“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”


There are times, lately called tipping points, when some facet of culture, the economy or our personal lives when a shift takes place and one thing or one way of doing something totally replaces another.  Looking for indications of one of those shifts could be  a full-time occupation; there have been more tipping points at the end of the 20th century and in the 21st century than any previous time in history.  The process of social evolution is fundamental part of human society; every era has its own new and novel technologies and inventions that change the way people live or do things – agriculture, cities, steam, fossil fuels and mechanical mass production were all turning or tipping points for all human society.  It sometimes took a thousand years or more before the next major advance occurred – but that has changed.  The rate of introduction of new technologies is accelerating dramatically and that has increased the rate of change in ordinary lives; nowhere is that more visible than in the way we communicate.   Just twenty-five or thirty years ago, we could send letters or telegrams, we could use the telephone or visit; the three basic communication systems, US Postal Service, Western Union and Bell Telephone were simple, slow and not always easy to use.  Two of them were only available on normal work days and work hours and any one of them might break down leaving no way to send a message or communicate for hours or even days.

In 2011, you can call a land line or a cell phone, send a letter, telegram, twitter, fax, email, text, post a message on Facebook, YouTube or MySpace –  we carry around with us devices that will receive most of those messages at any time of the day or night without delay or disruption.  The full time communication has become fundamental to the way we conduct business and live our private lives and it is reshaping and restructuring all of human society.    Instant and constant communication have been instrumental in organizing revolutions and riots and it has been instrumental in the demise of older ways of communication.  Telegrams and normal (snail mail) letters are rapidly going the way of dodo – into extinction.

The United States Postal Service is a very large organization, second only to Wal-Mart in the number of people it employs; however that is about to change.  Over the next few years through attrition and layoffs the postal service wants to reduce its workforce by at least a third, close nearly 4000 post offices and reduce the number of days mail is delivered; in the second quarter it lost $3 billion and is in default on $5 billion in employee benefits.  The postal service has been in trouble for a long time, as old as the country itself, the US Postal Service may not survive the decade.  Increasing the cost of sending a letter, reducing delivery days, closing post offices and laying people off will not solve the problems  – nothing with solve the problems.  That is because the root cause is the Internet and cell phones and not the postal system itself.  We don’t need or use the post office system any more; but we used it more this year than we will next year – and we will use it less every year thereafter.  Can you imagine trying to organize a revolution, riot or a political campaign in 2012 using the United States mail?

There is a challenge in this story – it is a challenge for the post office and for us.  At some point when dramatic shifts are taking place we have to recognize it and start to reshape our thinking.   Like the economy, in the aftermath of the economic meltdown the majority of people waited for things to return to “normal.”  Years later, it is clear that the normal of 2006 is not the normal of 2012.  Using any business model from 2006  is certain to lead to failure in 2012 (although some technology industry have continued to grow using the plans of the pre-recession era).  So, coming back to the postal service, a new model is needed.   The postal service is not going to find any simple, easy fix – it is going to have to be rethought and redesigned.  What purpose can it serve?  It might be a package delivery service and join the others in that business, it might specialize in delivering door-to-door advertising, or in legal announcements requiring proof of receipt or it might specialize in holiday and special occasion deliveries – a birthday card or Christmas card by email is not the same is it?  I really don’t have any good ideas about what the post office might become, but I am very certain about what it cannot become or be, ever again – the countries second largest employer and the custodian of all interpersonal communication in the nation – that position has floated into cyberspace.



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August 2011
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