Saturday, September 29, 2007

A precautionary tale III - the bad Karma of DHL express

Choosing DHL express to ship my laptop became a second tragic flaw in the unfolding scenario. Until Wednesday, I would have nominated Cingular Wireless (now the new AT&T) as America’s least competent, least customer friendly corporation. (See last summer’s blogs from Sri Lanka for the details). Now I have a new nominee: DHL Express. The saga continues.

I should have known. Some weeks earlier, my travel agent had attempted to ship my Hungary air tickets to Washington via DHL express. A DHL driver had misdelivered them and a week of inquiries by my agent and my own staff was required before they were located. Informed by this experience my staff called DHL in advance of the shipment from Paris’ arrival. Except in emergencies, we learned, the local DHL office can not be reached directly. There is a “customer service” staff, at the end of an 800 number, that serves as an intermediary. A staff member spoke personally with a representative informing her that (a) the shipment was arriving and (b) we had experienced problems with a previous delivery because the driver had delivered to the wrong address and not obtained a proper signature. The staff member explained that the shipment was valuable and, because it was a computer, needed to be handled securely. She provided the representative with detailed directions about the location to which the package was to be delivered and to whom it was to be delivered. Apparently none of these instructions were passed to on the local office.

On the day the package was to arrive, we called the ‘customer service’ office again. We had followed the computerized tracking and knew it was in Rockville. We reiterated the delivery instructions once again. We were assured the package would be delivered before 5 PM. Then we waited... and waited... and waited... and waited. A 5 PM approached we contacted customer service again to check and reiterate, for the third time, our concern about he package’s safety and detailed delivery instructions. The representative, a new person who knew nothing of our previous calls, promised to check. We waited. I rearranged my schedule to remain late at the office so that I could pick up the package personally. We waited. At 6:30 I received a call from a customer service representative. I was told that the package was on a truck, but they had no way of communicating with the driver. They promised that it would be delivered before 7 PM. .... nothing. I arranged for another staff member to wait at the office until 8 PM ... nothing.

The next morning 4 CTE staff members, headed by the Assistant Director formed themselves into a swat team to follow up. Inquires to customer service elicited the information that the package had been delivered and signed for the previous evening. An individual named “Walsh” and signed. The driver later told us that supervisors told them to obtain a signature from “anyone who would sign” and deliver the package. A staff member began calling every AU employee with a name remotely similar to Walsh. Nothing. We then called every undergraduate with a Walsh-like name. Nothing. We called customer service and told the representative that because of the security risks associated with the package’s loss, we would be initiating legal action against DHL. In the face of this threat, DHL provided us with the name of the local office.

The work of our package recover SWAT team continued. All other work in CTE was put on hold, except for urgent calls. The driver was reached by DHL supervisors. He told an intermediary who told us that he had delivered the package to AU’s Anderson Centennial desk, which what he was instructed to do when a specific address was not indicated on the package. Despite three calls from CTE, providing detailed delivery instructions, he claimed he had never received any. SWAT team members tracked down the staff member who had been on duty at the desk. She informed us that DHL had attempted to deliver a package, but the staff had refused to sign for it. It was not entered in AU’s automated tracking system.

When the driver was confronted with this information. He changed his story. The name “Walsh” was a fabrication, we were now told. No one had signed for the package and he had not delivered it. Instead he had simply returned it to his truck. When he returned it to the truck, he failed to reenter the package in DHL’s computerized tracking system. In response to SWAT team inquiries and threats of legal action, DHL reported that he had located the package and would deliver it. Several calls between SWAT team members and DHL supervisory personnel were required to elicit this information. It turned out that it was possible for supervisors to contact the driver, by mobile phone, after all, though we had been told otherwise in numerous previous calls.

Only a coda to the saga remains. When the driver came to Hurst Hall SWAT team members were waiting at the door to greet him. but he had the wrong package, which was consigned to the Biology Department. After delivering the package, he returned to his truck while SWAT team members waited. Finally he returned with the package. The laptop had been irretrievably damaged in shipping. The driver left us with instructions about how to file a claim to recover the damages. He did not apologize for the damage or fabrications. We are hopeful that the claims process may produce results, in due course, but our experience, so far, suggests the process may be a tortuous one.

Throughout this experience, requiring significant expenditures of time by four CTE staff members plus myself and, in the end, producing damaged goods, not one DHL staff member apologized, expressed regret, or seemed to care about making things right. Only repeated proddings reinforced by threats of legal intervention produced action and some acknowledgment of accountability.

What lessons can be drawn from this precautionary tale?
1. don’t leave your laptop at a security check point - check your belongings carefully before moving on.
2. avoid the ‘sin of pride.’ If you think all is going particularly well, check even more carefully.
3. the world is populated by caring, responsible, honest, helpful people. We encountered many of them. They included my contact in Hungary, the Hungarian airport security police, several Malev staff members and numerous AU staff members and students who helped in our quest for the missing package. The CTE staff members who worked on the problem were creative, intelligent, diligent, patient and good humored.
4. I believe that most DHL employees, too, must have those qualities, though we never experienced them in our dealings with the organization. I can only conclude that in DHL’s corporate culture, the natural human qualities of caring, responsibility, honesty and helpfulness are suppressed rather than valued.
5. Should you be planning to ship a package by DHL express, seriously consider other options.


A precautionary tale II - good Karma

A Precautionary Tale II - Good Karma
As a plane lands, the purser typically announces that “a passenger agent will be waiting at the gate to help you.” When one travels on US airlines, excepting Southwest, this promise, like others, is rarely kept. But In Paris, a Malev agent was waiting and listened sympathetically to my plight. She said she would do what she could. I also contacted CTE staff members in Washington who immediately began working on the problem. Later, in Washington, I emailed a contact in Hungary.

I learned later that the Malev agent had immediately gone to work on the problem. She contacted Malev staff in Budapest. They contacted airport security, who located my laptop. A Malev staff member contacted security and picked the laptop up. Arrangements were made to have a pilot on the next outgoing flight to Paris take the laptop with him personally and leave it at the Charles de Gaul Malev office. Unfortunately, by the time it arrived I had already embarked for Washington DC.

My laptop was now safe, but it took a day or so for me to learn this. My colleague in Hungary did the research, first contacting airport security and then Malev. In time, I was able to speak personally with the Malev Office Director and made arrangements to ship the laptop by DHL express to Washington. The saga that had begun with my carelessness at the security check point was nearly over. Or so I thought.


A precautionary tale

I was a second year Dartmouth College undergraduate when I first learned of the Greek tragic cycle in my Comparative Literature class. “Ate” (the sin of pride), >>> “Hybriis – or Hubriis” (the tragic flaw) >>> “Nemisis” (the evil or tragic, consequences of pride.

I week ago Thursday, I was reminded of the insight to which I had first been exposed in Professor Donald Bartlett’s classroom. I had arrived early at Budapest’s Feregehy airport. My colleagues and I breezed through check in without difficulty. I had money to change and remembered from a previous trip that the exchange bank was in the adjoining terminal. How good it is to be an experienced traveler, I congratulated myself. The security line was long and there was a bit of confusion at the check in, but everyone was in good spirits and put up gracefully with the inconvenience.

When I got to the waiting area, there was a Balaton Group colleague waiting for the same flight. We had a good conversation about Land Grant Universities and their contributions to higher education before boarding. There was an empty seat next to me on the Budapest > Paris flight and I was able to doze without interruption. This is all good… I reflected.

… until I shouldered my back pack, preparing to disembark in Paris. My bag seemed a bit light. When I travel, I carry both a computer and a portable printer in my pack when I travel. When I opened my bag to check, a wave of panic engulfed me.. I had failed to pick up my computer after going through security in Budapest.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Making complex technical material accessible

Whenever I attend Balaton Group meetings, I am reminded of the challenge making complex technical material accessible to a wide audience poses. The presentations we hear often represent a lifetime of work and the passionate commitments of brilliant men and women. But this does necessarily mean they are framed in ways that will make a different.

I was first sensitized to this problem when writing my doctoral dissertation, later published as ‘Partners in Development’ (Michigan State University Press, 1969). One of the book’s foci was how the principles of agricultural extension could be adapted to the development needs of less industrialized countries in the Global South. Through researching Land Grant Universities, I became aware of the complex communication chain between knowledge creation in academic departments and distilled knowledge that could be of practical value, often in an extension bulletin, to farmers, 4-H club leaders and County Agents. Later I saw the other end of the process as the owner of farm properties in Ohio, Maryland and Virginia as as the father of two children in 4-H.

Work with the Club of Rome, the US Association for the Club of Rome and The Hunger Project, deepened the lessons of accessibility and drove them home. Club of Rome founder Aurelio Peccei was passionate committed to framing messages about the Global Problematique accessibly and making them available widely. For him, I believe, the Club of Rome was as much marketing and public relations agency as much as anything (something current COR members might ponder). My book, ‘Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future’ (a project of the US Association for the Club of Rome) was an attempt to make the Club of Rome’s basic messages accessible to an American Audiences.

Joan Holmes, Executive Director of the Hunger Project and a tough, focused, ‘take no prisoners’ gifted leader, marketer and communicator told us, ‘if fifth graders can understand it, anyone will understand it.” Joan was a former fifth grade teacher. The Hunger Project’s Book, ‘Ending Hunger: and Idea Whose Time Has Come,” which was an expression of Donella Meadows’ vision of what a book should be, expressed that point-of-view. Then there was ‘Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling, which may have been the best expression of the synergy and commitment to accessible communication that Donella Meadows and I could, on some occasions, achieve.

The emergence of ‘social networking’ forms of communication poses new communication challenges, but powerful new opportunities for outreach. What should be communicated? How should it be communicated? To what ends? Via what media? We cannot ignore these questions. We cannot shrink from the challenges they pose. We must be courageous, which does not mean we should not be ‘realistic,.’


Friday, September 14, 2007

Balaton 2007 - Introducing an Amazing Human Resource

After a characteristically arduous trip - flying isn’t much fun any more, I am comfortably settled at the Hotel Szezpalama, in Balatonsemmes, Hungary. This is the week, each year that I participate in the annual gathering of The Balaton Group. The group is a network, that as sustained itself for 27 years, loosely ‘organized’ around the ideas of sustainability and systems thinking To learn more about the group and its distinctive culture, you can read blogs from the previous two years. If I have time, I’ll go back and tag them for easier reading.
“In a group that comprises remarkable human beings, “Gillian” is one of the most remarkable. Among other things, she is the best trainer with whom I have ever worked among many, but much more than than. To illustrate, I begin with an agenda I brought to last year’s Balaton meetings, with limited or no short-term success. Because of Center for Teaching Excellence work in multimedia applications, and my contacts with millenials who are my Anderson hall “neighbors” I have come to believe that multimedia, web and social networking applications have a critical role to play in spreading the word about ideals that the Balaton Group germinates so creatively. I am not alone in this interest, but last year the enthusiasm was limited at best. But I did share my ideas with Gillian
.... and lo... the first session of this year’s meeting, lead by Gillian focused on the ideas I was touting, last year, and much much more. In about eight months, Gillian had constituted herself as an incredible resource in web and multimedia applications that facilitate learning.
Out of her head she created a “tools map” that listed the following applications
Second life
My space
Go to meeting
Linked in
You tube
Wiser Earth

And she created a job for herself that encourages exploration and application of these resources in her organization
To learn more about Gillian check out her blog, entitled “You learn something new every day.” This expresses not only what she does, but who she is.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Reflections

I learned something from Garrison Keillor this morning about how much Americans work. They work longer hours and take fewer vacation days than employees in any other industrialized nation. I am not in a position to be sanctimonious about this - my average workweek is between seventy and eighty hours. I tell young faculty members, seeking tenure, that they should routinely expect to work about this number of hours - which is not easy if you have a long commute and a young family. Mostly, I love my work, as do most faculty members. My compensation is well above the national average of $17 per hour. So far, I have good health care benefits, which a growing number of Americans do not.

My circumstances differ from those of many Americans. For example the Aramark employees who clean American University’s buildings earn an average of less than $12 per hour. Once they were employees of the university, eligible for tuition benefits. That changed at AU and most other higher education institutions a few years ago. Most of these employees are women from Latin American countries.

There is a widening gap between rich and poor in America and that concerns me. In the developing countries I study, this gap contributes to a sense of hopelessness among young men, which motivates some of them to form or join militant movements. I have studied this problem for more than 20 years and write about it in my book, Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars.
One of the best antidotes for the widening gap between rich and poor is education, but private education is becoming more expensive in America and public education is being shortchanged. There are clear trade-offs between funds spent on jails and homeland security (not to mention the war in Iraq) and funds spent on education, but our political processes don’t take these into account very effectively.

These are my reflections on labor day. It’s time to have breakfast and get back to work.

Take time for dancing

Most AU student readers probably won’t have spent much time in assisted living facilities or nursing homes, but you will. You will visit your grandparents and, later, your perents. Very likely, you will end your own lives in one.

This topic is particularly on my mind because of my father. As regular readers will know, he celebrated his 96th birthday in January. Between age 90 and 96, he traveled around Cape Horn and through the Panama Canal. He visited St. Petersburg. He traveled through the Suez Canal and walked into the crypts at pyramids. He likes travel and has traveling companions who enjoy his company. Once he was a world class tennis player (at a time when all such players were amateurs). Then he was a highly successful attorney. He retired early and has lived a full life, before and afterwards. Over the years he has coped gracefully with the fact that with aging, his life is becoming more physically limited and circumscribed. Though my mother often described him as “a bad patient.” he has coped with grace and often with wit.

Perhaps because of my father, and the example he has set, I payed particular attention to a poem I heard the other morning on Garrison Keilor’s “A Writer’s Almanac.” It airs every morning on NPR at about 7:50. It is also podcast and archived on line.

The poem is entitled "Meadowbrook Nursing Home" 

On our last visit, when Lucy was fifteen
And getting creaky herself, 
One of the nurses said to me,
"Why don't you take the cat to Mrs. Harris' room
— poor thing lost her leg to diabetes last fall —
she's ninety, and blind, and no one comes to see her."

The door was open. I asked the tiny woman in the bed
if she would like me to bring Lucy in, and she turned her head
toward us. "Oh, yes, I want to touch her."

"I had a cat called Lily — she was so pretty, all white. 
She was with me for twenty years, after my husband died too.
She slept with me every night — I loved her very much.
It's hard, in here, since I can't get around."

Lucy was settling in on the bed.
"You won't believe it, but I used to love to dance.
I was a fool for it! I even won contests. 
I wish I had danced more.
It's funny, what you miss when gone."
This last was a murmur. She'd fallen asleep.

I lifted the cat
from the bed, tiptoed out, and drove home.
I tried to do some desk work
but couldn't focus.

I went downstairs, pulled the shades, 
put on Tina Turner
and cranked it up loud
and I danced.
I danced.

(By Alice N. Persons, from Don't Be A Stranger. © Sheltering Pines Press, 2007)