St Albans cinema flickers back to life

November 29, 2009

As we drove through diluvian conditions to a public meeting on Sunday to hear more of ambitious plans to bring a city centre cinema in St Albans back to life, it is fair to say I travelled more in hope than expectation. The team behind the cinema restoration campaign need to raise £1million before the middle of January to buy the site and a further £2million to restore the 1930s building to working order. Given the current economic climate and my perception that most people consider Blu-ray rather than box office to be the future of film, I suspected the meeting would attract only a small crowd of civic do-gooders and that I would be forced to skulk in a quiet corner until such a time as it was polite to slope off home.

But as we arrived at the venue for the meeting, The Rex cinema in Berkhamsted, a large crowd had spilled out of the main auditorium into the foyer area. [I would like to put a number to the crowd but it was impossible to get into the main hall area and the business of the meeting had to be relayed to us outside via a public address system]. People listened with great interest to how James Hannaway, the man behind the success of The Rex, hopes to secure funding to restore the cinema in London Road, St Albans, to its former art deco glory, bringing a welcome catalyst for regeneration to a part of the city which has fallen into sorrowful neglect since the cinema closed in the early 1990s.

As someone who grew up in St Albans and has a nostalgic fondness for the London Road cinema despite its unprepossessing exterior, I have my fingers crossed that Sunday’s enthusiasm can be transformed into tangible support. As Hannaway said, that could mean large cheques now or simply buying a ticket when the cinema opens again. There are many obstacles ahead, but when the cinema does re-open (let us be positive and say when rather than if) then I will be in the queue for my ticket to the stalls and a little piece of history.


Virgin: Happy to be different

November 21, 2009

Virgin companies pride themselves on being different: thinking differently, acting differently and encouraging individuality among their people. The equation is a simple one – happy people equal delighted customers.

But it’s not just the company that thinks it’s doing something special. Virgin Media was recognised recently at the VMA Internal Communications Showcase Awards for its approach in encouraging people in all parts of the business to have their say and for taking notice of what was said. As someone working in internal communications, I wanted to understand a little more about how Virgin Media achieved this success. How do Virgin Media walk the talk?

For Alexandra Smith, Head of Internal Communications at Virgin Media, ‘people engagement’ is not corporate wrapping paper or tokenism, it is a core part of who Virgin is and is wired into the company’s DNA.

Virgin Media“Wherever we can, we ensure that our people are able to contribute their views and influence opinion,” says Alexandra. “The strategy is based around treating people as adults, meaning that they take responsibility for what they say and respect other people’s views. Very few of our channels are anonymous, so people have to stand up for what they say if challenged. Openness and honesty is part of the Virgin culture.”
Virgin Media has designed a number of tools to connect with and build networks among its approximate 15,000 workforce spread across a number of sites and in the field who are engaged in a range of activities (e.g. call centres, customer services, sales and technicians). So people can comment on every story on the company’s intranet, post questions and air their views. There are discussion forums and a wiki tool for people to build content that is relevant to their part of the organisation.

The leadership team is put on the spot using regular live online Q&A sessions and at roadshow events, and a voicemail and text system keeps field staff in the loop about hot topics and enables them to leave a response to information messages and rate how useful they found them.

The use of Twitter is encouraged to build employee communities and foster collaborative working while a series of ‘summits’ allow employees working in the company’s different product areas to share best practice or just simply get work issues off their chest.
Reaction among Virgin Media people to greater empowerment has, in the main, been enthusiastically positive. One member of staff said: “I would like to say I am impressed that you have listened and acted positively on the feedback. Excellent.” While another effused: “OMG! We were listened to 🙂 Good stuff!”

While Virgin’s open and people-focused culture has been a factor in the success of this approach, Alexandra admits that there have been challenges along the way and there remain pockets of resistance in the organisation.

“Just because we’re a Virgin company doesn’t mean it’s been easy and there’s a lot of education still to do at all levels in the company. But the benefits of doing it are clear and there is a strong business case for all companies to engage in new and interesting ways with their employees.”

Dulce et Decorum Est

November 9, 2009

Britain’s role in the war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads.

As the roll call of those killed and seriously injured in service mounts (more than 90 troops have been killed this year alone) public support for the military strategy appears to be ebbing away.

A recent poll shows that two thirds of Britons believe that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable (up from 58 per cent in July) with a similar percentage saying that British troops should be withdrawn from the country as quickly as possible.

While the larger-than-normal crowds that turned out to pay their respects at war memorials up and down the country on Remembrance Sunday demonstrate that the British public is full square behind the troops, there is growing unease at a perceived sense of drift and confusion in the conduct of the war.

There are echoes here of another conflict some 90 years ago when a young officer recuperating in England from his injuries sustained on the battlefields of France wrote an open letter to The Times expressing his growing disillusionment with a war which “is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”.

The soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, railed against the political errors for which his comrades had been sacrificed and the failure by politicians to state clearly the purposes of the war.

It would be artful and wrong to push the similarities between the situation 90 years ago and today, but it is worth reading A Soldier’s Declaration to gain an understanding of the brutalising effect of war on those that witness it first hand.

Employees challenge the technology status quo

November 2, 2009

The growth in the use of new technologies and social networking sites in the workplace offers the opportunity for more effective working but poses business risks for firms that fail to prepare for the changes.

These are the conclusions of a recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Power to the People? Managing the technology democracy in the workplace.

The report sponsored by Trend Micro suggests that “employees are challenging the technology status quo” in their organisations by demanding greater freedom to use new technologies, personal accounts and applications to work in innovative ways.

The established order – centralised management by the IT department – has been undermined by the growth of mobile devices which allow, for instance, employees to get round company bans on the use of blogs and social networking sites while at work.

And while such changes have been gradual, the trend is set to increase due to the arrival of Generation Y (the “millennials” born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s) into middle management positions and the rise of home and teleworking.

Opinion is divided among the 390 executives from seven European countries questioned on whether greater technology liberty in the workplace was a good or bad thing. More than 40 per cent believe business benefits will accrue in the form of better grassroots innovation and higher morale and engagement. But many companies see the trend as potentially damaging to productivity and a threat to security.

Realistic or reactionary, such a view is likely to be rendered obsolete in the future. Companies, like it or not, will need to train their employees in new technologies, set out clear governance and manage risks where they exist.

To read the report click here.