I’m currently reading Systems, Experts, and Computers: the Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The book is really more of a collection of papers, each written by a different author. This post is about the second chapter, The Adoption of Operations Research in the United States During World War II, written by Erik Rau.
During World War II, the British and the Americans were actively investing in developing radar technology in support of the war effort, with applications such as radar-based air defense. It turned out that developing the technology itself wasn’t enough: the new tech had to be deployed and operated effectively in the field to actually serve its purpose. Operating these systems required coordination between machines, human operators, and the associated institutions.
The British sent out scientists and engineers into the field to study and improve how these new systems were used. To describe this type of work, the physicist Albert Rowe coined the term operational research (OR), to contrast it with developmental research.
After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Secretary of War tapped the British radar pioneer Robert Wattson-Watt to lead a study on the state of American air defense systems. In the report, Wattson-Watt describe U.S. air defense as “insufficient organization applied to technically inadequate equipment used in exceptionally difficult conditions“. The report suggested the adoption of the successful British technology and techniques, which included OR.
At this time, the organization responsible for developmental research into weapons systems was the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), headed by Vannevar Bush. While a research function like OR seemed like it should belong under OSRD, there was a problem: Bush didn’t want it there. He wanted to protect the scientific development work of his organization from political interference by the military, and so he sought to explicitly maintain a boundary between the scientists and engineers that were developing the technology, and the military that was operating it.
[The National Defense Research Committee] is concerned with the development of equipment for military use, whereas these [OR] groups are concerned with the analysis of its performance, and the two points of view do not, I believe, often mix to advantage.Vannevar Bush, quoted on p69
In the end, the demand for OR was too great, and Bush relented, creating the Office of Field Service within the OSRD.
Two things struck me reading this chapter. The first was that operational research was a kind of proto-DevOps, a recognition of the need to create a cultural shift in how development and operations work related to each other, and the importance of feedback between the two groups. It was fascinating to see the resistance to it from Bush. He wasn’t opposed to OR itself, he was opposed to unwanted government influence, which drove his efforts to keep development and operations separate.
The second thing that struck me was this idea of OR being doing research on operations. I had always thought of OR as being about things like logistics, basically graph theory problems addressed by faculty who work in business schools instead of computer science departments. But, here, OR was sending researchers into the field to study how operations was done in order to help improve development and operations. This reminded me very much of the aims of the learning from incidents (LFI) movement.