How many people does it take to run a Community Noticeboard?

No, I’m not about to start recounting a traditional joke I heard in the pub, but this story could easily become one, an illustration of how well-meaning bureaucracy can disempower and crush the initiative and spontaneity out of staff as well as alienate their customers.

I board my train at Preston Park station in Brighton to head up to the TCC office in Croydon. Travelling to meet clients all over the country, I often buy extra tickets at Southern’s ticket office.

Bob is one of those great railway staff who become a fixture in commuters daily lives. He posts a regular “thought for the week” on the ticket office screen so all commuters can read it. The sort of harmless common sense folk wisdom that you get in magazines like Reader’s Digest and which often makes you smile as you start a long day.

Things like: “What you say means nothing, how you say it means everything” and “Its nice to be important, but more important to be nice”.

Two years ago there was a local uproar when a new manager made him take it down. A campaign by articulate Brighton to London commuters secured a reinstatement – a local victory for people power.

But clearly bureaucracy does not give up, for today I asked Bob why his sign on his perspex screen had gone again. He explained that he had been asked to transfer it to a “Community Noticeboard” elsewhere in the station.

I am all in favour of there being a community noticeboard. The more the merrier for community groups to promote their activities and keep us informed. However I do not think that taking a piece of individual initiative and shoe-horning it into a more formal space is the right approach.

So now we have a situation where an uplifting message, best placed in to cheer up a commuter at the start of the day is lost amongst the perfectly proper notices for events that a commuter is probably more likely to read on their way out of the station in the evening. In other words the right message is now going through the wrong communications channel. A little common sense, as is often set out in Bob’s thoughts for the week, is what is really required here.

Clearly there should be overall guidelines for any member of staff in a large organisation, but what any large impersonal organisation most needs is front-line staff who are human and who demonstrate to the public every day that it is made up of real people who are just like them. The trick for any forward looking organisation that wishes to show genuine empathy with its customers is to create a framework and tools and then let go. This is important not just for front-line staff, but also for campaigns involving health and environmental champions or advocates in the community. Feedback mechanisms are also important to staff who communicate with customers, but this should not be proscriptive, but instead should be helpful.

“Thought for the week” was the personal relationship building process between the Bob and his customers. This is exactly what staff should be trained to do. The hand-written message and the fact it belonged to the member of staff demonstrates authenticity and just a little individuality.

Organisations in future will need more of that, not less!

This Blog posting was written by Jonathan Upton, Chairman of  The Campaign Company

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