An interview with Professor L. Alberto Franco
Inspire magazine: Issue 8
Professor L. Alberto Franco joined the School of Business and Economics in 2013 from the University of Hull’s Centre for System Studies where he held a Chair in Problem Structuring Methods.
Prior to Hull he spent eight years at Warwick business School, where he played a key role in designing and developing their business analytics programme.
Framing problems effectively is a craft, but the use of framing tools can help.
Brought up in Peru, with a background in civil engineering. Alberto worked as a soil mechanics consultant before moving into academia. “It was not a very difficult decision to make at the time”, Alberto reflects.
“Working in soil mechanics was very much like working in a research lab, and this suited my natural academic inclinations. However, I felt that my daily work lacked the human aspect. So I took up a mathematics teaching post at a local university while deciding on my next career move. I was certain that I did not want to stay as a maths teacher forever, but it was a good place to start thinking about what to do next.”
WWII and the birth of OR
While pondering his career choices, Alberto took a course in decision analysis which, perhaps unsurprisingly, helped him with his career decision. Alberto left Peru in the mid-90s to study for his Masters in Operational Research at Lancaster University. Although his original intention was to go to the US for postgraduate study, as he had been awarded a Fulbright Commission Scholarship, he was encouraged by a colleague to go to the UK instead because operational research was arguably ‘born’ in the UK. Alberto finished that course and went on to gain a PhD in Operational Research at the London School of Economics.
“Modern operational research (OR) started with the efforts of military planners during World War II,” Alberto says, “where teams of physicists, physiologists and mathematicians worked together on key research projects, such as the development of the radar system.”
In the decades after the war, OR was used to tackle problems in business and industry, and it grew from there. But then in the late ’70s and early ’80s, concerns were raised about its suitability to tackle more complex problems. Traditionally, OR focussed on solving complicated problems such as timetabling the railways, improving the efficiency of manufacturing processes, developing resource allocation plans.
Why maths alone doesn't always work
The use of mathematical and statistical modelling played a big role in solving these problems; but, as Alberto points out, not all problems can be solved in this way:
“There are many complicated problems for which there will always be a solution that can be obtained by applying quantitative analyses,” explains Alberto. “These problems can be considered ‘tame’, and so have an expiry date. Once you find a solution, that’s it, you move on to solving the next tame problem.
But for more complex problems – problems like how to regulate a banking system, or design a national health service, or develop a transport strategy or a strategy for dealing with global terrorism – you can’t just simply apply maths and stats. These problems are ‘wicked’, ‘messy’, because they involve a huge degree of uncertainty, and so any apparent solution often generates other problems. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer for these types of problems, but there are better or worse alternatives.”
British OR played a significant role in developing practical approaches to tackle ‘wicked’ problems, which led to the emergence of what is now known as ‘soft’ OR. These approaches involve rigorous modelling processes that are qualitative rather than quantitative. By contrast, OR in the US has remained largely a quantitative-driven activity, with most OR academics based in industrial engineering departments, not in business schools like in the UK.
Alberto studied soft OR during his PhD and has been actively working as a problem structuring expert for almost two decades. His expertise has helped management teams faced with messy problems in a range of sectors, including construction, health, transport, hospitality, defence and government.
Within a year of being at the School, Alberto has become head of the Management Science and Operations Management (MSOM) discipline group, launched the Visual Decision Practices Research Interest Group (VDP-RIG) and designed SBE’s MSc in Business Analytics Consulting (launching in October 2015). He is a leading voice in soft OR globally and has a great vision for growing the area of business analytics at the School.
The importance of framing problems
In terms of his research, Alberto focuses on improving decision-making practices at individual, group and organisational levels. He outlines four key stages of any decision-making practice: framing the problem, gathering expertise, reaching conclusions and learning from implementation.
“Of these four stages, ‘framing the problem’ is arguably the most important one,” stresses Alberto. “We use mental frames to guide our understanding of problems. A frame will force us to view a problem in a particular way, and so any frame we choose will impact on the options we wish to consider to tackle the problem.
“So, for example, if we want to explore ways to increase student satisfaction in the classroom, we first need to be clear about how we frame the teacher-student relationship. Is it a ‘business’ frame that sees the teacher as a service provider and the student as a customer? Or is it a ‘relational’ frame where the teacher is seen as a learning facilitator and the student as a learning participant? Each frame will lead to different conclusions on how to address the problem.”
Alberto claims that framing is relatively unproblematic for tame problems; but for messy problems framing is critical:
“The more complex the problem, the more frames we need to consider to gain a more holistic understanding of the problem at hand. Good framing involves making these frames explicit so that they can be discussed and challenged. Bad framing increases the risk of choosing the wrong frame, which may lead to solving the wrong problem.”
Framing problems effectively is a craft, but the use of framing tools can help. For this purpose, Alberto uses a range of OR techniques that provide a structure to the framing process and a visual artefact around which participants can orient their discussions of the problem.
For example, he uses the causal mapping technique to help people articulate their thinking about a problem. Visual maps are produced that capture multiple ‘networks of argumentation’ about the problem, which can then be explored and tested using analytical tools.
The use of visual maps in decision making
When working with management teams, Alberto builds these visual maps on the spot, using a networked system of tablets connected to a main video screen.
The use of computer-supported technology is deliberate:
“Managing complex problems typically require involving people across different parts of the organisation, sometimes people from other organisations too, all of whom have busy diaries and limited time,” explains Alberto, “so getting a team together in one room to talk about a messy problem can be quite tricky to start with.
“In addition, there’s only so much you can cover using a traditional meeting format, so you need something to make the process more efficient and effective. The use of computer-supported technology can boost team productivity if used in a facilitative manner to support visual modelling.”
Alberto says that causal maps, or any other visual representation used to capture different views about a problem, should be a ‘flexible artefact’, one that is always in transition to enable new frames to emerge.
“What I always find exciting is when people have these ‘Aha!’ moments when they discover, for example, a particular chain of argument on the map that they hadn’t thought of before. That can be very powerful because it can make people change their minds and develop novel ways of thinking and acting about the problem.”
Current and future activities
Currently, Alberto is working with colleagues within and outside the University on different projects concerning the study of visual tools in decision-making practices within organisations.
“When I set up the Visual Decision Practices RIG, I established a focus on visual tools across the full range – from those at the soft end, like SWOT tables or Porter’s Five Forces framework, to those at the harder end, like visual interactive simulation or geo-visualisation tools. This research examines how people are using these tools in practice to determine why they work or not, and with what effects, so that best practices in visual tool use can be identified and disseminated.”
Alberto’s latest project involves the establishment of behavioural operations research as a recognised field within OR, co-editing a special issue for the European Journal of Operational Research (with Raimo Hämäläinen at Aalto University, Finland).
Behavioural OR is concerned with the study of how behaviour is captured in models and with what effect, as well as with examining how behaviour affects, or is affected, by the use of models.
Building 'soft' OR into the curriculum
“Most OR textbooks focus on modelling as a discrete activity divorced from its behavioural content,” explains Alberto. “This gives only a partial account of what ‘doing OR’ really is in practice. How do OR practitioners go about their analytic work? How do they actually ‘do modelling’? How do they manage the analyst-client relationship? These are important questions that need to be addressed to ensure that we produce well-rounded analysts.”
Within the SBE there is a very strong behavioural OR academic team based mainly in the Management Science and Operations Management discipline group, recognised now as a centre of excellence for behavioural OR studies.
If you are interested in finding out more about Alberto’s research and expertise or the School's MSc in Business Analytics and Consulting, he invites you to get in touch with him.