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Digitization: Making the post office meaningful again

Evan Schuman | June 17, 2015
Postal executives see digitization as their salvation. But can anything save the USPS at this stage?

Of all of the digitization projects in the industry, the most significant might be the one being tackled by the U.S. Postal Service. As an entity, the USPS is getting hit from all sides, with new technologies and competitors impinging on all the things we used to rely on the post office for.

Letter writing has already been usurped by email and texting. Online alternatives seem poised to kill off bill paying by mail. Junk mail, which kept the USPS solvent for years, is being undercut by much cheaper email spam. The catalogues that once weighed down postal carriers are now being distributed as PDFs. And packages, one of the few remaining USPS cash cows left, are getting beaten up by FedEx, UPS and other distribution systems, all of which offer far more detailed and accurate tracking systems.

Postal executives see digitization as their salvation. But can anything save the USPS at this stage?

James Cochrane, who until a few weeks ago was the USPS CIO and who now serves as the USPS chief marketing officer, argues that digitization can and will make the difference. First of all, the USPS is embedded in every neighborhood throughout the U.S. in a way that no one else comes close to. It commands a 617,000-person workforce and runs the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world (more than 211,000 vehicles).

From Cochrane's perspective, nothing can match that. USPS IT operations has a 38-petabyte database, managed by 3,000 different systems, 300,000 mobile devices — all of which are used to track more than 1.5 billion events every day. Not to mention protecting Santa Clause from the legal system.

For example, Cochrane's boss, Postmaster General Megan Brennan, is preparing a program called Real Mail Notification. It will message consumers exactly when their mail will arrive and what will be in it. The idea: make mail delivery an event that people look forward to.

Cochrane argues that much of email is distracting and that, by comparison, the infinitely more constrained physical mail delivery is a relaxing breather.

"Can we enhance the value of mail? The speed of email is true, but email gets crowded. We're inundated on the digital side. Being messaged this much is a bit overwhelming," he said in a Computerworld interview. The mail offers a "more targeted and passive way of approaching consumers. You have that moment when you go through your mail."

What about those digital ways of bill paying, promising greater convenience, speed and lower costs? Getting physical bills in the mail "is how customers still want to cut through all of that clutter. They are used to that routine of putting bills on their desk or however they pay that bill," Cochrane said.


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