aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Lessons from the Illinois River Barges

Posted by Ellen on May 26, 2009


We spent the days leading up to Memorial Weekend along the Illinois River, hiking and biking, and — ever curious — learning all kinds of things beyond the essentials of living in a very small space.

For example… after watching the barges from the Starved Rock State Park bluffs, we ventured out to watch them close up, calling out questions to the workers on the barges — who traded info by asking us for our local restaurant recommendations (in the great tradition that is “knowledge sharing”). We knew how the locks worked that got the tugs and barges safely around the dam and from one level of river to the next.

What amazed us was how carefully fitted the barges and locks are: cabled together to float three abreast, the first tug we watched maneuver the lock pushed two rows of three each — six barges. Some were empty, the bargeman told us (okay, that’s probably not his official title). “It’s been slow,” he said.


Like clockwork, as soon as that load was through the lock, the next tug lined up. We watched, mesmerized. The patience and experience it took for the captain to steer his nine barges into place was inspiring to watch. And as we watched, we realized that the lock didn’t look big enough to hold nine barges and the tug.

barges2 barges3

So we watched the tug position the float of barges, then reverse out of the way of the gates. “How will they get the barge out of the lock without the tug to push it?” we asked a man whose job it was to rope the barges securely to the side of the lock. “Cable,” he called back, pointing to the side of the lock. “It’s along here.”

Sure enough, they secured a cable to the side of the barge, then used a sort of dockside winch to pull the cable — and the barge — through the gates when they opened. Now the tug would come through, reconnect with its float of barges, and go on down the river (or maybe up the lazy river).

It occurred to me that each barge captain had a decision to make regarding his cargo. The first captain opted for six barges — less cargo (and likely less money to haul it) meant his tug and barges made it through the lock at the same time. The second captain opted for nine barges — more cargo (and likely more money), but it also meant he had to navigate the lock twice — which took more time. Each captain had to decide which was the better financial decision: more cargo, more lost time… or less cargo, but a better pace?

Too often we think we know the best way to go with our online learning — something that seems to be the obvious choice might not be the best choice at all.

For example, are you thinking through all the best reasons to hire a Webinar production company, versus doing it yourself? Are you assuming that because products like Rapid Intake’s ProForm make it so easy to create a stand-alone course that it’s really the best answer for you?

Think about what’s most important (time or cargo load, if you’re a tug captain)… so you can use your resources as efficiently as possible, too. Remember: time is never a free resource. Just because your staff members aren’t paid the way consultants are paid doesn’t mean they work for free. Are you using their time to your best advantage? Their skills? If you’re not, then you’re wasting money. You’re wasting your members’ dues and your sponsors’ donations. worse than that, you’re wasting your staff members’ talents, which — eventually — can compel them to jump ship.

Just as the tug captains factor in the time it will take to get through the locks as they haul their cargo along the river, you need to consider time as a resource, too. Don’t wait. Start today. Time’s  a-wastin’!


One Response to “Lessons from the Illinois River Barges”

  1. Mulch said

    Good points…I would note that as someone who really doesn’t write on blogs much (in fact, this may be my first post), I don’t think the term “lurker” is very flattering to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault in the least , but perhaps the blogosphere could come up with a better, non-creepy name for the 90% of us that enjoy reading the posts.

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