Management & Operations

Digital Signage: The Next Great Employee Communication Tool?

Posted on February 1, 2006

If you had a critical message that had to be distributed to your operation this afternoon, how would you do it? An organization-wide e-mail would reach managers and others with that access. But what about drivers, mechanics and other employees who don’t have ready access to e-mail? Paper communications take time, and vital messages can get overlooked on even the best-managed bulletin boards. Digital signage technology provides a solution to employee communication challenges through the use of large-screen plasma and LCD displays that provide a wide variety of instantly updatable, customizable messages. Signage as a solution
Digital signs are a key part of the communication system at Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA), which operates the public transit system and airports in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls region of New York. “Now they can know in seconds, as opposed to minutes, exactly what’s affecting them,” says Michael Martineck, senior communications specialist for NFTA. Employees at NFTA receive important route changes, safety alerts and employee news from the digital signage system, which is updated several times a day by staff in the authority’s downtown headquarters. Displays are located in facilities throughout the region, including operator lounges, mechanics’ break rooms and in the customer service call center. One excellent example of content on display in operator lounges is a short video of a frequently missed turn. The landmarks leading up to the turn and the turn itself were recorded on digital video and posted on the system, so that operators could literally see what they were missing. This, and other content like it, has contributed to a decline in operators being off-route, and an increase in on-time performance. Administrative personnel with no prior experience in computers or design create about 90% of the content on display. NFTA calls the system its “video bulletin board.” According to Doug Hartmayer, public information officer, NFTA has seen better job performance and a better understanding of organizational goals since the introduction of digital signage. “We now have a state-of-the-art communications system that allows us to reach our employees in several facilities in a moment’s notice,” says NFTA Executive Director Lawrence Meckler. “The video bulletin board system is the best practical technological advance in internal communications to come into use in a long time.” Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is another public transit agency that chose this new technology as a venue for employee messaging. LCD displays in operator lounges are used to showcase key performance indicators in a graphical format. Graphs indicating metrics such as accident rates, and customer complaints are updated frequently for more than 350 operators. The displays also include news, employee benefits and safety information. “Everybody sees the big screens, and the color and the motion,” says Steve Meyer, project manager for DART. A ubiquitous technology
The recent adoption of this technology for transportation operators has been facilitated by advances in the technology used for content creation and display, as well as plummeting prices for large-screen LCD and plasma displays. You’ve seen the signs — literally — in retail stores and public spaces. LCD and plasma display screens tout sales promotions and other in-house messages. These installations tend to be complicated and expensive, often driven by customized hardware and software. Content is created and deployed by teams of specialists with expertise in multimedia production. But an emerging segment of the digital signage industry is offering less expensive and simpler ways of putting messages into digital signs without sacrificing effectiveness or versatility. This type of digital signage is less complicated, but not necessarily less sophisticated. The hardware is often a self-contained single-box appliance with embedded software designed so that non-technical personnel can manipulate the messages easily using a standard Web browser. Bob Rosenberry is general manager of Exhibio LLC in Williamsville, N.Y., a manufacturer of one of these easy-to-use systems. He calls the new approach “do-it-yourself digital signage,” in contrast with the customized applications more common in the retail arena. “If there is a ‘traditional’ approach to digital signage, it is to use complex proprietary software and expensive network deployments to move content to displays. This software is expensive and requires trained operators,” Rosenberry said. “Also, with these systems, the content often needs to be created using separate multimedia authoring software.” The key is that the embedded software to create and manage the content is accessible to people without extensive technical training or specialized software on their workstations. New digital signage technology approaches the task from an entirely different angle, according to Rosenberry. Content can be managed by using a Web browser that provides an interface to a system for composing, editing and scheduling multimedia content. Think PowerPoint, but with more power and versatility — such as programming six different parts of the plasma screen so that each of them displays a different image, with the flexibility of showing everything from static photos to crawling text to full-motion video or live television. A built-in scheduler allows system owners to change the layout at pre-determined times. Price and practicality
Large-screen digital messaging is also becoming more affordable as the price of plasma and LCD screens drops. A 42-inch plasma screen can now be purchased for less than $2,000. The content appliance requires an additional investment of approximately $2,900, but one unit can be used to drive multiple displays. Real-time, data-driven content is also a reality with this new technology. Digital signage displays often show up-to-the-minute weather maps and news headlines culled from internet sources. IT staffs are interfacing digital signage systems with in-house databases, allowing real-time viewing of rapidly-changing data. The future of digital signage appears to be limited only by the imaginations of the organizations that employ it. “There is a ‘viral effect’ within many organizations,” according to Exhibio’s Rosenberry. “When the technology is adopted by one department for a particular use, other departments see it and come up with other uses.” For example, NFTA’s latest installation is not for employee communication at all. Rather, it’s in a public seating area at a Niagara Falls, N.Y., bus depot. There, waiting passengers can view a plasma screen that incorporates a live television window showing cable news programs while important transit information scrolls by and promotional marketing content is featured.

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