Postal Mail in the Shadow of Email

Postal mail and electronic mail have coexisted for years, sitting next to one another in an uneasy tension. That was so thirty years ago, as it is this year. Two recent posts — one from Robert Cannon, and one from Randall Stross — offered a quick reminder about how that tension has evolved.

Robert Cannon is affectionately known as “list-serve Mom” to those of us who subscribe to his list serve about telecommunications policy. Perhaps he is as well known for the web page, a goto site for any serious scholar of telecom policy — and that pertains to both its main threads, as well as explanations for the vast arcana and detritus of telecommunications law in the United States.

His most recent post celebrates a now long forgotten chapter of the US postal service, when it first tried to offer electronic mail as a service. The tale is amusing for its absurdities. The USPS initiated its own email service known as E-COM ; and briefly considered banning all private email service. We all know how this turned out, of course, but this is still worth a read – not due to the ending, but due to the journey. Cannon’s summary (a few paragraphs down the page) provides a good laugh.

More deeply, this examples provides an excellent illustration for how existing organizations interpret new technologies through known archictectural lenses, insisting on implimenting the invention in ways destined to fail in the market. The frontier technical aspects presents no problem. Rather, the right business and organizational processes for creating the most value do not yet exist, and the organization cannot find a way to work towards a sensible approach.

While you are on the topic follow Cannon’s article with Digital Domain, Randall Stross’ Sunday column for the New York Times. I have been a fan of Stross’ columns for years. Every few weeks he has 800 words to play with, which is not much real estate. Yet, he combines a reporter’s eye for details and a historian’s flair for storytelling,and he surprises me frequently with the variety of digital topics he covers.

(Truth be told, some years back he also quoted me in a column. I also cannot complain about that.)

The  October 2 column focused on the Postal service today, an organization with half a million employees and the largest fleet of vehicles of any organization in the world. Unfortunately, the organization also faces a mismatch between its present cost structure and the revenue it generates. The USPS may lose as much as $10 B this year.

Stross has fun comparing the USPS to the Pony Express, which had an easy time going out of business once the telegraph emerged. The postal service will not have an easy time, not if their employees have any say in it. He also quotes some public remarks by representatives of the postal union, which makes them appear out of touch with reality. Read the column yourself, and have a good laugh.

There is a deeper issue underneath it all, and I thought the lack of space did not serve Stross well. He raised the question, but did not have time to fully address it. In brief, the Postal service has seen this coming for years. If we are to believe Robert Cannon retelling, some managers in the Postal service saw this coming more than three decades ago. The problem is not lack of foresight.

Rather, for many US residences the universal postal service fills an important niche in their daily lives, while for many others, especially those who are digitally savvy, the postal service is irrelevant, as useless as the Pony Express. But those are just the extremes. I would venture to guess that most US residences fall somewhere in the middle, take for granted the postal service’s reach and ubiquity, able to live without the mail on any given day, but requiring it from time to time. Everyday a few more people switch out of this middle category and into the digitally savvy one, inexorably reducing the economic viability of the Postal service as presently constructed.

Look, even starting from scratch, it would be challenging to structure a postal service that both met the country’s various needs and covered its costs, and retailed the flexibility to change as demand continues to shift. The complexity of these restructuring issues boggle the mind, however, once these are set next to the scale of existing processes, equipment and employees.

I love email as much as the next person, and perhaps even more. And I would not want to get rid of email just to save a few dollars at the post office. But, argh, coming face to face with restructuring yields an unpleasant picture of reality. This mess will cost us all, and for many years to come.

2 Replies to “Postal Mail in the Shadow of Email”

  1. I wonder if the USPS could create different divisions for business and personal. I might pay more for some type of boutique stamping process required to deliver gorgeous handmade items and letters. I seem to use the traditional post for cards and letters only — of course personal stuff is always handwritten and unique, so it probably does cost more (maybe even require human intervention) to read and code the delivery address. I still love to send and receive handwritten notes through the post.

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