It�s a beautiful autumn morning on campus. Academics are in full swing, and the supporting business of the university is open as well. Truck after truck rolls into the docks: UPS, FedEx, DHL, local couriers, all are leaving hundreds, of packages and pallets loaded with computer parts, laboratory equipment, chemicals, books � everything a vibrant community of scholars needs to function.
This is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, world famous for graduating students who become leaders in technology, business and academia. MIT is just as well known as a global leader in research innovation, cutting-edge technology and business development. The Institute has produced some of the most momentous technological breakthroughs in the history of the human race including radar, strobe photography and holograms, to name just a few.
But MIT doesn�t always practice what it preaches. Those packages left piled on the dock contain the most up-to-date technology available, and their destinations are laboratories or offices that would consider last year�s state-of-the-art to be totally obsolete. So how were these important shipments checked into the Institute? By hand.
Until recently, all inbound shipments were still logged in manually, and all records were paper based. Carriers walked in every morning with their handheld scanners, complete with signature capture. MIT�s dock workers would electronically sign for the mountain of packages on the dock that the carrier had just unloaded and scanned. Then they would begin the laborious process of copying tracking numbers, final recipients� names, campus delivery locations, etc. by hand onto slips of paper. Staging and logging took hours. If a professor would question whether a delivery was made to his lab, the shipping clerks would spend hours sorting through slips of paper held together with rubber bands.
It took a lot of time and effort to convince the powers that be that the manual system was inefficient, expensive and nothing short of embarrassing. After all, it�s MIT! But eventually, the Mail Services management was able to win the accountants over to its side, convincing them that it needed an internal inbound tracking system.
Mail Services management visited several vendor shows, both national and regional, and spent a good deal of time at each vendor�s booth. When vendors hear you are truly in the market, they will be happy to answer any and all questions. You can find out a lot about each company and its products. And once you�ve narrowed the field down a bit, you definitely will want the potential suppliers to visit you and your docks. After thoroughly discussing your needs, take the sales people on a tour of the docks. Have the dock workers talk with them about what they want to see in a system. Then, and only then, should the sales people come back with a proposed system of hardware and software.
When the proposals start rolling in, they will all claim to have the best software, the greatest hardware, the most thorough training. It would be easy to read the bottom line and then choose strictly on price � but that could lead to disaster. Here are some other things, besides price, to consider:
How financially strong is the company itself? How long has it been in business? How long has it been in the data-collection business? Does it understand shipping, or is it a software/hardware company that tacked on inbound shipment tracking to its data collection product?
Also, consider the people with which you would work. Are they going to disappear after the sale? How committed to training are they? What support do they provide? How easy is it to get a hold of a technician either in person or over the phone � even if it�s months or years after installation?
One of the best indications of a supplier�s commitment to after-sale service is how much time and effort it is willing to spend in the planning stage. The company that won MIT�s bid flew in a full team of trainers and technicians to several on-campus meetings well before the hardware and software were delivered. Day-long meeting may be tough, but they prevent serious problems down the road.
Include your own IT people from the start. They are crucial in setting up the system and in keeping it functioning. Those downloads of personnel files from HR are absolutely critical in making the system work. If the system�s database is carrying outmoded information, it is pretty much useless.
Just as important is including the people from your HR department from the start. They are the ones who keep track of new employees, retirees, terminations, etc. They usually are the ones who have the information on where each employee is housed in your organization. If they don�t, work with the Telecom people. They really know where people are: Someone can forget to notify HR or Mail Services when changing offices, but no one forgets to call about moving the phone service.
Try to get loaners as demos as much as possible. Running the hardware and software through the �real world� of the dock exposes both strengths and weaknesses of both. This testing can save you the agony of discovering that the system that looked so good on the trade show floor is not going to work on your dock.
Make sure your dock workers and delivery personnel are involved with the testing and evaluation of the equipment. Their input can be invaluable � they see the little hitches and glitches that those of us in the office may overlook. And those hitches and glitches can make or break a system.
Grill each bidder on how it plans to implement the system. They all will say they�ll train everyone thoroughly, but just how do they plan to do that? Meet the people who will be doing the training. Talk to them. Find out just how they plan to teach. If their idea of �training� is to sit at the computer with fingers flying, talking geekspeak in front of dazed dock workers, you don�t want them.
Make sure your people will be learning �hands on.� Even trainers who fully intend to train by having the dock workers do the computer entries sometimes end up at the keyboard, often encouraged to do so by nervous trainees who are a bit intimidated by the technology.
Today, the docks at MIT still aren�t on the same technological level as the research labs across the street. But at least they are as up to date as the carriers bringing in the packages.
Penny Guyer, CMM, CMDSM, manages mailing and shipping operations for the western region of USBancorp. She is also editor of Parcel Shipping & Distribution. She can be reached by e-mail at