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Reinventing the Post

October 1, 2013

It is often said that the postal industry is at a cross-roads and the future direction it will take is unclear. Of course this is true and not just of the postal industry. All sectors need to decide what business they are in, who their main markets are and, in short, what they exist for. In fact, all enterprises or organisations need to conduct this kind of ‘strategic review’ on a regular basis, particularly in view of the fast changing environment in which we all live and operate. In general, this is a healthy and productive discussion to have because it provides the opportunity to re-focus our thinking and re-set our goals and priorities.

However, in the postal sector, this debate is often carried out under a heavy cloud, overly influenced by negative indicators, shrinking markets, declining volumes and many people (both inside and out) who are ready to describe it as a ‘sunset’ industry. Whilst the economic and market pressures are indisputable, our reaction to them can be quite different, depending on our perspective.

On the one hand we can be resigned to our fate, which appears to be inevitable, and see how best to manage decline – or, we can look at our assets and capabilities and rediscover new ways to leverage these for businesses, consumers and Governments (often our shareholders). This is a choice we can each make and our choice will then determine our attitude to the challenges we face.

Where we come from
Our reaction to how we view the future does not have to be determined by our experience (or indeed others’ experiences of the past). One reason that the postal world is struggling to grapple with the new world is because it was so much part of the established order of the last few centuries. A well-loved and trusted public body that provided services for citizens, governments and the community – but a body that was also often very traditional in outlook, slow, bureaucratic, monopoly minded and not customer orientated. This is still a widely held perception and many people’s views of the post are locked into this historical picture – hence the terms ‘snail mail’ and dinosaurs are sometimes used in relation to the post.

This backward looking ‘black and white’ (or even sepia) picture of the post office of the past, with a rich heritage but nothing to offer today’s generation actually invites the 21st Century digital enabled world - populated by the new on-line masters of communication through mobiles and the internet - to confine the post to a museum where it will be a matter of social-economic history but with no relevance to today’s generation, except as a source of interesting collectibles and memorabilia. This historical ‘baggage’ is often a real barrier to customers, businesses and Governments adjusting their views to see the possibilities that a modern, and indeed, future post can offer to improve people’s lives, the business economy and the effectiveness of Government services.

Consequently, a priority for those in the sector should be to influence the profile and perception of the post and, wherever possible, change peoples’ thinking about the post. This does not happen overnight and reputation or perception management is often much harder than it would appear. However, for those posts who are re-discovering their mission and vision and reinventing themselves for the new world, it is essential to combine this new image with evidence that begins to change perceptions. This could be about modernising the branding but it has to be much more than that. Customers need to see and feel what it means. It has to be a new and exceptional customer experience that makes people sit up and think – wow, is this really the post office in the digital age! This is the beginning of a ‘reinvention journey’ for the sector.

It is also critically important for the morale and engagement of the people employed in the sector, to have hope for the future of what they are working in. So the possibility of reinvention and the emergence of new ideas and possibilities is a vital life-line for them, too!

Emerging opportunities in the sector
So these are some of the main reasons why I have edited a new book which is being published at Post Expo 2013 in Vienna on 1-3 October, entitled Reinventing the Post that gives a platform to many different views on how the sector is being ‘re-born’ with new possibilities emerging all the time.
Of the few published books that have focused on the postal sector and are more ‘business-oriented’ than academic, most come from a particular context and, from that perspective, provided insights into the future direction of the sector.

Reigning in the Dinosaur was specifically about the turbulent and dramatic evolution of New Zealand Post in the 1980s, whereas Pushing the Envelope, produced by Accenture in May 2004, took a broad sweep across the industry which was already in the midst of considerable change, highlighting trends and opportunities. The three volumes of The Future is in the Post which I co-edited with Dr Kristian Sund and which were published in the 2010, 2011 and 2012, similarly aimed to highlight important perspectives on strategy, transformation and innovation coming from thought leaders all over the world. 

This new volume follows in the same tradition but quite deliberately asks questions such as “what is the future shape and direction of the post?” and “what will be the business of the post in the future?” This is notoriously difficult and dangerous to do because the future is hard to predict and with the additional uncertainties created by current global economic, political, technological and environmental conditions, it is even more uncertain and unpredictable. However, it is also worth re-stating and reminding ourselves here that the major challenges facing the postal industry are very similar to those facing most established sectors, all of which are also affected directly by these mega-trends. No sectors are immune from very major challenges.

One of my strong motivations for compiling the book was exactly for this very reason. So much is uncertain, for all industries and sectors, yet there has been a growing and vocal chorus of voices persistently announcing the imminent death of the post, apparently with great certainty, giving it a rather helpless ‘victim’ mentality that is willing to blame everyone else for the problems it is facing and simply preparing for its inevitable fate, occasionally ‘re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’. As has been said quite often, if the gloomy mantra is repeated often enough then it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the face of these morbid predictions, not everyone in the post is lying down and waiting for the end, many are seizing the opportunities that are there and beginning to shape their own future in new and often surprising ways. This volume gives a platform to these alternative views that describe emergent possibilities and many different ways in which the sector is, as it were, being re-born and literally reinvented for a new generation.

It is often repeated that you ‘can’t reinvent the wheel’ – however, like so many such phrases, it is not true and there are many examples of ‘reinventing the wheel’ of which my favourite is the wheeled suitcase which was only ‘reinvented’ comparatively recently in the history of the wheel. Most old and established concepts can be reinvented and rediscovered in some way for new generations. It is even true that something that is commonly accepted and well known in one part of the world, can be reinvented across the other side of the globe.

For all these reasons, it seemed to be very timely to give this platform to the many voices in the sector that are describing how they see the post developing into the future, in different shapes and directions. Clearly, these ideas are shaped by the perspective from which they are written, which is why I tried to include as many as I could, from different parts of the world and across the postal spectrum, in order to create a broad mosaic or tapestry of ideas. So they are not necessarily consistent with each other, nor will they all be accurate portents of things to come – as will be evident when the book is read in 20 or 50 years’ time. However, my main purpose is to stimulate discussion now along the lines of “what if” and to generate ideas about how to develop the sector and exploit real possibilities, without always being dragged down by prophets of doom. If you work in the postal sector, you may discover a few ‘nuggets’ or ‘sparks of ideas’ in this book, which get you excited about possibilities and thinking about how you can adopt, adapt or build on something that you read here.

Apart from anything else, this is important in order to provide some much needed hope for the many millions of people who work in the postal industry and related sectors. The readers of the new book can reach their own conclusions, but the enthusiasm with which each of the authors responded to the challenge gave me a strong sense of the energy and life that is still there. Incidentally, this is also without any direct contributions from the relatively new but highly flourishing private sector which is growing fast and creating new waves with their innovative thinking and exciting forays into the market. This omission may be partly because they are too busy growing their businesses to be writing chapters for a book! Case studies profiling these new ‘young’ players may well be a good topic for a future volume.

Reinventing the Post – the different themes covered
The book covers six main topics, with the first one focussing more on ‘how’ and ‘to what’ can the post reinvent itself, using customers to help it navigate the future and providing visions of what kind of role or business the post can envisage.

The second section is devoted to what many might call the core business of posts, namely postal delivery, which is increasingly populated with parcels as well as letters. The contributors here show how delivery itself can be seen in new and interesting ways.

The third section concentrates on the opportunities to be considered by building on the historical trust which the posts have enjoyed in view of their unique position in terms of national and government services in the past.

The fourth section addresses the opportunities that exist with the new digital age and how integrated solutions can be identified that use digital technology and build on the traditional physical capabilities of the post.

The fifth section underlines this notion that posts should embrace new technologies and not feel threatened by them, exploring how they can ‘turbo’ charge their business propositions through smart use of technology platforms.

The sixth section faces the wider global challenge of sustainability and looks at this from the postal industry perspective, with some exhortations on how the post can emerge fully sustainably, long into the future. Alongside these are four ‘country’ case studies highlighting examples of reinvention of traditional postal networks in different continents, Europe, Africa and Australia.

In the final section there are two reflective pieces designed to take us back to the future, looking backwards and forwards to see what lessons we may learn.

The aim of the book, and indeed this short article, is to encourage as many people within the sector to be inspired from the many different and interesting ideas and insights that are documented.

In conclusion
In collecting and editing the contributions, over a very wide range of topics and from many different perspectives I was excited to see so many ideas and insights, innovations and developments, each which can contribute to more positive discussions about the future possibilities and opportunities for those involved in the postal sector to explore and pursue.

Like the previous books, this new text can be used as a starting point for discussion or as an easy read text for busy managers to dip into in order to prepare for workshop sessions which could be focussed on different topics, for example, encouraging innovation, developing strategy, changing mind-sets, planning transformational programmes, raising broader awareness of the industry or simply process improvement. If you find interesting and different ways to use the book please let me know. Or if you want ideas then please contact me at derekosborn@whatnext4u.com

*Parts of this article are adapted from the book Reinventing the Post, first published by Libri Publishing on 30 September 2013

October 1, 2013

 

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