Archive for the ‘community’ Category

The US Post Office has it all wrong!

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Three or four times a year, I have to go to my local post office to send a registered letter or collect a package. Joe the Grump is always there, waiting for me, anxious to point out the mistake I made filling in my form and eager to send me back to the end of the line.

In my few moments of wounded altruism, I can even understand why he’s angry. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has just announced it is considering closing 700 branches to stem its losses ($7 B this fiscal year). The New York Times reports that mail dropped by 9.5 billion pieces last year and may drop another 28 billion pieces this year (total volume is 203 billion pieces). So, USPS management is shutting down physical infrastructure and laying off people. It may not be good news for Joe the Grump, but at long last, the postal administration appears to be behaving like a business. What’s wrong with that?

Plenty, actually. In fact, the USPS is squandering a historic opportunity. The current “lights out” strategy misses out on the fact that owning a physical space staffed with local people in the center of every city, town or village in America is a huge asset, at a time where local community activities are making a come-back. Local post offices could be the heart of those local communities. The first wave of community activity was Internet-based, relying on eBay, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. A second generation of communities is emerging, based on live people meeting in physical spaces at the local level. Food is becoming local. So is politics. Working far from home is so 20th century. Mutualism is back in. Economies of scale are out. So is globalism. Proximity is the new cool. Who could be better placed to orchestrate this human mobilization than the local post office?

We make fun of postal employees because we care about them. In truth, we cherish our (sometimes) friendly mail man, and like the notion of a local business staffed by local people who live among us (even you, Joe). The bank employee or the grocery store clerk rotates every two years, but the teller employee at the post office will be there forever. Greed will not overtake him. Service will remain affordable. Most of the time (when the line is not too long), we love the post office’s egalitarian approach to serving rich and poor citizens alike. In many countries, the post office is the place of last refuge for immigrants and older people. Perhaps post offices represent the socialistic edge of our ruthlessly capitalistic conscience.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more, here’s my thought on how this might actually work. The post office could become a physical place of exchange for goods and services, more like eBay or a farmer’s market. Local markets are notoriously inefficient, and the post office could orchestrate supply and demand for baby-sitting, cleaning and math tutoring services. Many businesses are too small to afford a physical space (local farmers, businesses run from home), but could use the building or parking lot of these post offices on week-ends. Larger, out-of-town companies are always looking for affordable points of distribution to deliver goods to local markets, or cost-effective gathering points for mobile phone and computer repair services, for example. But you have to go look for them.

The unleashing of such community forces would have to come from employees of local post offices. USPS’ top management would have no clue about local markets, but local post office employees would know which local suppliers they should help export to other parts of the country, or what products could profitably be imported and sold locally. Each post office would become a node in a country-wide marketplace where postal employees act as enablers of local commerce, rather than frustrated bureaucrats in a dying business.

This might even bring a smile on the face of Joe the Grump.

Leadership sucks

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I never got the leadership thing. Leadership is the number one issue in most manager surveys. It is the most prominently featured section in managerial magazines. Leadership professors engage adoring HR fans in parsing out the differences between leadership and management. It is the star program in every executive education program. The parables of leadership – particularly those involving polar bears or movable cheese – take on messianic virtue. But none of this stuff ever does anything for me. I clearly suffer from leadership impairment, and it feels pretty lonely out there.

Until yesterday that is. At the end of the day, I ran across an article in the latest Harvard Business Review by Henry Mintzberg, the ever-young professor of strategy and organization at McGill University.

Suddenly, I have a Sherpa, someone who describes the world I live in. Mintzberg’s thesis: leadership sucks. O.K., I may be editorializing a little, but it’s the idea. To him, the US model of leadership, with its top-down, hero-at-the-helm iconography bears no resemblance to the way successful organizations actually work. His view: good managers foster the building of communities inside their organization and engage their employees in a collective process that starts with single innovative projects, and eventually shapes the enterprise as a whole. In the end, it is about communities doing meaningful things together, not fungible individuals who transact with their leader in the accomplishment of tasks. He suggests substituting “communityship” for “leadership.” (Henry, give me a call, I think I can help you a tad with your conceptual marketing.)

The use of the concept of community as it applies to organizational dynamics inside the organization is the new story here. We have long argued that co-creation with communities applies both outside the company – the more traditional marketing-oriented definition of community – and inside the organization – the way Mintzberg describes it. These are two sides of the same coin, an uncomfortable reality for marketing and HR people who think of themselves as having wildly different expertise (knowing “markets” vs. knowing “people,” but failing to realize that markets involve people too). Management is about communities, and there is no essential difference between building a customer community or an employee community.

There’s something annoying about Canadians like Mintzberg. On one end, they’re very much American, er, North American, that is. On the other, they have that “I’m looking at your menagerie from outside the cage” quality, with its vaguely socialistic, French-influenced hauteur. The only problem is they’re often right.