Thursday, April 14, 2005

What can Brown do for you?

[It's 4AM as I write this. Fittingly, the topic on my mind is a tribute to a hardworking group whose workday is ending right about now.]

I got a new laptop last week. Oddly, I found doing product research to be rather nerve-wracking; but once I decided what I wanted, the buying process was a joy. I scanned craigslist and eBay for the late-model Thinkpad I wanted and had it lined up in no time. Then there was a slight hitch when the eBay powerseller called me to report that my purchased item was damaged in his warehouse. But he offered to send me an upgraded model at the same price, so what could I say?

I was promised three-day ground shipping, but the UPS guy showed up at my door the next morning. I feel terribly spoiled to say that I wasn't surprised. But really, that everyday style overnight delivery is such a luxury.

How does UPS do it? At one level we can thank FedEx for transforming the entire shipping industry (including the federal post office). But at another level we can thank (drum roll...) networks.

To appreciate what the UPS network is like, recall instead your last experience in a big airport. Did you fly direct, or did you have to transfer planes? Where did you transfer? How long a layover did you have? These are the questions tackled in large numbers by any airline or freight carrier that must consolidate items before moving them collectively.

My first career in networks was devoted to these very questions, via optimization software. By managing these little questions automatically, we created a framework to support higher-level decisions, like what would happen across its entire network if a freight carrier started running a daily truck or flight from A to B (which previously were only connected indirectly)? Then by automating that decision-support, we tackled even bigger questions---like where should a freight carrier open its next major hub?

Think about knowledge flow optimization and many issues will be familiar to a veteran trucker. How much do I want to invest in a professional relationship? How much do I need to work with this person? Draw these questions as a network and any UPS dispatcher worth his salt could tell you that the optimal answer depends on having a global view. My relationship with any one coworker has a ripple effect on the organization that we may not appreciate without a conscious invoking of the network perspective.

If any of this has made you curious to learn more about UPS, or even if it hasn't, I recommend you check out the latest issue of the New Yorker. "Out in the Sort" by John McPhee describes a colorful journey into the center of UPS' biggest hub, a place far removed from everyday experience (except for the 5000 college students who work there every night from 11pm-4am).

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