Friday, July 31, 2009

The 27th System Dynamics Society Conference. What a gathered community of scholar-practitioners can - and should - be.

From a previous posting, readers will know that I spent the past several days at the 27th annual meeting of the System Dynamics Society, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Society now numbers about 1100 members and more than 450 were in attendance. I attended the very first Annual Meeting and had not been back since, though I have been a Society member for most of those years. Not attending at least a few of these meetings and participating more actively in the Society’s work has, I can see, been not only a failed obligation but a personal and professional loss.

As the Society’s name suggests, what sets members apart is their interest in and knowledge of System Dynamics. System Dynamics is a way of seeking to understand complex problems that emphasizes the importance of interrelated stocks (like water in a bathtub), flows in and out of stocks (like faucets and drains) and feedback loops. Examples of feedback loops include, for example the bandwagon effect that causes a politician’s popularity to soar or an economy to collapse (reinforcing loops) and homeostatic ‘thermostats’ that, for example, keep our homes and bodies at livable temperatures (stabilizing loops). Often - not always - practitioners build and/or use computer simulation models to help them better understand and remediate such problems. A book published in 1972, The Limits to Growth, described the most famous System Dynamics model, called World3. World3 raised important questions about the probability that the human race, following ‘business as usual’ practices, could live sustainably of planet earth beyond the middle of the 21st century. The book, which has been updated twice, with no significant changes in its conclusions, remains one of the best discussions of ‘sustainability’ issues ever written.

It is always hard to write about System Dynamics in a brief column or blog, because one must begin with a brief description, like the one I have attempted above, of what it is. One thing hat quickly creates a strong bond among System Dynamics Society Meeting participants is that such explanations are not necessary. Not only do participants share a common language, the fundamentally agree on the value of the approach Because the common language and shared agreement as to its value are points of departure, discussions can move quickly to matters of substance in which all can participate. This is true whether the topic is reversing global warming, managing large construction projects more efficiently, understanding the causes of terrorism or narrowing the gap between rich and poor in large urban megacenters.

Another distinction: the field is new enough so that most of its founding gurus are still active, passionately committed and were present at the meeting. Founder Jay Forrester, still vigorous and mentally incisive at age 95, rarely travels, but remains a living presence. Those who studied with him, all have ‘Jay Forrester stories’ to tell over meals and in other times of casual conversation. Two other field leaders who died prematurely and tragically, Limits to Growth principal author Donella Meadows and ‘Stella’ software developer Barry Richmond were known to many of us. References to them evoked bitter-sweet memories and stories to share with new and younger members.

Three other distinctions: the humility of field’s leaders, their active presence at the meeting at their obvious delight in mentoring newer members, old and young. Dennis Meadows was recently honored with the Club of Rome Lifetime Achievement Award and Japan for sustainability award. John Sterman holds the J.W. Forrester professorship at MIT. Peter Senge’s books on applying System Dynamics principles to create ‘learning organizations’ are widely read. The demands on his time to speak and consult are far more than he can meet and his contributions have improved the management practices of thousands. These luminaries and many others of near equal emminence could be seen throughout the five days, mingling with the crowd, taking time to mentor a new member, gathering around a poster session describing System Dynamics work of an elementary school teacher or high school junior. At the conferences ‘closing session,’ though it would continue for two additional ‘bonus days’ by popular demand, those who participated actively in organizing the event were asked to come to front of the hall. More than 100 participants gathered, and that did not include those of us who had reviewed papers for possible presentation. Had that group been included, more nearly half those in the room would have standing for acknowledgment.

I am so proud to have been accepted once again as a member of this distinctive community despite having been so long absent and done so little to contribute over many years. And, God willing , there is still time for me to contribute. At the heart of my sabbatical research project on sustainable poverty alleviation will be a System Dynamics model. I will be returning to active teaching in the field. And I intend to make attendance at future meetings of the System Dynamics Society a priority.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Escaping to different worlds

I am in Albuquerque, New Mexico, attending the annual meetings of the System Dynamics Society. More about the meetings, perhaps, later. But now I want to write about the area where I am staying. The Hotel Albuquerque, adjacent to ‘Old Town,’ is the conference venue. ‘Conference Hotels’ are among my least favorite places to stay. By the nature of the captive audiences they serve, they tend to be low on quality and high on price. Hotel Albuquerque fits that model. If one rates the Marriott where I stayed in Salt Lake city as ‘9’ on a scale of 10 (see an earlier positing) , Hotel Albuquerque would rate a 5, or charitably, a 6. Conference hotels are like that.

To escape the exorbitant breakfast prices, I took an early morning walk about the neighborhood looking for a small grocery store where I could buy some juice and yogurt, my usual breakfast fare. I soon found everything I would need over a five-day-stay for less than the price of a single breakfast at the hotel. My walk brought home vividly the stark contrast between two worlds, that of the hotel residents and that of their neighbors in the nearby community.

The ‘Old Town Shopping Center,’ about a fifteen minute walk from the hotel, had all the markers of poverty. Two national chain fast food outlets had ‘CLOSED’ signs prominently displayed. Store windows and doors were barred. Among the places of business were storefronts advertising ‘Check Cashing’, ‘Quick Loans’, and ‘Cash for Gold.’ There was, however, a Chinese Restaurant across the street that I took note of. Its home had once been a Pizza Hut. I know Mexican food, an Albuquerque staple, and I am not fond of it. Last evening a friend and I had an adequate, overpriced Mexican dinner in picturesque Mexican restaurant with atrocious service. I knew I would want something different.

This evening, after a very full day of conferencing, I was ready for some quiet down-time. With my current book in hand, I struck out for the ‘other side of the tracks’ and a Chinese dinner. Off the-beaten-track restaurants can be a find, a great disappointment, or something in between. Despite a very modest ambience this was a find. I learned that the owners were immigrants from China’s Guandong province. Their son, a senior biology major at the University of New Mexico, home on vacation, was the waiter. The menu was extensive and I intend to explore it more fully over the next several days. Tonight's dinner was excellent.

The only other customers were a couple, dressed as if they had completed a hard day’s work in difficult circumstances. In a fragment of conversation I overheard, the woman was explaining to her companion that she had no electricity in her home, however this was not a problem. She did not mind bathing in cold water, and her television was battery powered. This is, as I said earlier, not an opulent area.

After finishing dinner, I decided I would return to the hotel through ‘Old Town’. As I walked down a narrow street, lined with one story Pueblo-style buildings, the sound of tango music attracted me. A crowd had gathered in a small square, graced in its center graced by a large gazebo that could be bandstand or dance floor. Tonight it was a dance floor - the music, all Tangos, was from DVDs.

This was clearly both a participant and a spectator sport, for couples of all ages, but experienced dancers. Women wore very high heels and men, too, seem to have special dancing shoes. I watched one couple, apparently, arriving from work sit down and change their footwear before moving to the dance floor. After each number, those us who were not dancing applauded. There was an ambience of community and easy congeniality in which strangers seemed welcome. An attractive woman in her mid forties sat down next to me in a mostly vacant row of chairs. We did not speak, but I think she may have targeted me as a prospective dancing partner. After all, it does take two to Tango. She would have been very disappointed. I was sorry I could not accommodate her (if that was what she had in mind) and even began to consider the possibility of taking Tango lessons with my wife or, if she was not interested, finding a dancing school Tango partner. It is not very likely I will pursue this leaning, however.

Walking back to the sterile overpriced conference hotel, I was glad I had ventured into two very different communities and become part of them, if only for a few minutes. Academic conferences can be fun and they are important, professionally. I am enjoying this one, seeing old friends and learning new things. But one needs to avoid becoming captive to the artificial world that conference hotels seek to impose. Wherever one travels, there are different worlds outside the gates.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Transferring a wireless account from 'business' to 'personal' - my 2 hour and 20 minute Kalfkaesque oddessey with AT&T 'customer service'

Because I am no longer a university administrator, having returned to faculty status, I needed to transfer my cell phone coverage from 'business' to 'personal.' I wanted to keep my same number. This required AU to contact AT&T informing them that they had 'freed' the number. AU's Telecommunications did so immediately. Completing the AT&T side of the transaction was more complicated. Here is my diary of what happened.

1. The process began last night when I called the number I had been given to effect the transfer and after a 10 minute wait, punctuated by advertisements on my speakerphone that made it impassible to work, I reached Marisol. Marisol listened to my request, said she could help and took detailed personal information for a ‘credit check,’ putting me on hold several times. However she was not able to activate the transfer. Nor did she save the information I had given her, which I would have to repeat in its entirety to Jared, the next day. She said I would need to contact the Small Business Activation Department and forwarded my call to ...

2. James - I explained my problem to James, including a repetition of much that I had told Marisol. When I had finished , James asked quizzically "why are you speaking with me?" I said I had been referred to him because he was with the Small Business Activation Department. James said no, he was just another customer service agent. He didn't know whether the department was open but, he would call and check. After calling he said no, it had closed at 8PM. He gave me a new number to call at which I could reach the department, the next morning after 8 AM.

Time spent with Marisol and James, about 40 min.

3, Calling that number after 8 AM, I reached Crystal . After bringing her up to date on my previous calls, she said she was not the right person to talk to. When I mentioned the Small Business Activation Department, she said she was not with that department, she was just another customer service agent, however, she forwarded my call to...

4. Jared (who also gave is last name - there is a different protocol for business and personal customers.) I quickly discovered that business customers get better service, from more capable individuals who are actually able to solve problems. Jared was patient and helpful. He didn't put me on hold once. The only problem came when I asked if he could activate the automatic bill paying feature of my account, he tried but was unable to do so. He said I would have to call 'customer service ( presumably Marisol, James, Crystal and colleagues). Alternatively he said I should try registering on line. I also asked Jared if there was some way I could avoid speaking with the likes of Marisol, James and Crystal if I had problems in the future. He said no, this was not possible, but he was sure my dealings with customer service were a special case or an exception and that I could surely expect better service in the future.

Time spent with Marisol, James, Crystal and Jared - 1 hour and 40 minutes..

5. After completing my conversation with Jared, I went on line. The AT&T site performed more or less as advertised and Jared had, in fact, activated my account. I was able to activate the automatic bill payer feature in about 30 minutes.

Total time spent on the entire process, with the benefit of a high speed internet connection and a speakerphone, 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Conclusion: AT&T has set up its ‘customer service’ system to save time and money, but not the time and money of their customers. That is viewed as a free good. As a Cingular Wireless (the predecessor to AT&T) manager told me after I had spent a fruitless and still memorable 90 minutes at his “Cingular Store” several years ago, “The customers keep coming, so why should we change.’

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Friday, July 17, 2009

A sabbatical is not supposed to be a vacation.

Among the definitions of sabbatical offered by Wikipedia, here is one that seems closest to my conception: ‘..any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something.’ In an earlier posting, I provided excerpts from my sabbatical proposal that described the two projects on which I am embarked: a book describing my experiences living on campus as ‘dormgrandpop’ and a book on sustainable poverty alleviation, based at least in part on a case study of Singapore. I am taking a full year off, partly self-financed.

Seventeen days have now elapsed and there are already moments when I feel as if the sands of this precious time are running out too quickly. The first week, including the 4th of July, was more a continuation of the ‘moving-my-office project’ than anything else. This was obviously necessary, but the time spent seemed unproductive. It was not until Monday that my calendar begin to show blank days, providing opportunities for predominantly proactive rather than predominantly reactive scheduling.

This week, I began to develop a routine. Mornings, when I am freshest, are focused on upgrading and reinvigorating my computer modeling skills and, soon I will begin to immerse myself deeply in the thought processes of System Dynamics creator, Jay W Forrester in preparation for modeling work on sustainable poverty alleviation. Afternoons I have set time aside to begin mastering the bibliographic software package, Endnote. If properly used, I am convinced that Endnote can transform the process by which one assesses the state of knowledge on a subject. Soon I will need to make the crucial decision about which metric to use as a ‘reference mode’ (behavior over time graph) to represent sustainable poverty alleviation. I have not yet figured out when I will work on my Dormgrandpop book, but I need to make that a priority soon. Perhaps weekends and evenings.

Though I am not yet fully into my new routine, I can already see how the continuity uninterrupted time provides speeds the process of mastering both new subjects and new technologies. As CTE Director, I felt I always needed to give the needs of the Center - its mission and staff - first priority. To do otherwise seemed selfish and irresponsible. There was always one more task to perform, one more meeting to schedule and then hold, one more memo on an ‘urgent’ topic to write, one more conversation to make time for, because it would make a difference. I needed to give first priority to ‘keeping the trains running on time,’ to achieving goals set by others, or at least to achieving the objectives we set for CTE within the context of goals, biases, and idiosyncrasies defined by others. As the day for stepping down as CTE’s Director approached, I realized that my mind mind no longer needed to be filled with CTEs needs, concerns and especially plans for the coming weeks and months, crowding out all else.

How am I to put this incredible gift of self-programmed time to use in a manner that will make a difference? What value-added can I contribute to human knowledge and the human condition? A sometimes painful but effective strategy that has worked well in accomplishing other projects, especially books, is to have crystal clear pictures of what I intend to accomplish and then to communicate those intentions widely in the form of promises. I describe the strategy as painful because in the mid stages of implementation, when rough patches are encountered, clinging steadfastly to one's intentions can be difficult. Promises help. It is much easier to abandon ambitious goals that have been kept to oneself than to abandon those that have been communicated to friends and colleagues.

The goals I have set are already a living presence within me and I am, as yet, far from clear about paths I must follow need to accomplish them. I only know that there will far more setbacks and unanticipated turns than I would wish. That has almost always been the way with my books. I do not anticipate that my sabbatical year, this space of self-programmed time accorded to very few individuals in in this world, will be a vacation. Nor should it be.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gathering fresh lettuce in the evening twilight

Lead by my friend and assistant of two years, whom I shall call Colby, a group of environmentally aware students have started a community garden. It is not large, only about 20X20 yards. It is located on a plot of vacant land behind Nebraska Hall, a refurbished dormitory for third and fourth year students on the periphery of AU’s main campus. Colby has reported on the garden’s progress periodically. Now she is facing the challenge with which all student leaders of innovative projects and organizations must cope: graduation. Colby received her degree in May and will be leaving the university to begin new life-adventures at the end of July. She has enlisted a cadre of ten volunteers who she hopes, will be the next generation of community gardeners.

When we met yesterday afternoon, my friend mentioned that there was fresh lettuce and other produce available for the taking. In fact, one of the challenges faced by the community gardeners at this stage of the project’s development is finding enough consumers for the produce that is beginning to ripen. Since my dinner is, almost invariably, a light salad, I decided to check out what was available. I shut down my computer about 8:15, attached saddle bags to my bicycle and, in the early evening, set out to harvest my dinner.

Global warming not withstanding, this has been an exceptionally beautiful July in Washington, with days in the mid 80s and evenings in the seventies. This day was no exception. The sky was clear, with only a few puffy clouds fading from orange to lavender. Rush hour traffic at Ward circle had subsided. A gentile twilight breeze was cool and fresh.

The garden already had potential clients, two adolescent deer, who looked longingly through the wire fence as they nibbled grass and shrubbery on the periphery. Deer are not uncommon on the District of Colombia’s outskirts. Mostly they are city-wise survivors. Those who are not end short lives as road kill. These two watched me warily, at a safe distance, as I opened the gate and filled my shopping bag with fresh lettuce and arugula. I moved deliberately so as not to frighten them and they did not seem to be afraid.

Having finished my harvesting, taking only enough for two meals, I decided to share a portion with my companions. Again moving deliberately, I approached them with a generous handful of fresh lettuce leaves and laid them on the ground. I backed up a few steps. They watched me, but then turned away and vanished into the underbrush, nearby. City-wise, they had learned that while some human beings might seem benign, it was safer to give all of us a wide birth.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Container Store and Best Buy: adjacent locations, but worlds apart

Whenever I have something to buy at the Container Store, adjacent to the Tenleytown Metro stop, I look forward to the experience. The staff are so friendly and helpful I always feel as if the store was bathed in sunshine. I know at least one reason why. Some years ago my then graduate student, Traci Fenton, was writing her MA thesis on corporations that manage their employees democratically. Her theory was that more democratic corporations could also be more profitable. This was Traci’s passion and, now she is president of a company, WorldBlu, that promotes and publicizes democratic corporate governance. (Check out WorldBlu at I don’t remember all the companies Traci described, but two were Southwest Airlines and The Container Store. Both are highly profitable and both have off-the-charts customer service.

When I visit the Container Store, as I did earlier this week, I often tell the salesperson who assists me about Traci’s study. My most recent conversation was typical. The staff member’s expression, already cheerful, brightened still further as she described how great it was to work there. She had an MA in international development and had begun, post graduation, working with an NGO. But like many in the NGO world, she was frustrated by her organizations’ management inefficiencies. Initially she was working at The Container Store, part time, to earn additional income, but she found the work so much more satisfying, because of the company’s values and management style, that she applied for and eventually was offered a full time position. I love to come to work each day, she told me. I feel that my work is really making a difference.

Today, I went next door, to ‘Best Buy’ to check out a printer I wish to buy. The contrast between the two showrooms brought back memories of crossing the Berlin wall from West to East, when I consulted in Berlin during the 1970s. True, there were no barbed-wire-topped chain link fences or guard towers to keep Best Buy customers from escaping, but the ambience was the same. The staff member who sullenly acknowledged my greeting and answered my question about finding a printer could easily have graced a recruiting poster for the East German ‘People’s Police.’ The staff member who pointed out the showroom area where the printer I was seeking might be found was equally laconic and disinterested. He didn’t answer my question about a Cannon Printer that might be comparable to the one I owned. ‘Here are are our Cannon Printers’ was all he said, as he pointed to an aisle where they were located.

I could have asked, but wasn’t motivated to ask whether these employees felt their lives were making a difference, working at Best Buy. i didn’t need to. I could read the answer in how they looked and how they acted. “Do they ever walk next door to The Container Store and see what an affirming, empowering work environment could be like,?” I wondered.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

'Life and Death on a Farm' - another reflection on transitions

This morning I received an email from a student and friend with whom I worked closely for several years and with whom I have kept in touch via email and Facebook. I will call her Margaret. Margaret’s roommate is experiencing a difficult transition, she wrote me. In their conversations, my friend was able to share the sense of a passage I had posted on the kitchen cabinet of my Faculty Resident's Apartment in AU’s Anderson Hall. Margaret had ample time to read the various aphorisms and exhortations I have posted while we cleaned up together after my bi-weekly Faculty Resident’s gourmet dinners for students. The passage which helped Margaret’s roommate was from a letter the late Donella Meadows wrote to me and a few others in 1986. If there are others experiencing transitions, perhaps it will be helpful to you as well. It is entitled “Life and Death on a Farm.”

You don’t have to live on a farm very long before you come to terms with life and death, with all the Novembers when you kill last spring’s lambs and start next spring’s lambs. It is not that you become hard or unfeeling; rather you become accepting. You see life and death as a cycle or a continuum. You see that deaths are necessary for the balance of the farm, so that the ratios of rams and ewes and sheep and pastures will be right. You know that there will be beautiful meat to feed people, that not only the soil but all of nature turns death into new life, that in spite of all the death in the world, life persists. The whole process takes on a mysterious beauty and dignity. November, with its pervasive death isn’t the exciting high of April when the lambs are born and the daffodils bloom, but it’s the serene time of preparation for April; April couldn’t happen without it.

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Out with the old, in with the new

Tuesday was my last official day as Director of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Parts of the transition have been difficult, but not the parts I expected. Since the Center is larger and better funded than most similar centers in higher education, I thought there might be moves to poach functions, staff and budget by heads of other units. I thought finding a respected faculty member, who fully grasped the Center’s mission and had clout with AU’s higher administration might be difficult. I was concerned that uncertain prospects of new leadership might erode the morale of CTE’s collegial, highly capable senior managers and full-time staff. While I had done my best to ensure a smooth transition, reviewing relevant literature, spending several hours with my personal management consultant and giving transition matters absolute first priority for more than eight months, I worried that I had not done enough.

On Tuesday evening, as I symbolically removed my nameplate from the Director’s office door and replaced it with the nameplate of my successor, I could feel good about the fact that CTE appears to have escaped any of these pessimistic scenarios. AU’s visionary, if occasionally mercurial new Provost, made a brilliant choice of a new Director (his new title will be “Executive Director”) My successor is a gracious, collegial senior colleague whose technical knowledge and clout with AU’s higher administration exceeds my own. Though our previous acquaintance was only casual, we have quickly developed a rapport, grounded in a shared commitment to effect a transition that would enable CTE to continue to playing its key role at AU and take on the new responsibilities tasked to it without missing a beat.

Yes, new responsibilities....! Early next week, AU’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) is to become the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning (CTRL). Its broadened mission, which is at the heart of AU’s Strategic Plan, was mandated by the Provost. Its new name was chosen by CTE staff members in a characteristically collegial, inclusive process. We had a contest, open to all staff. Prizes were awarded to the winner and runners up. The acronym, which is an abbreviation for ‘control’ is not intended to symbolize the draconian measures Iran’s government is attempting to impose on its citizens. Rather, it refers, metaphorically, to the CTRL key which is a feature of computers designed to run the Windows operating system. Pressing the CTRL key opens a host of new possibilities for the user. CTE has long been a place that was intended to open new possibilities for our clients. Now CTRL will be even more of a welcoming venue where faculty, students and staff can take advantage of ‘one stop shopping’ to meet their teaching, research and learning needs.

So what parts of the transition have been more difficult? Packing, sorting and moving has been both more time consuming and physically demanding than I foresaw. Though I have had the help of an very able CTE staff member, much of the work must necessarily be an individual effort. Hurst Hall, location of the CTE (CTRL) Director’s Office has high ceilings and no elevators. Boxes of books and other sundries must be negotiated down long flights of stairs. Finding a place to work and to store books and papers that I will not need for a year is requiring patient negotiations.

But it is hard to kvetch when a full year sabbatical, even a largely self-financed one lies ahead. The research I have planned is demanding, exciting and can make a difference. I only must embrace the challenge of having the self-discipline and laser-like focus to use my time wisely. I am physically fit enough to carry heavy boxes of books down many flights of stairs. Following my mother’s advice, I was able to “leave the stage while the audience was still applauding” (or at least there wasn’t a lot of booing).

In May, most AU graduating students packed up their lives, after four years, with a much more uncertain future awaiting them. Unlike many Americans of equal talent and accomplishments, I wasn’t fired. A sabbatical is, in fact part of my job - an unique and much envied perquisite given those fortunate to occupy one life’s most rewarding professions, tenured professor. I will have challenging work awaiting me when I complete my challenging year of travel and research. There is much to be thankful for.

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