David Bowen: More than a glorified brochure

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This week I am writing about one corporate website – Boeing’s. Here, at www.boeing.com, is a new type of site that should be studied by any large organisation wondering what on earth it should do next on the web.

Until a few months ago the Boeing site was intriguing, but as much for its horrors as for its innovation. It gave the impression of having been gathered together rather than built – there was no hierarchy I could detect, the look and feel was in many places basic, and getting around was a nightmare. A brave attempt was made to hold it together with a ‘site navigator’ device, but the chaos was just too great to bring more than a semblance of order.

Boeing has sensibly started again, though there are places where the old regime hangs on. Drill down to the Surplus Sales area, within Shared services, and you will find lists of fork lift trucks and X-ray machines you can buy, but on pages that have no connection to the rest of the site. The country sites are still uncoordinated and limited – the group still comes across as a US company with a few foreign bits, rather than an international operator. But overall the site is a million times better, with good conventional navigation, a clean look – all the things a strong corporate site should have. Except it has much more, which is why it is so intriguing.

The Surplus Sales area (www.boeing.com/surplus) is a clue. Here we have a page that says ‘What do you want to buy today? The chances are we have it!’ This may well be true if you are looking for second hand machine tools, as well as some oddities like a complete set of gym equipment – lots are for sale by auction.

Why is this special? Because it shows that Boeing sees its website first and foremost as a working tool, rather than a brand-builder or glorified brochure. The company is not unique in doing this – especially among American groups. Where it may be unique (dangerous to say, though I don’t know any others that do the same) is in its use of the public site to communicate with employees and former employees. An Employee/Retiree link on every page leads to a section that includes areas such as Benefits & Compensation, Employee Assistance Program and Recreation Clubs. While some of the pages are password-protected, many are not – which is why I have been reading about the Parapsychology Club in Seattle (meets third Monday of the month) and the Toastmasters Club in Wichita (every Wednesday).

This is information that would normally be found on the intranet, so why is it here in the open. The answer, I suspect, is why not? There will be times when staff will want to check things out from their homes, and anyway, what is the problem with making it openly available. It could even (though I doubt this was an intention) make Boeing seem like a better place for would-be employees.

The same might be true of the Employee Assistance Program section, which is headed ‘Sometimes, life can be overwhelming. The good news is, you’re not alone …’ Here, you can read about Boeing’s counselling services, and find numbers to book an appointment. Sensible, but I can imagine the debates before it was published: ‘We can’t imply that you might have a nervous breakdown if you work for us; what sort of message would that give off?’

Real proof that Boeing has decided that practicality should be put ahead of image comes in the Career Transition Resources section. This is largely for people who have been laid off by Boeing – which explains why it cannot be on the intranet. Here, you will find phone numbers and links to employment agencies, job boards and even competitors’ vacancy lists. One link leads to a site (www.reachingout-washington.com) that describes itself as Information & Resources for Laid-off Employees in the Boeing Company in Washington State. Career Transition Resources may be a bit of a euphemism; no doubting what this one is about.

It all shows great nerve, and makes great sense. Intranets and public internet sites are increasingly being put under the same management, which will look to share resources between them - and what could better way to share than than bunging as much as possible on the public site? Use password protection where necessary, but the default position should be: keep it open.

It is a shame Boeing does not have the same attitude in its Ethics section, also linked from every page. This is full of formal Code of Conduct type material, but there is no acknowledgment of the specific (and very hot) water the group has got itself into nor, sadly, the excellent Ethics Challenge that used to adorn it. This was an interactive test where you were put in compromising decisions and asked to choose how you would react. You go to a supplier’s party, and miraculously you and your colleagues win all the raffle prizes. What do you? Maybe this turned out to be openness too far. Let’s hope the same does not happen to the other refreshingly transparent parts of the site.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com).

dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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