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USPS Tries on Role of Technology Startup to Stay Relevant

ARLINGTON, Va. – As it looks to reposition its business in the Internet era, the U.S. Postal Service needs to embrace new technologies and move aggressively with trials of experimental products and services, according to the agency’s top tech executive.

In remarks this week at the annual PostalVision 2020 conference, USPS Chief Information Officer Jim Cochrane described his efforts at the cash-strapped agency as working broadly “to keep mail relevant in an increasingly digital age.”

“Mail in particular has got threats, and the threats are digital, and the world around us is increasingly digital,” Cochrane said.

Cochrane offered a frank assessment of the challenges the Postal Service faces, particularly the sustained decline of its most profitable product – First Class Mail – while rejecting doomsday predictions, like the suggestion that the agency would collapse were it not for the shipping business that’s been buoyed by the growth of ecommerce.

“Rumors of our demise are much exaggerated,” he said. “Mail is an important part of our business, and something we’re very bullish on.”

At the same time, Cochrane emphasized the need to move aggressively on efforts to reshape the business and marry the physical world with the digital, while working continuously to improve services to keep pace with rising consumer expectations.

“Customers’ needs are changing dramatically,” he said.

He recalled the Postal Service’s recent efforts to improve its tracking services, which now update the status on the USPS website and can push out a text message confirming delivery within about three minutes from the final scan. Cochrane said his team is working to get that window down to zero, but it still represents a huge improvement over the previous system, one that has yielded significant dividends for the business.

“We would not have had the growth curve we’ve had on packages if we hadn’t fixed the tracking,” he said. “I was on enough sales calls when people said, ‘Look, I’m not giving you a $700 iPhone and not knowing you delivered it for five hours.'”

Cochrane also pointed to other efforts underway at the Postal Service to expand its menu of services, such as Sunday package delivery, the Metro Post same-day delivery service, and grocery delivery, which the Postal Service now offers in four cities.

Metro Post, while still a tiny fraction of the Postal Service’s overall revenue, served a separate purpose, which was to help refine and prove out the concept of dynamic routing, according to Cochrane. In each of its new service trials, the Postal Service has been looking to run more like a technology startup than it has historically had the risk tolerance for.

“Test it and fail, and fail fast, but test it,” Cochrane said. “That’s a change in our culture.”

Then, looking ahead, the Postal Service is planning expand the tech-driven program it’s calling Informed Visibility (IV), an initiative through which Cochrane’s team aims to get a more holistic, real-time picture of virtually every facet of the far-flung USPS operations.

That includes end-to-end monitoring of mail and packages, smarter processing facilities and dynamic delivery routing. Predictive analytic capabilities could help achieve a leaner, more efficient allocation of technical resources, and tracking tools deployed across the fleet of vehicles could help supervisors identify when a driver is taking an overly long break in the McDonald’s parking lot.

That all sounds a little like “Big Brother’s watching,” Cochrane acknowledged, “but that’s okay.”

“We think analytics can really drive the physical world. We want to be an information-driven enterprise,” he said. “That’s really the future for us – using information to become more targeted.”

Kenneth Corbin on Linkedin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn.