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Engineering a New Breed of Professionals at Web Speed

by Fred Moody

The image of a paddler in a canoe evokes essential Canadian values: the echoes of French, English and Aboriginal heritage, independence and freedom. On television, the indelible image has sold everything from life insurance to politics. Not surprisingly, one of Canada’s most renowned Prime Ministers, Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919-2000), practised his love of his wilderness experiences en canot throughout his life, and even sent Charles and Diana a hand-made canoe as a wedding gift.

So a group of Canadians gathering around a campfire in the evenings following a day of canoeing on the French River, which flows through a landscape that remains largely as it was when the first Europeans explored it over three hundred years ago, in south-central Ontario, 60 km south of Sudbury, sounds idyllic for Canadian storytelling. But it does not seem the place for the digerati to congregate to craft online educational forums and chat rooms.

But a year ago such a coterie of people hied off to these wilds, even though many had never held a paddle before, to form the basis for a brand new educational initiative by the The Canadian Professional Logistics Institute, laying some precursory and new educational turf in Canadian and international logistics training. These canoeists, mitigating the hurdles of nature, also played an important in reinventing the way the Institute works with its membership.

In the logistics profession, The Canadian Professional Logistics Institute now stands at the cusp of recasting the way it communicates with its members with its foray into the wired realm of interactive and online education, largely due to such ventures. Its newest module, which combines a professional development CD based on a canoe trip with a recently revamped section of its Web site, is set to be launched in January 2001.

The Toronto-based Institute, which has a mandate to establish a logistics profession, provides logistics education and defines logistics career opportunities, has already launched, on Sept. 15, what it aptly calls a “Gateway,” affording logisticians access to four key networks at its Internet Web site: The Logistics Learning Network, The Logistics Community Network, the Logistics Career Network and the Logistics Research and Development Network.

This Internet Gateway and its online resources provide logisticians with course and administration information as well as technical support and the Institute’s courses in professional development. The Internet presence also builds a new kind of community by sharing resources and information.

In tandem with this wave of transformation is the Institute’s new certification program. As of Jan. 1, 2001, the Institute will launch its new Certification Policies, requiring practitioners to complete eight modules for their certification, up from the four key modules currently required. Next year is a transitional year before the Institute fully implements its new policies. During this transitional year, six modules will be required. By January 2002, the full eight modules will need to be completed for certification.

“In this initiative we are making use of new technology to enable more people to acces more information in a more timely and cost effective manner...this reflects the essence of the the Institute is about,” David Poirier, HBC

While the advent of a complete new Certification Policy, a revamped Web site that is dubbed “Your Gateway the the World of Logistics,” and a multimedia CD seem brand-new to many in the profession, it isn’t. They are the outcome of a strategic initiative that was struck three years ago, points out Hudson’s Bay Company Executive Vice President David Poirier, who, as the chair of the Institute’s board, has been involved in its “governance and strategic direction” nearly since its inauguration. Poirier also reflects that in a knowledge-based economy, success depends on such innovative capacities, identified in business in terms of “competitive advantages” that are clearly evidenced by this educational enterprise.

“The challenge was how do we continue to make the Institute relevant and fresh and reinvent itself so it meets the new requirements of people in this profession. The challenge to the management team at the Institute and Victor Deyglio, the Institute’s visionary president, was not only to make the organization relevant to the Canadian logistics community in regard to the present and past, but also for the future.”

Poirier, an industrial engineer, who was a senior vice president, Logistics, at Loblaws when the Institute’s management team began to set its strategy, says the process dovetailed with the transformation that was underway in logistics during his tenure in the grocery sector and intimates it has only recently been recognized as mainstream. “Today, the logistician’s role is that of a knowledge-based manager who focuses as much on the movement of information as physical product,” he says.

The old days and the stereotype of learning, such as students with their books in upside-down formation like tents bivouacked before scattered papers seem ages away from multimedia, the Internet and canoe camping exercises.

The Institute’s new leadership module, which is exemplary of many of its new educational initiatives, couples the Institute’s Web site and its professional development CD in a way that is imbued with fun and engagement, and transcends the need for students to sit down in a conventional classroom.

Through the CD logisticians enter a realm of study and learning where the rules are nearly entirely their own. It’s a place where they can create a universe and temporarily exit their workplace when their schedule permits it, and other demands are not vying for their attention. Granted, it seems antithetical to hear professionals say they’re making a dash to flee the corporate world for a few hours to learn perhaps about team building and leadership while studying and working closeted away from others. But the next step in this Institute module involves practising their studies derived from the CD experience and interacting with their colleagues. Still, they never need to see them. Instead, they work with them through the Institute’s Internet chat room, moderated by an online facilitator.

“E-commerce and e-business are part of what we do each day and it is timely that the Gateway is is another valuable resource and support, a great place to mine information,” says Carol Burton, LEAP Energy and Power Corp.

In an age where distance learning has recently been set ablaze with Web-based classes through online forums that pop up like mushrooms, pundits have decried such “distance” education systems aren’t as useful as they seem. The Institute, which continues to maintain courses offered in the traditional setting has, however, appropriately melded into its interactive learning initiative strengths that were honed from the classroom.

LEAP Energy and Power Corp.’s manager, Supply Chain, Carol Burton, who joined LEAP this year after an eight-year tenure at Molson’s, provided considerable input and information alongside other logisticians in one of the Institute’s modules during one of its courses on supply chains. It was in this conventional environment, that two representatives from a firm specializing in interactive Web site development consulted with Burton and other professionals to build the bridge to a new forum for learning.

“It was brought up by some of the people in the module that you always draw a lot from the experience of people around you which makes these modules of greater value,” Burton recalls. “How do you emulate this? That was a key issue.”

On the other hand, understanding more about the creation of the initiative and the theory incorporated into the module soon to be launched also helps to realize the limitations of conventional classroom education as well as answer questions about emulating a classroom setting.The genesis for this initiative, posited in Institute President Victor Deyglio’s vision of how symbiotic connections between the Institute and its members could go far beyond anything previously imagined, involved the stewardship of at least three Phds, the Insitute’s directors, plus the deployment of a team of professionals who embarked on a five-day canoe expedition full of resilience and pluck.

Given the team behind it, the success of this educational endeavor to create a CD may not seem surprising. Add to the mix the creativity of actors, theater and film directors, a team of multi-media developers, at least one talented script writer and, not least, professional logisticians, and you have an unparalleled CD for logisticians that just made its debut appearance a little more than a month ago at several conferences in the United States.

“We have recently debuted the CD presentation at two conferences, one in Los Angeles, California, and the other in Dalles, Texas. We were told that we are the only people who have done this and accomplished this type of adult learning development,” states Dr. Scott Follows, a professor at the School of Business, Acadia University’s Acadia Centre for Virtual Learning Environments, who spearheaded the CD’s development.

Follows explains the response was unequivocally affirmative in America. “At one of the conferences, an executive from a major corporation confided to me that his company had spent millions of dollars recently on this type of computer-based training. But they missed the mark. They did not have the vision to see what the experience could become. And that was very reaffirming in terms of what we have done with the Institute’s project,” he says, adding formal evaluation studies are now underway to calibrate the effectiveness of the CD.

While the CD program will be evaluated on a wide array of criteria, Fellows singles out one in particular as crucial: “People like this stuff, it’s fun. It can be like a computer game and people can apply themselves to it when it is convenient to them. I commend Victor [Deyglio] for his foresight and vision for believing in something like this.” He is also quick to praise Deborah Hurst, a professor at Acadia University, for her script writing.

In addition to the vision of the Institute’s president, another leader in the education field who goes beyond the convention of many educators who treat the classroom or seminar approach the way fundamentalists adhere to the Bible, is Dr. Roger Shank, director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) at Chicago’s Northwestern University and a leader in the field of artificial intelligence and multimedia-based interactive training. Follows likens Shank, who advocates learning and training in a corporate setting by helping people to learn by doing and allowing them to make mistakes, to “a guru in this field” whose work provided a model for part of the Institute’s most recent endeavor.

Follows and his team from Acadia University were introduced to the Institute by Dr. Alan Law, a skilled canoeist and an assistant professor in Sociology, Trent University, whose background includes working as an accountant in the transportation industry. Law was first introduced to the Institute by his response to a federal government request for proposal resulting in his developing the Labour Market Information Study that was published in October 1997 (Canadian Logistics Journal Vol 4., No. 4). Law, who characterizes the Institute as “one of the most interesting organizations that I’ve ever run into” designed the CD project and initiated the idea for a canoe trip that arose from the Institute’s Developers Conference held in February 1998.

Law points out that on a canoe trip, as in other face-to-face learning environments, people responded with little time to pause, reflect and assess a course of action. “We also wanted them to communicate and interact with each other as equals not as people in the supply chain,” Law explains. “We wanted live experiences generated by people instead of by means of social scientists pulling stuff out of books and then creating what we imagined to be the case.” At the end of each day, with trees reaching overhead and the team circled around an evening fire, often combating fatigue, they collectively crammed the rich array of experiences from their day-long journey into documentation. The notion of a theatrical reenactment of their day using this information, complete with actors and directors, no doubt shimmered dimly someplace in the future as they spoke near a crackling fire.

“The dynamic team-building exercise, the canoe trip, was clearly parallel to the real logistics world. In this case, paddling a canoe in the water was not a vacation,” says Michael Snedden, IBM.

But the dynamics of the team made the transition a year later with aplomb. “On the Internet, one of the things critical in team dynamics is communications. How are you going to communicate with them when you are not actually experiencing what they are experiencing at the other end? With regard to their feelings, you do not have the eye contact, which is a major hurdle. On the other hand, in today’s environment, where many companies are global, you often lack the luxury of communicating face-to-face and communication over the phone and Internet is vital. It is important that in this module this is brought to the plate because we have to learn how to communicate with people without that face-to-face contact,” explains Nortel Network’s Joe Grubic, senior manager, Customer Logistics, who also embarked on the canoe journey.

But how, exactly, did the canoe expedition and crammed duffel bags set the content and context for such a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)? To begin with, the canoe trip was based partly on a written script for the team, that was immediately challenged by a fictional forest fire burning near the town of “Victorville.” The team learns of lightening that has damaged a communications tower owned by the company of one team member, who is required to work with an “ad hoc team to take equipment to the town so that it can be repaired. The tower is in a remote, inaccessible location and so the Learner, four other company employees, and a guide will need to travel by canoe. If the equipment is not delivered within 40 hours, the town of Victorville will need to be evacuated as fire-fighters will not be able to co-ordinate the fire-fighting effort,” - reads the script. The participants who implemented the script included: three developers - Scott Follows, Deborah Hurst and Camerman David Sheehan of Acadia University; Alan Law, Trent University; The Institute’s Program Director, Karyn Ferguson; Joe Grubic, Senior Manager, Customer Logistics, Nortel Networks; Michael Snedden, Manager Distribution Operations Solution Delivery Services, IBM Canada Ltd; Stacy Arthur, Director of Operations, TNT Canada Inc.; and two guides from Outward Bound, an executive development organization.

“I think it was an exercise that was clearly parallel with the real logistics world,” reflects Snedden, recalling some rugged portages that meant carrying five canoes, and at one juncture during the five-day trip moving them all to carefully transgress a portage with a 60-foot precipice.

Law characterizes this trip, which was designed to establish team goals, build working relationships and a team culture as well as effective leadership, as one also having a profound impact on his teaching methodology and outlook. “It had an impact on my own processes in working with teams and that was an outcome I was not anticipating; I was expecting it to be a fairly straightforward assignment. But it has had a profound impact on the way that I engage in teams,” he explains. It was so engaging that even Law, who oversaw the entire program, acknowledges: “It will be difficult to get that kind of intensity through a module but we are hoping it will be there.”

The group, which had never met each other before except for their established rapport with the Institute’s Karyn Ferguson, took its initial step forward as a team by sharing backpacks. A small step, except for the guides’ tactful and possibly baffling direction that, on average, only 15 percent of the clothing the team had brought could be stuffed into the provided packs. To take more would have made the canoe portages far more challenging.

While the participants all noted that canoe sojourn mirrored many of the challenges in the real world of logistics, they also point out that one of its strengths as a professional development exercise came from an intensity that was partly due to the fact that they were far removed from cell phones and office pressures that vie for their attention. Follows also notes that this is one of the key benefits afforded by using a CD for professional development.

In contrast to either paddling a canoe past a white tailed deer or winding through an interactive training CD, the experience in a classroom seems starkly limited, Follows explains. Then he comes up with another cocksure reason for its success. People don’t like to make mistakes, particularly in front of their peers. And he provides the irrefutable irony. “But the best way people learn is by making mistakes.”

Self-evaluations, reflecting on how you have reacted to experiences and thinking about them, is the optimum way for adults to learn, Follows says.

“With regard to the canoe exercise there was a lot of logistics involved and hurdles to overcome in terms of how we interacted as a group. It brought out the important aspects in team building,” Joe Grubic, Nortel.

“The whole model of thinking about people as empty vessels to dump information into for hours on end is terribly inefficient...people only learn or retain approximately ten percent of what they hear in a traditional talking-head lecture, for example,” he adds.

The new module, however, delivers resources to students as they’re needed, enabling them to react to their decisions and clearly show the implications of their individual decisions, while allowing for simulated worlds to unfold, partly of their own making. In summary, it affords what is vital in any educational system: the nurturing of individual initiative.

While it seems part of a brave new world in its approach, it also seems to hearken back the famous Sixteenth Century maxim, “cogito ergo sum,” by René Descartes (1596-1650), putting reflection at the pinnacle of importance for learning.

By means of this methodology and the inherent strengths of its new mediums, married with Institute’s content, a new breed of professionals that are far more focused on information and processes is being created. Nortel’s Grubric concludes this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Institute itself. He explains that “...the Logistics Institute is superior to other organizations largely due to the way it provides its sessions, as well as the content. It really hones in on management skills, project management, with the key studies aligned to logistics scenarios and that is what logistics is all about, it is about project management, and process management and developing all of those so that they can be integrated into a seamless environment,” he says. Grubric, who has just moved himself and family to one of Nortel’s U.S. offices from Toronto, Ontario, reflects the reality that the stellar performance and the enactment of the Institute’s visionary initiative in education mirrors the requirements of its membership - these days, every few minutes, online.