An interview with Maya Calderon, VP of Innovation and Business Development for the Israel Postal Company since late 2018.
Innovation management is a rather new type of role. What was your path in becoming the VP of Innovation for the Israel Postal Company?
I believe in the triangle of strategic connection between technology, business and design. Throughout my career, this understanding led me to seek for early integration between understanding the full life cycle of the client journey and the business model, with technology as the enabler. Over the years, I have dealt with bringing different domains together. For example, between cities and services, cities and communities, connecting various things that do not usually belong together. I worked with multinational companies on rewriting their brand narrative, directing the customer experience towards holistic experiences that cover the full life cycle, at each touchpoint with the brand. In the academy, as the Head of the Design, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Masters Program, I taught a central course which was all about working with the students on real projects with national companies like Maccabi Health Care or Israel’s National Police and designing innovative solutions for their strategic needs. This foundation gave me a natural stepping stone to a corporate innovation role.
Design thinking is a method that’s closely related to innovation. Would you say that your path to an innovation role had to do with your background in design as well?
The techniques articulated in “The Design of Business” Martin published in 2009 are what we practically did during my time at the Rockwell Group in the early 2000s, without labeling or naming it. It was actually in full practice. The construction of a narrative that is end-to-end and encompasses the experience of a customer was manifested in the projects I did for global companies in the hospitality industry and, in particular, for the Walt Disney Museum in Seattle. This led me to the understanding that, in order to create unique and sustainable outcomes, you first have to identify the real issue to be solved or the experience you want your customer to leave with. This work made me realize that innovation is closely related to customer experience and oftentimes has to start with its design.
How does one bring all of this experience and passion for the customer experience and introduce it into a state-owned corporation? What is the motivation of such an entity to innovate?
While I was doing my Master’s program at Columbia University, one of my favorite professors was teasing me that I was an ideologist. Well, I guess he was right. I find it much easier to connect to projects when I feel engaged with their mission. One of the programs that I led back in NY was developing a business model and design for a chain of hotels for TOMS that contributed a portion of what customers paid to an orphanage in Africa.
I have been dealing with skepticism throughout my career and yet again, I find myself entering a role that I see as creating a social impact. People look at state-owned corporations and think that they are slow to adapt. They look at the private sector and VC’s as the sources of innovation. However, governments are actually the ones that invest the most in high-risk innovation and for extended periods of time. If you look at the early investors in Nano-technology, electric cars, green energy and so on, you will see government funding, not VC’s. The VC’s arrive later on and their goal is to make profits out of the company’s exit potential. If you look at the funding that Israel’s Innovation Authority provides researchers and entrepreneurs very early on in the process, you will notice the long-term thinking involved for the broader benefit of society and as a strategic value for the state of Israel – not just profit-seeking.
Specifically, I consider the postal company to be at a pivotal point, because of the investment in infrastructure to support the transformation into a business-oriented company that can support the exponential growth of e-commerce and international trade. With its broad distribution of branches (that are due to a government mandate), the postal company has the ability to bring the spirit of innovation and economic independence to very broad audiences. Small and medium businesses that the postal company can serve across the nation are key to economic growth. That is a challenge worth taking and it’s what attracted me to this role.
Some people might see the regulations that force the postal company to have a physical presence every few kilometers as a constraint or even a liability. I choose to turn this observation on its head and consider all of the opportunities that such a physical presence creates. Add the ability, which is unique to us, to be a gate to governmental services and act as a back office with fulfillment and financial services. We are the only non-governmental organization that has this level of integration to government IT systems. Add to that the fact that the Postal Company, with its extensive areas of activity, has a lot to gain from startup communities such as Fintech, IoT, AI, Smart city, etc., and so the sky is the limit in a thriving eco-system like the one that exists in Israel. Think of smart transportation, energy, HR etc. – these are all inspiring areas for me to innovate in as an organization. We can act as a beta site for innovation on so many levels. We have 5,000 employees with branches at more than 1,300 locations offering postal or banking services. We run the largest transportation fleet in the country. We are the largest retail chain in Israel and our logistics are by far the largest, designed to manage 100 million packages per day. We have valuable data that can assist us in developing better services for our clients: every household in Israel. We are the only brand that has access to every home in the country. We are positioned perfectly between the private sector and the government and have amazing potential for integrated services via innovation.
So where would you say the greatest challenges are in achieving this tremendous potential?
The entire market of logistics, e-commerce, retail and banking is going through a serious period of turbulence. The line between different industries is blurred, and not all companies are capable of redefining their mission in an ongoing, evolving environment.
It is far beyond digital transformation. It is about a culture change and re-inventing business models. It is easy to get drawn into conversations about technology and innovation, but I personally think that it is about the people and about shifting the focal point to platforms and integration rather than products and solutions. This is not unique to Israel. I am in contact with postal companies all over the world and what customers want are digital, transparent services that give them what they need, immediately and preferably without being asked to pay for it. In addition, the Israel Postal Company has been a monopoly for many years and such companies aren’t naturally service-oriented. This rapid transition for a monopoly is challenging for anyone who wishes to innovate.
With all of the challenges, I must say that the interest within the workforce to innovate is very high. The employees realize that innovation is a great opportunity for new business. Personally, I find this to be very exciting.
When people think about government employees, municipalities, state-owned corporations and so on, “innovative” is not the first attribute that comes to their minds. As someone who runs innovation for such an organization, what has been the reaction of the workforce to your activities?
Like everything in life, it’s all about leadership. The employees of the Postal Company understand that they are working for a company that was in dire straits quite recently and that innovation is the path that can take this company into the future. I can see people’s enthusiasm for this subject in meetings and through my interactions with them. It isn’t so much about the people who work in the organization as it is about inspiration, education and giving the team tools to design new products. It happens through new work procedures, tools, open innovation and so on and it is very meticulous work that has to be done over time. Until 2018, there haven’t been many innovation VP’s working for state-owned organizations. The sheer fact that I have been given this opportunity says a lot about the major shift that the Israel Postal Company is going through.