A Christmas Story

No, this one isn’t about Genuine Red Ryder BB Guns, and I’m pretty sure you won’t shoot your eye out.

This christmas I had the chance to buy my parents a new computer. I’ve always given them my hand-me-downs, but since I went Mac, my hand-me-downs suddenly stopped. Their computer was getting a bit long in the tooth, and while they are still on dialup (or maybe because of it) and I don’t get out there as much as I should – I’ve been living in some fear of them having some spyware or other security problem because they are still running Windows. So I had the chance, and went ahead and bought them an iMac G5. My mom’s only software requirement was some kind of greeting card program.

Well, I bought the Print Shop for the Macintosh – but wouldn’t you know it, version 2.0 of The Print Shop came out 4-5 days before Christmas. So on Wednesday before, I pulled out the credit card and bought it, paying $12 for the overnight shipping. Because I live in a townhome, I had it shipped to work.

Big mistake.

Overnight shipping became “over two nights” shipping, and the University was closed on the Friday before Christmas. So no package.

To make matters worse, they shipped it US Postal Service. And the USPS isn’t quite FedEx and UPS are in terms of Information Technology – so the system update didn’t occur until late Thursday night (so I didn’t know that it was even in transit to try a redirect) – and the delivery update didn’t occur until late Friday – with no mention of where the package actually was (and I was head out of town, and without knowing where the package was, there wasn’t much I could do).

But this story isn’t quite about that, well it sort of is about the USPS IT system, this story is really about the Extension system.

You see, I called the USPS when I was back in town on the next Wednesday, the fourth business day of my priority mail package being somewhere at the USPS. My office building is in zip code 27606 – and there’s a post office about a block away (Method Road), but that’s actually for zip code 27607 (I think – it has an entirely other zip code on the sign on the building but the website says 27607) The customer service number told me that my package was at the Avent Ferry post office and that I better hurry because if I didn’t get it – it was going back to Mackiev that day. Well, I went to Avent Ferry, but they said that “No, we don’t have it, we actually service 27607 – you need to go to Lake Dam” Lake Dam is the warehouse for the whole area, it doesn’t have any traditional services like stamps or shipping – but it services pickups for 27606.

There I found my package, with the front attendant remarking (a bit nonplussed) that “He” [the mail carrier for my building] was going to deliver it “later that day”. And sure enough, I get my package, and on the front is written the schedule for the University – “Friday closed, Monday closed, Tuesday closed, try Wednesday.”

You see, the knowledge about the University was in the hands of the mail carrier. He knew where my package was. He knew the University schedule. He knew when to and when not try the delivery.

The knowledge was at the ends of the network. I knew what my package was and what my hours were. MacKiev knew what my package was and when they had shipped it. MacKiev’s mail carrier knew when they had shipped it, and what MacKiev’s hours were. My mail carrier knew when I had received it and where it was and what my hours were. But the “network” – that is, the IT system in the middle, had little or none of this knowledge. And that fails everyone. Because every one in the middle of the chain is just trusting the IT system/network.

The goal of the system should be to connect and empower the ends The fatal flaw for most IT systems is that it tries to hold the knowledge. And does so in a way that all the ends forget where their brain is at and trust the system to have the knowledge. But unless it connects the ends, it’s impossible to create the necessary feedback loops to know anything.

This week, I read a story of the TSA’s no-fly list snaring a 4-year old in Texas because the 4-year old shares the name of someone on the watch list – and of course, held up the travel for the 4-year old. The airport rep said that “it’s not a person, it’s the name, and we are just following procedure” And the clearance procedure for the watch list requires identification papers the 4-year old doesn’t have. Regardless of any of your politics on any of that or opinions on whether watch lists work or not – it’s an asinine situation to block a four year old’s travels and require documentation that he doesn’t have because his name matches a string. And the problem exists because the system doesn’t empower the ends to make decisions.

_The knowledge is at the ends of the network. The goal of the network should be to connect and empower the ends _

Whatever comes, the goal of our effort for the nation’s land-grants has to be to empower the ends. Both the faculty, and most especially the Extension Agents (and the staff that serve them). The real knowledge of our system is at the ends.