Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lack of Liaison

I appreciate “liaison,” as in, “making sure needed information is shared…”

From February 1954 Reader's Digest Word Power, definition: Linking up; a bond or union; unity of action between distant parties, as "a close liaison between allies."

The summer after college I kept looking in on the college career center. One day the secretary offered some spelling advice: A lot of people were writing on their resume they engaged in liaison—only they were not spelling liaison properly! On another day she asked me if I would work for a weekend of stocktaking at a clothing store. It turned out several students in succession had been given the address… but then each one in succession hadn’t shown up to apply for the job, and the employer was getting frustrated, phoning the college to ask, “Where is he?” I was reliable and non-lazy, so I went on down and made some cash.

It seems to me some folks are lazy about looking for work, others lazy about spelling and still others, even if it’s a new business buzzword, are too lazy to “liaison.” I have a keen interest in liaison, in communication, because for as long as I can remember my family has been “liaison challenged.” How frustrating—but hey, that’s relatives for you.

At Home
A few years ago my brother Patrick was in town, staying at a hotel, at the western edge of the city. And early one morning my brother Jim drove west to Dad’s place, picked up Dad, and proceeded to west to Pat’s hotel, a block from the ocean, just as the song birds were starting to awaken. The problem? They hadn’t properly informed Patrick of their plans, nor communicated with Pat to learn his hotel room number or room telephone number: They could neither call nor, not knowing the room, knock on the window, while of course there was no one inside at the front desk that early… So they left the hotel, without Pat, driving back east and up the Fraser River for a day’s drive to my sister’s place, at 140 Mile House—not even a village, just a couple streets. They still hadn’t learned to liaison: If only they called ahead to my sister at her isolated home then she might have baked a cake, or at least made sure there was enough coffee and cream in the house.  I don’t know: Did they just fail to think ahead, or were they lazy, or what?

(...Update: Sis tells me she had to go deliver food she had promised four days previously for a big family thingy on the husband's side, and then bow out to go and be with her surprise relatives)

When it was my turn to stay in a nearby hotel, Dad asked me to drive him to a re-union lunch, for former penitentiary employees. We had to go to the port city of New Westminster, to a part of the city where Dad no longer knew the roads: Things had sure changed since the big old maximum-security prison had been removed. The other streets, surveyed before the Great War, had followed a nice Roman grid system. Not here. I liked how the roofs of some of the tall new condos and apartments seemed to follow the staggered rooflines of “the penn,” or, as we kids called it, “the joint.” Dad and I fruitlessly drove around seeking for the address before I remembered my father’s notorious lack of liaison: Abruptly I thought of how I could get my old man to open up: “Dad, were you told what color this building is?” He had failed to tell me something important—The restaurant we were looking for was in fact in a part of the old penitentiary main block: massive and unmistakable! …

And Abroad
I would have hoped my father would have learned from his young years during the war. All too often he had to watch helplessly from a hill as the allied air force bombed allied troops on another hill. My mother’s opinion was that someone always failed to radio that the hill had been taken, that the news was not passed on. I don’t know.

It was from an earlier world war, I understand, that the French word liaison entered the business world. The best way to ensure that “obvious things” were explained and passed on was to have some one from the French army physically standing in headquarters. He was called a liaison officer. This might seen a waste of manpower, but let’s remember the officers of that war were notorious for not being very bright, while the consequences of “I thought you knew” were very serious.

In peacetime a failure to cooperate is less grave. I’m still chuckling at a company of riflemen coming off a night exercise, filing into a meadow at daybreak where the cook had enough sizzling eggs and bacon to feed an army… and then walking right on by to go to a field firing range. No one had told the cooks about the change in plans. The troops could only drool. As for me, as I trudged by I engaged in the ancient privilege of ground troops—cursing our stupid officers.

At least in today’s peacetime army they have a clue that liaison is important. When a buddy and I were welcomed to the “elite” Canadian Airborne Regiment by an elite captain, he proudly made a point of telling us that in this elite outfit information is passed on… I soon learned he only wished it was so—I ended up grinding my teeth a lot. In fact, I learned to leave the barracks bright and early on our days off—lest I be dragged off for a “training thingy” they had forgotten to tell us about.

In Business
I maintain a keen interest in liaison. How does one prevent a lack of liaison, be it humorous or grave? How might my poor relatives, who are only human, possibly have ever managed to plan ahead, cooperate, have common sense? It was management expert Peter Drucker who said every executive should make it a habit, with every new management decision or project, to ask, “Who needs to be informed?”

A good habit of liaison, I think, can go a long ways towards making up for a lack of common sense or empathy.

Sean Crawford
Habitually looking both ways before I cross the street,
In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

Postscript: A few days after our lunch I thought of a young WWII combat lieutenant, Paul Fussell, author of the heartfelt essay Thank God for the Atom Bomb. When Fussell attended university after the war he met former rear area officers, but never any fellow front line infantry officers. Not one. As for Dad and I—The lunch food was mediocre, and the rest of the people who showed up had been solely office staff: Dad was the only one who had escorted prisoners and walked the guard tower and catwalk. My auntie Flora had been an office worker there, but she has long passed away. We won’t be back.   

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