How Boeing flies in the face of conventions
Aerospace leader Boeing’s corporate website is a new type that should be studied by
Until a few months ago Boeing, the world’s biggest aerospace company, had a website that was intriguing, though 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 that 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 forklift trucks and X-ray machines that you can buy, but on pages with no connection to the rest of the site. The country sites are still uncoordinated and limited – the group continues to come 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.
Work before brand or brochure
The Surplus Sales area (www.boeing.com/surplus) is a clue. Here is 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 the extent to which it uses 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. 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.
Practicality ahead of image
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 phone 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. 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. While ‘Career Transition Resources’ may be a bit of a euphemism there’s no doubting what this one is about.
Nerve but the Challenge is missing
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 better way to share than by piling 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, of the excellent Ethics Challenge that used to adorn it.
This was an interactive test where you were put in compromising situations and asked to choose how you would react. For example, 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.
A version of this article was first published on ft.com 24.03.06
First published on 29 March, 2006