In memory of Professor John Edward Boylan, 1959 – 2023
John Boylan, Professor of Business Analytics at Lancaster University, passed away on Friday 7th July 2023.
Our brilliant and dearly loved colleague and friend, Professor John Boylan, sadly passed away on 7th July 2023, after having been diagnosed with an acute blood cancer in May. John was a celebrated academic who can be credited with seminal contributions to shaping the area of supply chain forecasting, as well as influencing the lives of many, as a supervisor, mentor and collaborator. As Professor of Business Analytics in Lancaster University Management School, John was Director of the internationally renowned Centre for Marketing Analytics and Forecasting (CMAF) where he led a fantastic team of academics and students. John is survived by his wife, Jan, and he will be remembered by all those who had the opportunity to meet and work with him as a talented, generous, loving and truly wonderful man. As his first PhD student, I have had the honour to work alongside John throughout my academic life. In this piece, I try to capture some of John’s life and achievements and share my reflections of working with him.
Unlike most in academia, John came from a working-class background. Born and raised in Liverpool, from his early childhood, it was clear that John was good in Maths! With the encouragement and guidance of one of his High School teachers, John was admitted to the University of Oxford where he studied Mathematics. The city remained close to his heart, and is where he lived with his wife, Jan, for most of his adult life, a regular at the Bodleian Library, Blackwell’s bookstore and Jan’s choral performances. He often talked about his years in Univ (University College of Oxford University) in the High Street and indeed, in 2022, as conference Chair he brought the 42nd International Symposium of Forecasting to the building next door! He also chose a restaurant that was a stone’s throw from Univ for the “final details” working lunch we had with the Editorial Manager of Wiley who was overseeing our 2021 book on intermittent demand forecasting. Obviously, the High Street in Oxford meant a lot to him, as Oxford did in general.
Following his degree in Oxford, John completed the MSc programme of Management Science and Operational Research (OR) at Warwick University. His favourite Lecturer there was Roy Johnston, who had a notable influence on much of John’s later work. (Both John and Roy respected and admired the work of Bob Brown, for the intuitive appeal and robustness of the methods he proposed.) Then, and again unlike most in academia, John spent eight years working in industry, first as Operational Research scientist in Rolls-Royce (Aero) and then as Project Manager in the Unipart Group. This joint exposure to (and affinity with) both academia and industry shaped John’s future contributions in OR, which were always grounded and focused on real world problems. Indeed, John always believed that solving an inexistent problem was no good to anyone and he had a seemingly inexhaustible drive to solve those problems that had taken his interest! Elegance of the analytical solutions, parsimony, robustness, and relevance were characteristic of his way of approaching his academic work. It is truly remarkable how much John enjoyed and respected the process of researching, learning, and discovering – and really getting to the heart of the problem – without being preoccupied with the outcome for its own sake (say a journal article). Coupled with his perfectionism, this did mean that some projects were extended to an extreme! For example, our book was about 10 years in the writing!
As ingenious as his approach to solving practical problems was, John was surely destined for academia, and academia would certainly have been all the poorer without him. His caring and pastoral nature, his dedication to reading and learning, and his commitment to advancing knowledge for the benefit of all, brought him back to the University.
In 1990, he joined what was at the time Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College (BCUC), a College of Brunel University that used the latter’s degree awarding powers. He held very senior roles there, culminating in his being Academic Dean for the Faculty of Design Media & Management. In parallel, in 1990 he went back to Warwick University to start a PhD with his former lecturer Roy Johnston on centralisation of inventory and demand modelling. This marked the beginning of a most fruitful collaboration that led to, amongst other things, the restoration of intermittent demand forecasting as a key area in industry. John and Roy were pioneers, and I imagine that many of you reading this piece will be working, researching and teaching in a research area established by them.
John was awarded his PhD in 1997, when he started supervising PhDs himself, and I had the luck and honour to be his first PhD student! In the years to come, intermittent demand forecasting would become an area of major scientific interest. John and I hosted numerous international researchers as we equally travelled extensively within the UK and around the world, visiting Universities and software manufacturers, scoping, and framing the development of the area. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) provided us with funding to do so, and John and I conducted a series of research visits from Boston to Tilburg, and from Konstanz to Florida. One of the most interesting visits in the early days, was to John Croston, for tea in his house in St Albans! John always respected a lot the work of John Croston.
BCUC eventually became Buckinghamshire New University, based in High Wycombe, and there John welcomed and hosted numerous researchers from around the world. Eventually, in 2015, he left Buckinghamshire New University to join the Management School of Lancaster University, where amongst other roles he was Head of the Management Science Department, and the Director of the Lancaster University Centre for Marketing Analytics and Forecasting. John was also the Director of NATCOR (the National Taught Course Centre in Operational Research). His was a very rich – and busy – academic career.
John has certainly left a legacy. Few academics can be credited with shaping an entire research field. John made seminal contributions in the area of supply chain forecasting. He tackled one important issue at the time, perfecting his knowledge and understanding in that area, before moving to a new one. First, he studied exponential smoothing methods for (stationary) intermittent demand series, followed by research on series with trends and then seasonality, before considering forecast information sharing across supply chains and aggregation, under an ARIMA framework, and then moving to INARMA modelling and extensions, and more recently state space formulations. There was a plan in the things he decided to investigate and a logical sequence, dealing with one piece of the bigger inventory-forecasting puzzle and the underlying methodological arena at the time. His knowledge was beyond impressive. Yet he always remained humble, never commenting or raising a criticism unless it was constructive or needed.
John is also recognised for uniting the previously un-connected areas of Inventory Optimisation and Forecasting, and indeed he equally contributed to and immersed himself in both relevant Institutes: the International Society for Inventories Research (ISIR) and the International Institute of Forecasters (IIF). In around 2005, we started organising various streams in conferences around inventory-forecasting. We introduced supply chain and inventory streams in the ISF and vice versa, forecasting streams in the ISIR. The first such ISIR stream in 2008 received more than 25% of the submissions for the entire conference, leading in turn to the introduction of a Forecasting Section. Since its inception, in 1982, ISIR had only ever had three Sections: Inventory Management, Mathematical Inventory Modelling, and Economics of Inventories. He spent periods leading both the IIF and the ISIR, as Director of the IIF from 2008 to 2012, and as President of the ISIR from 2018 to 2022. In 2022, he was awarded the Fellowship of IIF for his contributions in supply chain forecasting and bridging the gap between theory and practice in that area.
John worked to ensure that his research had an impact beyond the University. A software review conducted in 2014 for the purposes of the UK Research Excellence Framework exercise showed that John’s research had led to £1 Billion worth of reduced inventories and had significant environmental impact in terms of avoided obsolete stock. This is a (heavily) pessimistic estimate but does indicate the real-world impact of his research. Such impact was further facilitated through John’s continuous presence in, and organisation of, practitioner workshops and events, including through the Forecasting Summit, workshops organised at the ISF, or the industry-focused workshops organised by the CMAF. John also led a considerable number of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), including early work with Syncron and Manugistics that led to the widespread implementation of intermittent demand forecasting and categorisation algorithms in practice.
John also served on the editorial board of many journals, notably as Associate Editor in the IMA Journal of Management Mathematics (IMAMAN), Department Editor for the International Journal of Production Research (IJPR), Supply Chain Editor for FORESIGHT, and more recently Co-Editor in Chief for the Journal of the Operational Research Society (JORS). He also guest co-edited numerous special issues, all in the area of supply chain / inventory forecasting, in IMAMAN, JORS, OMEGA and International Journal of Forecasting (IJF).
I feel that it is impossible in a few paragraphs to do justice to John and his truly magnificent contributions. It is certainly the case that his work will continue to shape the research that we do today and into the future and will also continue to help solve those practical problems in industry. I want to close by stressing that John was loved and admired by so many people. Without a doubt, he was the most fantastic supervisor and mentor one could ever hope for, immersing himself in the personal and professional development of those he was working with. In addition to being a charismatic thinker, his extraordinary ability to analyse and synthesise, his bright and often playful character, and his patience and love for his mentees, meant that he changed the lives of so many people.
Those who have been mentored by John have always referred to him as ‘our John’: our teacher, our friend, our proof that genuinely good people do exist.
Thank you for everything, John. We will miss you so much.