Context matters

I was browsing the website for the United States Postal Service recently and came across this statement: “The Postal Service is the only organization in the country that has the resources, network infrastructure and logistical capability to deliver to every residential and business address in the nation.”

That brief description got me thinking and led to a compelling question. How is it that the United States Postal Service is not the dominant provider of email to America’s citizens and businesses?

Beyond the typical arguments regarding technology and change at the USPS, such as that they aren’t a technology company, that structural changes are hamstrung by politics and union agreements, etc., I think a key reason that the USPS never became America’s email backbone was because it lacked a contextual reference to drive it in that direction.

Consider the USPS mission statement as outlined in the Postal Reorganization Act:

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.

If in reading this mission statement one focuses on the “correspondence of the people” elements, it would appear that there is a pathway for inclusion of email services to all. However, the focus internally – the real context for internal decision making – is more likely the “provide postal services” portion of the statement. Unfortunately there is no embedded definition for “postal services,” which means you have to look to the operating environment to further clarify the USPS’s contextual framework.

A glance at the offerings of the USPS store finds these products: stamps, shipping supplies, cards & envelopes, and postal-related collectibles and gifts. Postal retail locations also sell these items, plus access to PO Boxes. It would appear that “postal services” very clearly means support of the physical correspondence of the people. The USPS mission and the way in which the mission is executed combine to form the organization’s context.

What is context? Context outlines the boundaries of an institution’s environment; it defines a framework of expectation. A well-understood and relevant context provides a sound basis to assess and react to real performance and changing industry dynamics. Context is defined by the value an institution desires to deliver to stakeholders. For the USPS, “context” is receiving, handling, and delivering physical/tangible messages and packages.

So… what if the context of the USPS was all about exploring avenues for facilitating the “correspondence of the people” rather than “providing postal services?” How might the USPS be a different organization today? Would they have embraced new avenues for the delivery of correspondence? If so, it is quite possible that they could have driven themselves to become the engine behind all US digital communication.

Of course the point of this post really isn’t about the US Postal Service. Rather, it is to illustrate how incredibly important context truly is – and how it defines the way in which institutions think about and respond to challenges and opportunities. An effective context drives institutions forward. An ineffective, closed-in context is constricting.

We have quite a few debates raging today about credit union context both at the industry level and at the level of individual institutions. Glatt Consulting sees questions like these debated almost every day: Are credit unions lending institutions? Are credit unions savvy players in consumer and business credit markets? Are credit unions branch-based, neighborhood institutions? Are they facilitators of digital commerce? Are credit unions driven by cooperative principles?

As credit unions leaders debate future strategy, at industry and institutional levels, all should take steps to remember the overarching context that informs strategic decision making. At the same time, however, all should carefully consider whether context must change to accommodate a changing world lest we look back years from now and wonder what could have been.

Tom Glatt Jr

Tom Glatt Jr

Tom Glatt, Jr. is founder of Glatt Consulting, a credit union consulting firm specializing in strategy consulting for credit union leaders. Tom applies his 19 years’ experience in the credit ... Web: Details