How can a focus on building relationships create an entrepreneurial, high performance workplace?

In 2005, the Victorian Government determined that Collingwood had the second highest crime rate in the state - 453 per cent above the state average. Unemployment was 286 per cent higher than the state average, and the suburb had more than three times the number of single parent families and double the occurrence of disability support pensioners. The gentrification of some pockets of the suburb was starkly contrasted with significant disadvantage, leading to polarisation in the community.

The government decided to adopt an innovative approach, establishing the Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) in January 2007. The Centre’s Director, Kerry Walker, arrived “just before the doors opened” with a determination to build a unique organisational culture which placed relationships front and centre.

“We established ourselves as people who could be trusted,” Kerry explains. “The community came to understand that we were honest, worked hard, and were committed to being there when times were tough, as well as when times were good.”

The NJC’s philosophy is one of restorative justice, which is an alternative way of dealing with crime and conflict. Restorative justice encourages offenders to take accountability for their actions, victims to achieve redress and the community to play a part in repairing the harm caused and preventing further offending or conflicts. It’s also about considering the ‘whole person’ and looking at the causes of crime.

From its earliest days, the NJC established a ‘narrative’ about the organisation which encompassed its vision and mission. “Our narrative was in part about the sorts of people who worked in our organisation - the lion hearts, the risk takers, those that want to live on the edge, connect, make a difference, and work with people,” Kerry says.

The Centre’s culture is apparent from the moment one sets foot in the building. “We have a high expectation about how our security staff will welcome people. Part of their job is to greet people by name and make them feel welcome. From the moment someone walks in the door, we are building a relationship,” Kerry explains.

The design of the building itself has a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The courtroom is filled with natural light, has views of the treetops and looks over the historic buildings of Collingwood. The open-plan offices ensure staff are easy to access.

“We have many correctional clients tell us that they feel trusted and trust being at the Centre. There is no security glass, furniture is not nailed down, and they are not just a number. Our first rule of service is that each interaction is to be respectful. When clients arrive, we address them by name and ask if they’d like a tea or coffee. We have a ‘talking culture’ with little signage on the walls. Instead, staff interact with people, show them where they need to go, and explain to them what they need to know. This is part of our service.

“We build trust through transparency. This means not only transparency in decision-making, but also transparency in the work we do. We make sure we are available and accessible - and the community responds to this,” Kerry says.

And the result? Since opening, the crime rate in Collingwood has dropped by 30 per cent, much of which the Centre attributes to the strong working partnerships with the police, local council and the community. Recidivism rates have dropped by 12 per cent and minor criminal matters are on the decline. Completion of community-based orders is 10 per cent higher than the state average, with NJC offenders undertaking 105 hours of unpaid community work, compared to the state average of 68 hours.

Another indicator of the NJC’s success is to be found in the strength of its stakeholder relationships - something that was measured in 2012 through the Organisational Relationship Diagnostic Audit, or ORDA for short.

ORDA sprang from my ten year research project which aimed to answer a simple question: “what are the components of a relationship and how do we measure them?” I found that any relationship, whether personal or business, exchange-based or communal, can be measured by assessing three elements:

  • Governance: the way an organisation treats people and behaves when dealing with its stakeholders
  • Value: the tangible and intangible benefits that the stakeholders desire from the relationship with the organisation
  • Communication: how and what information is provided and how the organisation manages expectations.

Through detailed analysis of each component, ORDA enables organisations to accurately diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of their relationships, and quantify changes to those relationships over time. After all, if it isn’t measured, it can’t be managed.

“A lot of what we do is intangible, and there is very little research or data to demonstrate the value of community courts and relationship building,” Kerry says. “The ORDA process has helped us to measure what we do and give us some extra confidence that we are making a difference. It has validated our approach.”

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre’s success demonstrates that an emphasis on high-quality relationships can yield extraordinary results. Many HR measurement tools focus on internal factors, such as employee engagement, which provide no mechanism for organisations to examine the relationships they have with their broader stakeholders. With knowledge comes power, and ORDA can be a powerful tool to help organisations improve their relationships and their reputations.


About David Hawkins
David Hawkins has earned a reputation as one of Australia’s most respected practitioners and is currently Managing Director of Socom. He has worked on some of Australia’s highest profile public relations crises, including the Mars/Snickers extortion, the Cranbourne Methane crisis, Black Saturday Bushfires and the Indonesian mudflow incident. His work has been awarded nationally and internationally. David developed the Organisational Relationship Diagnostic Audit. See: www.orda.net.au

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