I like mathematics and I like mathematics to solve problems. I wasn’t interested in solving engineering problems, such as designing an engine or a vehicle or something like that. I liked using my mathematics to solve problems that have some operational component to them, such as routing or scheduling. 

What did INFORMS offer that compelled you to become a member?

At the time, INFORMS was TIMS and ORSA. When I was a Ph.D. student thinking about research, all the relevant research literature appeared in Management Science or Operations Research. Certainly, my aspiration was to do research that might then get published in those types of journals. Also, there were the conferences where you could present your research, as well as learn about what others were doing research. These were the top outlets for what I wanted to do, and in terms of the community with whom I wanted to associate myself. 

What mentors or others played significant roles in your early education and career?

When I was doing my MBA, Lee Schwarz was my professor of operations management. Between my first and second year he moved to the University of Rochester, and he encouraged me to come to Rochester for my Ph.D. That was very important to me, for somebody who had no idea what a Ph.D. entailed or why one would do it, to have a professor that I respected have this confidence in me. Lee was the founding editor of the M&SOM journal, and he subsequently went to Purdue and is now retired. Lee was one of my advisers. Warren Hausman was my other adviser at Rochester, and they were both very supportive and great role models. Another important faculty member, who has since passed away, was Julian Keilson. These faculty were all very important as I got my Ph.D.

When I went to MIT, a set of faculty across the O.R. spectrum were very influential. I would like to mention Harlan Meal, who was primarily a consultant and then came back to MIT to be a senior lecturer. He was an important mentor in terms of getting me to appreciate more about practice and all the research we could do in conjunction with practice. Tom Magnanti and John Little, former presidents of our society, were also very important mentors.

What is the best advice you can give one of your students today?

In some sense, it is important not to get too much advice, not to be too influenced or told what you should do. So, the advice I would give somebody is, on the one hand, do your own stuff. On the other hand, get yourself into an environment where you are going to be stimulated and provided with good resources and opportunities that will allow you to grow and flourish. 

You served many years as editor of the special issue of Interfaces on the Edelman Award. Tell us about it.

Gary Lillian got me involved with the Edelman [Award]. He was the editor of Interfaces (renamed the INFORMS Journal on Applied Analytics) at the time and assigned me to be the editor of the special Edelman issue in the mid-1980s. It was a lot of work to be honest, but I thought it was very important, I enjoyed it, and I learned an immense amount. It also was a great joy working with the managing editor, Mary Haight, who did much of the heavy lifting. Each year, to get to see firsthand the outstanding work that gets done in our community is a real delight. It was always extremely valuable from my own educational standpoint, to see what people are doing and what impact it has, and then to be able to bring that to the classroom. The Edelman competition is the singular best thing we do. 

How has serving on the INFORMS Board changed since your first stint as VP of Publications 25 years ago?

On one level, it seems similar. There’s still lots of reports, but now they are electronic as opposed to a big notebook. I’m told the Board is trying to be more strategic. I don’t know much about what’s gone on in the intervening years, but I thought we were probably somewhat strategic 25 years ago. The thing that really has changed is the size. Things are much bigger in terms of the office, number of journals, size of the membership, more conferences, more initiatives going on. 

Volunteers play a vital role in INFORMS’ success …

INFORMS depends tremendously on our membership, and volunteers from the membership, to make it work. We’re here together to help each other and promote the great work that gets done. This year, helping members stay connected is even more important than in prior years. 

What does INFORMS need to do to maintain its leadership role in influencing the rapidly evolving analytics space and in its advocacy role in D.C.?

We need to keep doing the things we are strong in – our journals, our conferences, our membership. We have an opportunity to better serve practitioners in analytics. We also have to think a little more about how we position ourselves vis-a-vis the other sister communities that are working within the data science umbrella. What is it we bring to the party? As for advocacy in D.C., we have already seen positive impact from the current initiative. The awareness of O.R. and analytics, and its impact on public policy, are increasing. But there’s more we can do. We need more members to get involved and to stay engaged over the long-term as we continue to grow this important focus. 

As a candidate, you said you wanted to strategize how INFORMS should respond to new developments and trends. What does that entail?

When I said that I didn’t appreciate that we would have this new development [COVID-19] in 2020. It’s hard to speculate what the specific strategies might be that would come from that. But it’s clear that in light of what’s happening and the uncertainties we face, that we are going to proceed cautiously, in a search for what is best for whatever comes next. I think we need to examine how the various elements of our business model are going to be impacted by what’s happened over this year.

What’s to come in terms of certain meetings, journals, membership and so forth? We need to think about different ways of doing meetings, conceivably with journals as well over a longer term. And with membership, there may be different ways of structuring the membership options, as well as other things like certification and continuing education. At the end of the day, we, as a community, create new knowledge from our research. We disseminate, apply and teach that knowledge. We have to look at all of this and think about how INFORMS can best support our community in this mission.  

How have you personally been impacted by the pandemic in terms of not just your teaching and research, but your family life and your colleagues and connections?

Well, I was last in my office at MIT in mid-March and you can see where I am now [at home]. I was not teaching in the spring. I was supposed to teach this fall, but I was able to defer that to next spring. So, in comparison with many of my colleagues, I haven’t had to reinvent how I teach. I’ve basically been sheltered at home, working on projects, advising students, serving on various committees and getting up to speed with INFORMS. Fortunately, our two kids are local; they both continue to work in the Boston area. They were initially reluctant to come see us, but over the past two or three months, they visit on a more regular basis. Not to get into details, but like so many others, we’ve also had some losses that have been hard to get through. 

What do you like to do for fun, pre-pandemic or now?

My wife and I like to travel, which we haven’t been able to do. We like the usual dining out, which has been limited. Maybe it’s not a hobby, but I like my work. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether I’m working or doing my hobby. … One of my hobbies is golf; I played nine holes today (in 40-degree weather) and have done that since mid-March except during times when the state closed the course. 

Is there one particular area or initiative that you really want to move the dial on during 2021?

There’s two things. In light of what’s happened over the last six months, I’m hoping that a year from now we’ve got a plan in place for how we recover from this [pandemic]. The other thing is to understand better what a good value proposition would be for practitioners that we can offer, in particular to the new graduates, the young practitioners. 

Looking further ahead, what’s your vision for INFORMS and the profession five or 10 years out?

Ten years from now, I’ll be a fading memory, but it goes back to this notion that we’re part of something bigger, and we will think of ourselves as being part of a bigger field – let’s just label it “data science,” but it may take some other name. What’s emerging is a major new field of research and applications that entails AI, statistics and computation along with O.R. and analytics. I would like to see that we have established ourselves as a major and essential pillar within this bigger field. I don’t know all the pieces, but I would hope that we will have solidified our identity in terms of what we do, O.R. and analytics, and that we will be recognized for that within this bigger community or field of study.

Kara Tucker
([email protected])

Kara Tucker is the assistant editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazines.

Peter Horner
([email protected])

Peter Horner is the editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazines.

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