The regions vary enormously in area: London is one, the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland another. As business units they are very comparable, however. The typical region will contain five million or more customers, employ getting on for 20,000 workers and turn over perhaps £300 million. It will therefore be bigger than either Post Office Counters or Parcelforce. And like Counters and Parcelforce, it will be a complete business - or almost so. The marketing and other initiatives which have come out of the Royal Mail headquarters will in future, it is hoped, originate within the regions, and may be intended to serve strictly regional needs. Thus the Scottish region might choose to run its own courier service between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The regions will employ their own specialists, and buy in additional services as necessary, either from other Royal Mail profit centres (such as RoMEC, the engineering offshoot) or from outside. "Nothing is for free," says Cockburn. The Royal Mail headquarters, confined largely to strategy and target setting, will shrivel (as the Post Office headquarters has already done) from 2,000 people to perhaps 200 or less. The nine general managers will not find it easy to set themselves up as regional barons.
Nor will The Royal Mail executive committee in London readily be able to adopt a dictatorial style. The plan involves an intricate pattern of groups and working parties designed to "lock people into a teamworking process". The members of the executive committee each have a direct responsibility for one of the so-called "business centres" (RoMEC, catering, R and D, etc.). But when, wearing their functional hats, these top executives sit round the table with the general managers, they will find themselves outnumbered by their regional colleagues. The regions will also predominate when their senior functional people come together with head office executives in "strategy steering groups" - covering operations, sales, personnel, quality, finance. Cockburn talks about involving 1,000 managers in 100 teams, each one concerned with planning a piece of the business.
This hugely elaborate network structure bears comparison to Robert Horton's innovations at BP. (For a public sector organisation, The Post Office has become unusually fashion conscious of late; witness, also, the earnest mission statement which puts the customer first and last, without, of course, forgetting the well-being and job satisfaction of employees.) As at BP, teamworking raises certain organisational difficulties, by diluting authority and blurring the lines of responsibility and accountability. But an international oil company is an even more complex creature, with a more responsive nervous system and a greater percentage of highly qualified people, than the postal service.
The problems emerge starkly when blurred responsibilities are combined with individual incentives. Cockburn proposes that part of a general manager's reward should be linked to results. The criteria of performance will always be objective, he says, although not simply financial. Some will relate to the customer, like quality of service and customers' experience of The Royal Mail ("perception is reality"). Others, in strict accordance with the mission statement, will reflect surveys of employee attitudes towards the management. There will be a "cocktail of accountabilities". KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) will not be inscribed on the back of the cheque.
But Cockburn's intentions are not simple either. They are to shake up, reorientate and overcome the inertia of an immense and still too bureaucratic organisation. It is accepted that change is unlikely to happen overnight. "We are looking at the year 2000," says Cockburn. "By that time many other factors may have come to the fore (even including - perhaps partial - privatisation). But there is no point in waiting around. Things seldom work out quite as you expect in business or life, but you have to try.