Operational Research and the behaviour of our fellow humans

In my blog as editor of the International Abstracts in Operations Research, I referred to psychology several times.  The postgraduate training that I followed in O.R. began with the reminder that the best O.R. teams are interdisciplinary.  It is not enough to have excellent mathematical models or spreadsheets.  The results need to be implemented.  And therefore, if the results involve people, and not inanimate objects like money, machinery or raw materials, then the implementation must reflect the psychology of those involved.  So, either the O.R. scientist needs to take human psychology into account, or, work alongside someone who can do so.

I was reminded of this today, when asked to explain what O.R. was about to a researcher whose specialism is the psychology of gender.  I spoke about two student projects that included aspects of human psychology.  Both were about call centres.

In the first case, the call centre regularly was one of the contractors for telephone orders from the supplements inserted with the Saturday editions of newspapers.  These could be for clothes, gifts, or books.  The call centre needed to be advised well in advance for the dates when "their" supplements would be produced.  So, the student asked, when do customers place orders from those supplements?
The answer is below, with an explanation.  But before you cheat, what do you think?  Was it Saturday morning?  Saturday afternoon? Saturday evening?  Sometime on Sunday?  Or Monday?

In the second case, the call centre was not a public one.  It simply dealt with calls to a financial institution from professional financial advisers making enquiries about financial products, or purchasing them on behalf of clients.  The company let us have the records of every call to the centre for six to eight weeks, letting us know the time of the call and the duration (among other things).  The student was supposed to look at the shifts and see whether there were ways that the call centre could improve its handling of enquiries and sales.  She was looking to see if queue models which assumed a Poisson process of arrivals could be used.  (Such models are ubiquitous, well studied in theory and practice.)  In the process, something strange emerged.  The average length of the calls from about 8:30am to 4:30 pm dis not vary with time of day.  But this average was less than the average length of those made after 4:30pm up to the time of closure at 7:00pm.  The difference (the latter were 20-25% longer, a statistically significant difference) was consistent over all days and all workers on the centre.  So it seemed unlikely that the variation was due to people chatting about trivia unrelated to financial products, though the student did ask about this, discreetly.  The company contact had to delve into details of what the calls were about before a good psychological explanation emerged.  Well?

Case 1: the peak demand from a supplement that went out on Saturday morning was late in the evening on the following day, Sunday, roughly between 8:00pm and midnight.  Why?  Families would tidy the house at that time, recall the supplement, and ask "Do we want to order from this, or not?"  If not, it went into the bin.  If so, then the order was placed as the parents of the family relaxed in a tidier home over a glass of wine.  By the following Wednesday, the call centre was receiving a negligible number of calls from the supplement form the previous Saturday.   Its life was over.

Case 2: most of the calls during the day were about one item of business, an enquiry or purchase.  At the end of the working day, there were often calls which covered several items.  For the latter, the financial advisors had accumulated several items of business to be dealt with in one extended call.  And once this was realised, then the staffing could be scheduled to help the callers -- and also to have at least one expert available for the call centre operators to refer awkward questions to.

Having related these two stories, I have been wondering about O.R. studies which have involved the psychology of gender.


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