To its credit, the Washington-based National Assn. of Manufacturers (NAM) recently rolled out a multi-element trade education campaign. It's aimed at communicating the benefits of international trade to the public and workers at NAM-member companies during 1999. Planned are a targeted advertising campaign, grass roots activities, and a series of studies, surveys, and papers. Manufacturing, acknowledges NAM, needs to do a better job of convincing the general public and its own workers of what's at stake in the highly competitive, unquestionably dynamic global economy. To aid its effort, the NAM has produced an instructive booklet, Trade Really Matters: How Manufacturers Excel in a Global Economy. And from the perspectives of big firms such as Honeywell Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., 3M Co., and Halliburton Co., and such smaller U.S. firms as Hannay Reels Inc. and Bison Gear & Engineering Corp., the booklet leaves no question that doing business beyond U.S. borders is a strategic imperative. Nevertheless, the NAM campaign and others like it -- however laudable their sponsors' intentions -- will fall short on effectiveness. Indeed, there is a danger that, once launched, this and similar programs will lull executives into thinking they've dealt with the "trade-benefits" issue and can turn their attention again to what they believe are "really important" bottom-line concerns. The trade-benefits issue is a really important bottom-line concern -- and, significantly, not only at the strategic level. In fact, I would argue that until manufacturing executives do a far better job of empowering their employees, of giving them the authority and responsibility for being agents of change in developing and sustaining customer relationships, the full potential of their companies' international business strategies will not be realized. Employees, whether in teams or as individuals, on the factory floor or in an office, on the road or operating from home, must be entrusted to interact directly with customers, to learn first-hand about customers' needs and be the first-line providers of solutions to customers' problems. Vision statements, motivational slogans, bar graphs, pie charts, and world maps of where orders are coming from and where products are being shipped simply can't adequately communicate what's at stake in the highly competitive, unquestionably dynamic global economy. But personal contacts with customers can. And do. When contact is made in person or by phone, fax, or e-mail, the customer is no longer a disembodied company that exists somewhere else. When people communicate directly, the business of trade gains value far beyond the numbers in an order book or on a shipment record. I wish I could report to you that the NAM's booklet provides dozens of examples of the kinds of personal stakes in trade that I believe are so critical to success. It doesn't. Indeed, I could find just one example: the way Multiplex Co. Inc., a Ballwin, Mo., maker of beverage-dispensing equipment, makes more time for its global customers. Most of the company's 200 employees work from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8:00 a.m. until noon on Friday -- matching the hours when, even in time zones far away, their customers are working. But having walked many miles through plants and offices as geographically distant as So Paulo and Seoul, and having talked with the people who work in them, I am convinced that better ideas and best practices exist -- and that there are thousands of workers who understand their personal stakes in trade and are eager for additional opportunities to put what they've learned into action. Don't get me wrong; the NAM's booklet is worth reading. For example, you'll come away with a much better feeling for the diversity of companies that are venturing beyond their home markets. And you'll discover some remarkable statistics documenting the speed and extent of their internationalization. But once you've read it, put the booklet down and go talk to your employees. Ask them what they want to do to improve their performance in the global economy -- and then give them the resources to put their ideas into practice.