Holistic Analysis and Operations Research


I am not really sure what holistic analysis is, so I will define it. Our English word comes from the Greek ὅλος (holos, meaning “all, whole or entire”). Reductionism may be viewed as the complement of holism. Reductionism analyzes a complex system by subdividing or reduction to more fundamental parts. For businesses, knowledge and know-how, know-who, know-what and know-why are part of the whole business economics. Having a holistic view keeps us from missing the forest due to the trees.


Operations Research (OR), or operational research in the U.K, is a discipline that deals with the application of advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions. The terms management science and analytics are sometimes used as synonyms for operations research. Yet, in my experience OR extends far beyond either. The list below is a collection of operations research activities – I’ll let you decide if they are also performed in analytics.

  • Data Mining and Machine Learning
  • Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems
  • Financial Engineering
  • Games, Decision, and Strategic Planning
  • Marketing Research
  • Investment Science
  • Experimental and Engineering Design
  • Manufacturing and Production
  • Logistics and Transportation
  • Supply Chain Management
  • Enterprise Resource Planning

History of Operations Research

Operational Research was born during the early year of WWII and matured rapidly. One of its primary functions was the planning of Operation Overlord or the Normandy Invasion. It has its foundations in mathematics, computing and economic theories, on which basic tools in optimization and simulation are built. Today OR’s are employed by airlines, train lines, logistic systems, delivery systems (e.g., FedEx), defense systems, military, oil companies, insurance companies, financial institutions, manufacturing, marketing and many more.

What do Operations Research Analysts do?

The Operations Research Analyst is a jack-of-all-trades, or at least that has been my experience. Some tend to specialize in a particular area, like mathematical optimization, but I think this is a mistake. One can find people who specialize in a particular methodology or discipline, but they would be challenged to find a good Operations Research analyst without a holistic view of the problem space.

An OR’s view of the problem space is really what defines them and describes what they do. The list above displayed some of the activities that ORs engage in, but not without a holistic view of the problem space. Figure 1 depicts the entire problem space. Mathematically, we could look at it like this:

({(Analysis Space)⊂Research Space}⊂Operations Space)⊂Problem Space

The OR Analyst must enter the PS with the following in mind: (1) the potential operational domains, (2) the types of research that may be used, and (3) the types of analyses that may be appropriate. If one goes in having done nothing more than mat programming for 10 years, that analyst is NOT an operations research analyst—they are just a math programmer.

Operations research analysts provide this holistic view, which then allows for the definition of the right problem within any domain, and application of the most appropriate research methodology, using the most appropriate analyses. You cannot build a house with just a screwdriver, unless you are MacGyver[1].


If we look at the historical context of OR, as we discussed earlier, we should be able to ascertain that anything short of a holistic point of view may have resulted in operational chaos much worse than missed dropped zones. The entire military operation—the most complex operation ever executed—could have easily failed.

[1] MacGyver is an American action-adventure television series created by Lee David Zlotoff. Henry Winkler and John Rich were the executive producers. The show follows secret agent Angus MacGyver, played by Richard Dean Anderson, who works as a troubleshooter for the fictional Phoenix Foundation in Los Angeles and as an agent for a fictional United States government agency, the Department of External Services (DXS). Resourceful and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences, he solves complex problems with everyday materials he finds at hand, along with his ever-present duct tape and Swiss Army knife.

Jeffrey StricklandAuthored by:
Jeffrey Strickland, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Strickland, Ph.D., is the Author of “Predictive Analytics Using R” and a Senior Analytics Scientist with Clarity Solution Group. He has performed predictive modeling, simulation and analysis for the Department of Defense, NASA, the Missile Defense Agency, and the Financial and Insurance Industries for over 20 years. Jeff is a Certified Modeling and Simulation professional (CMSP) and an Associate Systems Engineering Professional. He has published nearly 200 blogs on LinkedIn, is also a frequently invited guest speaker and the author of 20 books including:

  • Discrete Event simulation using ExtendSim
  • Crime Analysis and Mapping
  • Missile Flight Simulation
  • Mathematical modeling of Warfare and Combat Phenomenon
  • Predictive Modeling and Analytics
  • Using Math to Defeat the Enemy
  • Verification and Validation for Modeling and Simulation
  • Simulation Conceptual Modeling
  • System Engineering Process and Practices
  • Weird Scientist: the Creators of Quantum Physics
  • Albert Einstein: No one expected me to lay a golden eggs
  • The Men of Manhattan: the Creators of the Nuclear Era
  • Fundamentals of Combat Modeling

Connect with Jeffrey Strickland
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