Q&A: CIO Ross Philo On 'Post Office' In Your Home

In a tough business environment, the U.S. Postal Service is delivering new capabilities for home PCs and smartphones and new services for high-volume mailers, says its top IT executive.
InformationWeek: One of the first things Vivek Kundra did as federal CIO was put an IT Dashboard into place. Have you gone through the exercise of evaluating the performance of your IT projects?

Philo: It's worth reiterating that the Postal Service is not supported by tax dollars and isn't considered to be part of the federal agency group. We're in the quasi-government space between the private sector and being a government agency, so many of the things that the administration requests we do not necessarily need to take on board. I would say when you compare the Postal Service to other government agencies, based on research we've done and the audits that we've had, we are extremely cost competitive and cost effective compared to the private sector and government agencies to the point where the percentage we spend on IT compared to other agencies is five times less. When you compare us to our competitors to other posts around the world, we are by far more cost competitive.

What we are working on in terms of a dashboard is to provide greater transparency and information back to our internal customers on the progress of projects in relation to being on budget and on time. We do have portfolio managers, in effect divisional CIOs almost, interacting between the business units and IT in order to provide those customers with detailed feedback on the progress of their key projects. We have a very well developed skill set in terms of program management. For us now, it's really a question of how can we create some headroom within our overall budget in order to drive more transformational enterprise-wide programs without an increase in IT funding. When you're already one of the most cost effective organizations in terms of IT, it's a challenge to bring that cost down even further in order to create that investment headroom for new initiatives.

InformationWeek: What are your most pressing priorities?

Philo: The top three probably summarize the challenges within the Postal Service. The first is to create much more of a virtual organization. The Postal Service is headquartered in Washington D.C. and there's a tendency to rely on D.C. as the center of our universe. What I believe we can do through IT is to create much more of a virtual organization where we can tap into local resources more effectively. We've got a huge challenge in terms of attracting good talent. The IT organization in the Postal Service is second to none; for new computer graduates, it's a great place to get exposure to a scope of things you can rarely find in a private company. So leveraging technology to bring work to where people are and link our various operations nationally in terms of creating more a virtual organization is a high priority.

A second thing is to create a more paperless society. That speaks to green IT initiatives, but it's also a change in behavior--providing information online to people more effectively, as well as changing processes that are fundamentally paper based. As you can imagine, in many organizations with the kind of history that we've got, processes still are related to their original paper form. We can streamline those processes further by moving more of that into a self service and online environment.

The other would be distilling information down to actionable information for our business in order to facilitate faster, more effective decision making. We have reams of data. When you're managing one of the largest intranets in the world and handling 200 billion pieces of mail per year and tracking it through the system, you generate huge amounts of data. What we need to do is be able to provide our business and plant managers with the ability to get a quick overview of how their operations are running and to take corrective action, as well as to provide a process when it comes to making good business decisions.

InformationWeek: Do you have new business intelligence projects underway?

Philo: We've got a pretty extensive enterprise data warehouse already, with a number of business intelligence tools linked to that. Part of the challenge there is to provide a more integrated and holistic view of that data and to make it accessible in a more user-friendly manner. We've got some great partners where we're looking to see how we can integrate those data stores in a way that we can provide a more enterprise-wide view of activities as opposed to a functional view, as has been done historically.

InformationWeek: You mention a paperless society. To what extent does that apply to the services you provide the public?

Philo: I'm obviously referring to our internal processes. From a business perspective, we need to ensure that the mail remains relevant, as I believe it does. It's tailored, targeted and timely in terms of getting a message to a user, far more so than any electronic medium.