Industry Insights

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Industry Shifts Increasing Uncertainty in Operations Research & Supply Chain

October 21, 2019

This blog is contributed by Burtch Works’ operations research and supply chain recruiting team.

Operations research is one of many fields that are rapidly changing due to emerging technologies that have the potential to transform entire industries of work. Although operations research and supply chain opportunities continue to increase, the growing uncertainty that these technological changes and other factors are creating in the field was a topic I wanted to explore.This uncertainty is having a profound impact on operations research in particular, because any long-run plans or models could potentially be disrupted by a looming change. Exogenous variables like technological changes can make it very hard to plan for future business decisions, which can include hiring and personnel planning.

Emerging Areas of Change in Operations Research

In my conversations with OR and supply chain professionals, as well as hiring managers, over the past few months, there have been a few common examples of industry-related uncertainty that have emerged:1. Increased concern by the public about climate change has put oil and gas companies in the sights of government regulators. Many of these companies believe it’s just a matter of time until there is a huge shift in the regulatory environment. As a result, these companies are going all-out in their attempts to raise short term profits, sometimes at the expense of long-term planning.2. The transportation industry is also undergoing a revolution caused by self-driving cars as well as electric vehicles. The uncertain timelines about these technologies being “ready” for widespread adoption has sometimes made it difficult for transportation companies to plan in the long run.3. Telecommunicationscarriers are preparing for the adoption of 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. However, there is some uncertainty about what bandwidth the signal will use, and until companies know which one will be the adopted standard, it makes it difficult to know what infrastructure to invest in.

Hiring & Workplace Uncertainty in Operations Research

All this uncertainty in industries at large trickles down to individuals as well. Many companies in these industries and others are revisiting the structures of their OR teams, trying to determine the extent to which they want to commit to large expansions of the teams.Lately, companies have been inclined to stick with their current team and use them for whatever is needed, rather than bring in an outside specialist that could solve an issue much more efficiently. As a result, many operations research teams are constantly learning and applying new practices instead of bringing in fresh, specialized talent.Since the future is so uncertain in these industries, many companies are unwilling to commit to big changes in the way they operate. As a result, some are simply prioritizing short-term rather than long-term gains and eschewing any long-term projects. I’ve heard from a few researchers that have worked on long-term projects for years that ended up being abandoned or redirected to another team before they entered production, which can be frustrating for professionals who work on them.It’s also becoming harder for operations researchers to pick what tools they should learn. As new tools are being created at such a rapid pace, it can be difficult for an operations research team to commit to using any specific program for a project, as a newer, better tool may come soon.

Despite Industry Shifts, OR & Supply Chain Use Cases Continue to Increase

Despite all this uncertainty, operations research is still a booming field with plenty of opportunities for workers. We’ve written before about the growing amount of opportunities in the field, and I expect many of these trends to continue, perhaps in varying manifestations. In fact, the applications of operations research are growing for professionals, enabling them to utilize their skills on projects that were not thought of as conventional OR topics.Operations research is increasingly used in conjunction with broader data science techniques, such as machine learning and deep learning, to solve a host of problems in numerous industries, making OR professionals even more important for organizations. Looking at the connection between deep learning and optimization, for example, reveals a novel application of OR. Specifically, it is possible, with the help of operations research, to create an optimization model which provides the best configurations for packing items into a box, then using a deep learning algorithm and computer vision to ensure that the box is packed as efficiently as possible.In light of all of these changes on the horizon, the acquisition of new skills and tools is important for OR professionals, since this is the best way to ensure your continued marketability. If you’re interested in advancing your career, this post has more information about what skills will make you stand out as a strong candidate for career progression!If you’re looking to see if I have operations research or supply chain opportunities that might be a fit for your experience, feel free to connect with us.