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Darla Moore School of Business

New Moore School management science professor researches balance between computer intelligence and human awareness

Nov. 26, 2019

Management and operations might sound daunting to some business students, but Moore School management science assistant professor Blair Flicker thinks that everyone can relate to the topics covered in his field. New to the Moore School in fall 2019, Flicker is excited to bring his passion for management science to South Carolina’s campus.

Having spent the majority of his career focusing on the study of management science and business operations, Flicker said the field essentially boils down to efficiency.

“It can feel like magic when operations are managed correctly,” Flicker said.

Flicker demonstrated this through an anecdote of ordering a same-day delivery package and having it arrive at the doorstep a few hours later. These innovative solutions seem obvious to a customer, and they get frustrated when that convenience is not always offered by companies. They think, “Why can’t all businesses offer free same-day shipping?” However, Flicker said consumers need to remember that this apparent ease is the result of extremely complicated management and operation systems.

Flicker’s current research explores how to blend automated management algorithms with human awareness and cognition. Flicker said computers can quickly generate answers to business questions, but unlike the human mind, they are unaware of current events happening in the physical world.

People can react to breaking news, economic trends and pop culture in ways computers don’t tend to ascertain. For instance, someone may have requested an item to be shipped to a location in the Bahamas. With the recent devastation of Hurricane Dorian, the manufacturer could recognize the shipment should be delayed or canceled, but the computer wouldn’t register this reaction.

Yet, this awareness causes humans to make biased decisions and mistakes. Humans know that the devastation from Hurricane Dorian will increase the demand for generators, but they cannot figure out the best possible response. They have to decide whether to double or triple their usual order or somewhere in between. Usually they just make an educated guess.

“Often, we compare the performance of error-prone humans to that of unaware computers,” Flicker said. “I study ways to get the best of both worlds: human-computer hybrid systems that incorporate contextual awareness provided by human managers into decision-making algorithms.”

Flicker is conducting this research through a combination of mathematical analysis and laboratory experiments. The final product will be a procedure that allows human managers to report current world events that a computer can then use in its overall computations. This harmony will help yield more accurate management and operations data.

Flicker acknowledged that there is rising concern about future unemployment caused by advances in computer intelligence. He agrees that modern technology will immensely change the nature of work, but he also views this advancement with the understanding that computers can never replace the awareness or cognitive responses of human beings.

“There is no doubt that technology will play an important role in nearly all business decisions in the future,” Flicker said. “I just argue that humans should play an equally important role.”

While Flicker possesses this knowledge in operations management, he has also done research on buyer-supplier relationships. His past studies have focused on manufacturer considerations on product contract lengths and balancing tensions between buyers and suppliers.

Flicker said he is thrilled to be joining the Moore School this fall semester.

“[The Moore School management science faculty] is a large and well-respected group in our field with strength in data-centered methods,” Flicker said. “This fit nicely with my research agenda. It became clear in my early interactions with the department that South Carolina was a place that I could thrive.”

As Flicker begins teaching in the Moore School, he tells students there is only one thing they need to know: Q*=F^-1[(p-c)/p].

“Just kidding,” Flicker said. “I encourage my management students to be keen observers of the world. When they notice something that isn’t [working] quite right, they need to ask themselves how it came to be that way and consider a better way to execute it.”

-Erin Mooney

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.