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Unisa online - The science of making decisions

From left: Dr Potgieter, Prof Ilze du Plooy, Ms Machteld Strydom and Mr Hans Ittmann
From left: Dr Potgieter, Prof Ilze du Plooy, Ms Machteld Strydom and Mr Hans Ittmann

Industry specialists, postgraduate students and academics were recently invited to the Department of Decision Sciences’ networking function where the theme was the “Science of Making Decisions”. The main aim of the event, which was held on 18 July 2012 at the School of Economic Sciences building in Club 1, Hazelwood, was to profile the department and raise awareness on operations research.

Hans Ittman, the first guest speaker and an alumnus of the department, posed the question, “What is the science of decision making?” “Operations Research is the discipline of applying advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions. This is done through the use of techniques such as problem structuring methods and mathematical modelling to analyze complex situations or give executives the power to make more effective decisions and build more productive systems based on; a better understanding of problems; more complete data; consideration of all available options; careful predictions of outcomes and estimates of risk and the latest decision tools and techniques”, he explained.

“In order to enable better decision making, professionals can draw upon the latest analytical technologies such as optimisation, where choices are narrowed to the very best when there are virtually innumerable feasible options and comparing them is difficult. The other option, amongst others, is simulation which gives organisations the ability to try out approaches and test ideas for improvement and answer ‘what if’ type questions. These tools will empower organisations to be better able to assess risk, make the most of their data and have an advantage over other competitors,” he emphasised.

Industry specialists, staff and students at the function
Industry specialists, staff and students at the function

In his conclusion, he provided a practical case study in order to thoroughly engage the audience on the application of operations research.

The second guest speaker, Dr Paul Potgieter from the Department of Decision Sciences spoke about “Computational Complexity in Decision Sciences”.  He opened his presentation with a question posed by Christian Goldbach in 1742 (also called the Goldbach conjecture) which to this date has not been solved. “Is every even number greater than 2 the sum of two prime numbers?” This was to elaborate that sometimes in Operations Research and mathematics, we encounter problems that are both easy to state and that have obvious solutions.

He continued by providing another example of a “simple” problem in Operations Research which is the Travelling Salesman Problem (TSP) – “If a travelling salesman has to visit a given collection of cities, passing through each city exactly once and returning to the first city, how can he do this in order to minimise the total distance travelled? The obvious solution is, of course, to simply list all the possible routes and pick the shortest one. The same kind of exhaustive approach cannot work with the Goldbach conjecture, since the number of even integers is infinite”, he explained. Dr Potgieter thereafter took the audience through the possible solutions and the techniques that could be applied to derive the optimal solution through the use of technology.

Prof Ilze du Plooy, representing the Department of Decision Sciences said, “Our guest speakers tonight really provided interesting insight about Operations Research as well as Computational Complexity in Decision Sciences. Our field constantly explores different approaches to different types of problems and their complex solutions. Tonight we appreciate this platform and our speakers for helping us understand that indeed, there is a science behind decision making.”

The Department of Decision Sciences is housed within the School of Economic and Management Science, currently located in Club 1, Hazelwood. They offer programmes in Quantitative Management, Financial Modelling as well as Operations Research.

*Story submitted by Nolwazi Mwabi

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