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Navigating the Freight Intermodal Landscape: A Journey with Dr Sandra Gertenbach

Dr Sandra Gertenbach, a recent doctoral graduate from The DaVinci Institute, is fuelled by a fervent drive for investigating and resolving complex problems, culminating in her achievement of the apex qualification. In a candid conversation with DaVinci, Dr Sandra shares insights into her journey and research endeavours.

To embark on the expansive journey of knowledge, delving into the intricate depths of understanding, requires a curious spirit. Such a spirit is exemplified in our latest doctoral graduate, Dr Sandra Gertenbach, whose curiosity, discipline and tenacity “to keep at it”, as she puts it, propelled her forward. In fact, having followed this dedicated process of unpacking insights, as it were, this led to her realisation that the overall high cost of logistics, freight system imbalances and inefficiencies detract from South Africa’s competitiveness.

Thus, Dr Sandra surmises that improved freight intermodalism has the potential to advance the performance of the transport and logistics system – a view shaped throughout the decades while employed by Transnet SOC Ltd (1987-2021).

Having said that, Dr Sandra concluded her career in the position of Executive Manager, Strategy & Business Planning – Transnet Freight Rail (TFR), a subsidiary at Transnet. She possesses extensive experience in strategy development and implementation; in her career, Dr Sandra has also held various positions in the areas of strategy, business planning, customer service, market positioning, stakeholder management, strategic research, and communications.

At a certain juncture, Dr Sandra redirected her trajectory to concentrate on project work and academic pursuits, ultimately earning her Doctor of Management in Technology and Innovation, a milestone she remarkably accomplished in September 2023.

Dr Sandra’s thesis, having been informed and influenced by her illustrious career at Transnet, entitled – “Imperatives for the Advancement of Freight Intermodalism in South Africa: A Systems Thinking Approach” – its chief objective was to explore why the adoption of a systems thinking paradigm and the collective interactions between willing freight intermodal system actors, could contribute to the development of intermodalism for national outcomes.

Concurrently, the “study explores why intermodal freight practices are not being developed and implemented and why the system performs at a sub-optimal level with very negative consequences for the country”, Dr Sandra says, and notes in addition: “The topic is viewed as a national development priority for South Africa’s freight logistics industry.” Having completed the research, a pivotal discovery emerged, emphasising the potential for progress through collaborative efforts and targeted interventions aimed at enhancing crucial interfaces among system components. Discussions within focus groups underscored the eagerness of key players to join forces, cooperate, and coordinate their actions to propel the system's purpose and performance towards transformative outcomes.

Interactions among actors, as Dr Sandra accords, should aim for the co-creation of priority interventions, collectively executed for the enhancement of the country's freight system.

This study holds significance for application within the freight intermodal industry, involving system actors, policymakers, academics, and advocates alike. Dr Sandra is of the view that enhancing freight intermodal practices is crucial for the nation's benefit, fostering competitiveness, efficiency, supply chain resilience, and the optimal utilisation and maintenance of transport infrastructure. She further argues that the competitiveness of the freight intermodal system holds the potential to elevate economic performance, promote environmental sustainability, and enhance the well-being of the people of South Africa.

In the pursuit of knowledge, one invariably acquires a treasury of insights and lessons, for learning is the compass that guides a thoughtful journey. Which is why then, when asked about this path, Dr Sandra renders a comprehensive account, stating thus: “My journey in the development of this thesis can best be described in terms of a cycle of discovery, learning and oscillating confidence. My research aim was always clear in my mind, an issue that has intrigued and motivated me for years. I started slowly, building knowledge of systems thinking tools and methods. Throughout the journey, I conducted a documentary analysis and attended various transport forums to stay abreast of critical freight industry developments in South Africa and globally that could impact our system. Conducting interviews and focus groups was an enlightening and turning point in building momentum to analyse and communicate the findings. Bringing it all together to complete my final document was an intense period of highly focussed work and before I knew it, I found myself anxiously waiting for external examiner results. The contribution of examiner and oral defence panellist views provided further insights for refinement of my final document. I had to learn to trust the process and stick to it, which became enlightening as each new insight was revealed.”

Ever insightful and generous in thought, Dr Sandra states accordingly: “What started as a fascination with systems thinking approach became an ongoing quest to better understand the tools and principles of the discipline. I view systems thinking as an insightful way to view our complex and dynamic world from many transdisciplinary perspectives to develop multiple possible outcomes. The study has also compelled me to objectively question and re-evaluate my belief in the role of rail in advancing freight logistics practices such as intermodalism. Reading and ongoing discussions, with a growing network of peers, have helped me to make sense of trends and to seek possible options towards discovering original recommendations that would apply to the realities of the current South African context. At the same time, I have been encouraged by the resilience and collective efforts of South Africans in times of adversity. My academic journey has also heightened my awareness of the consequential and interconnected nature of everything and the lasting impact of current interventions on sustainability for future generations. We all need to think deeply about the impact of our actions and behaviours on others. I remain committed to contributing to the future of South Africa in any small way that I may be able to, and to share what I have learned with others so that together we may develop new and innovative behaviours, competencies and practices.”

Speaking of making a meaningful contribution in South Africa and her willingness to impart knowledge acquired, upon the completion of her studies, Dr Sandra informs DaVinci of having accepted the challenge of taking up an offered position in government as a transport specialist where she hopes to contribute towards national goals for the logistics industry.

“I hope to continue to present occasional lectures and presentations in the transport discipline, and to hone my skills in writing to enable publication of my views. I would also like to support bright young South Africans in their academic and career efforts. There is much talent, and it must be encouraged and nurtured in the interest of our country”, remarks Dr Sandra.

To those venturing into the academic journey, Dr Sandra imparts the following pearls of wisdom: “Build a deep appreciation for your research philosophy – it guides the whole research journey of discovery. Keep working at it a little every day to build insights and clarity. Build relationships with peers, your librarian and, of course, with your supervisor.”


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