Home, Home on the Web
The Southern California Gas Company is hardly a high-tech behemoth. It lacks the technical expertise of a Hewlett-Packard or the fleet-footed savvy of a Microsoft. Like many companies, it finds itself struggling to adapt to new technologies and new ways of doing business at a time when the corporate world is changing at light speed. A major corporate overhaul over the last couple of years underscored that point—as well as the need to be faster and far more adaptable.
So the Gas Company is forging into the previously uncharted territory of cyberspace. In early 1995, it made its first foray onto the World Wide Web. It began posting job openings and a corporate history on the third-party site Career Mosaic. That site displays employment opportunities and job postings for numerous firms. And now the Gas Company is committing growing resources to establish a major presence on the Internet with its own Web site. Log onto its homepage (http://www.pacent.com) and you can learn about its corporate history, study energy charts and comparisons, pore over details about the firm and the benefits it offers, and glance at job openings. Says Puz: "It's about image; it's about providing information and showing that we're at the vanguard of change."
A Web site is your tool.
The World Wide Web is a combination of high-tech hype and wide-eyed fascination. It's a living laboratory for electronic communications, yet a proven method for moving information easily and inexpensively. By definition, the Web refers to both the protocol that defines how users can make online information available to other users and to the actual World Wide Web, which consists of many thousands of documents uniformly linked to each other using hypertext markup language (HTML). Since June of 1994, the number of Web sites worldwide has grown from 1,265 to well over 15,000. The number of commercial sites now is growing by more than 200 per week. "Companies are realizing that the Internet opens a world without boundaries. It's intelligent global networking that provides more efficient ways to conduct business," explains Neal M. Goldsmith, president of Tribeca Research Inc., a technology consulting firm based in New York City.
All across North America, and even in Europe, Asia and Australia, companies are rushing—make that stampeding—onto the Web. They're posting information about their products and offering financial data for investors. To be sure, a corporate Web site is an effective marketing tool. But smart companies are using theirs to serve up a generous portion of human resources information as well—including the company's history; its mission, goals and philosophy; what kinds of benefits and compensation it offers; and employment opportunities along with specific job openings.
The World Wide Web might not yet rival an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal or 60 seconds of TV air time during prime-time, but over the last year, it has grown into a formidable collection of corporate sites—many with an emphasis on HR. "Companies are increasingly viewing the Web as an important place to be," says David Faulkner, president of The Web Factory, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based company that has designed sites for Celestial Seasonings, The Kennedy Center and the City of Branson, Missouri. "Although the level of expertise and knowledge is growing, it's all still in the formative stages. Many companies underestimate what's required to create and maintain a site that gets results."
That's because most companies don't have a designated department assigned to design and maintain the site. Instead, most enlist the use of multidepartment teams and technical consultants. To date, human resources has been involved on these teams in varying degrees: from initiating the idea, to contributing HR text, launching and even managing the Web site—depending on company resources. Whether you initiate the idea at your company and run the show, or simply are called upon to contribute text, you need to have some knowledge of what makes a site successful.
Launch your Web site with expertise, planning and organization.
Establishing a presence on the Web isn't particularly difficult. A Web site simply requires a computer connected to the Internet and some content. Special servers from hardware manufacturers Silicon Graphics, DEC, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems are ideal for large organizations that will host heavy traffic on their sites. A high-end Intel Pentium PC also can do the job. And, for companies that prefer to outsource, it's possible to contract with an outside firm to post information on their servers, almost always for a fee. As long as the computer is connected to the Internet all the time and has software to manage the homepage, those browsing the Web can view whatever you post.
Actual Web documents are nothing more than ordinary text and graphics converted into the programming language referred to earlier as HTML. New software makes HTML relatively simple to use and eliminates the need to use special coding. Once a Web page is created, you can view it using a browser such as Netscape Navigator, NCSA Mosaic or Microsoft Internet Explorer, regardless of the type of computer or operating system an individual is using. Quite simply, HTML is to the Internet what a printing press is to a newspaper. "It allows organizations large and small to exploit the power of the Internet and reach millions of people with their messages," says Yuri Rubinsky, president of SoftQuad Inc., a Toronto company that produces HoTMetaL Pro, a leading HTML authoring program.
Yet, just as a desktop publishing program enables one to create a newsletter or brochure but doesn't make it appear attractive and useful on its own, HTML isn't able to transform poorly organized data and unattractive graphics into an award-winning site. That requires expertise, planning and organization. It requires a thorough understanding of the medium and how to use tools to create documents that exploit the interactive power of the World Wide Web. "Using an HTML editor is not rocket science, but it's tedious and time consuming," says Puz.
At Schlumberger, a $7 billion oil field services and measurement and systems firm headquartered in New York City, the idea to create a Web site originated in the spring of 1994. A group of employees felt it would be useful and exciting to have a presence on the World Wide Web. After nearly six months of planning and effort—meetings, surveys, testing, weighing legal issues and then converting text and photographs from brochures into actual Web pages—the firm debuted its site to the outside world. During the last year, it has evolved and become increasingly sophisticated. Those browsing the Web can obtain background information about the company, its culture, career opportunities and positions. They can even view a map of the company's international locations.
Indeed, with 11 business units and a presence in 100 countries, Schlumberger has taken a global approach to designing its Web site. By clicking on any region of a world map with a mouse, it's possible to pull up a Web page that offers information on that area, available jobs and who to contact. "You see the ad and apply directly with the person who has the opening. You simply e-mail or fax them a resume," says Paula McCann, manager of recruiting coordination and university relations.
In fact, Schlumberger offers an online resume form, which collects information about a prospective employee and allows that person to request information about appropriate career opportunities. Every available position that's advertised in a newspaper or promoted at a college job fair goes onto the Internet. "It not only allows us to show that we're a company at the leading edge of technology, it makes us more efficient. Receiving resumes electronically saves time and effort."
To be this effective, the design and development of a Web site is crucial. In fact, it's the cornerstone of cyberspace success. "It's much easier to build a site on a solid foundation, and then update it and modify it, rather than slap material onto the Web and deal with the mess later," says Faulkner. He notes that most major Web sites require at least a few weeks of planning—and sometimes two or three months. Faulkner also suggests that companies eager to get onto the Web create a presence page—a one-page site that's nothing more than a billboard for what's to come in the future. Then, when the site is ready for prime-time, it becomes available.
Of course, laying down guidelines and creating a system for managing Web publishing is essential. Without proper guidance—usually from a Web master who is assigned to oversee the project, and perhaps a senior committee—a site easily can become a murky stew of conflicting graphics, layouts and text. What's more, brochures, booklets and other documents that look good on paper can become a mess when directly translated to a Web page. "It's important to post enough information online so a user can get what he or she needs, without being overwhelmed," says Susan Vismore, who oversees Pittsburgh-based Mellon Bank's World Wide Web site. "In most cases, it's a good idea to keep each topic to a page and provide hypertext links so it's easy to navigate."
Mellon's site provides background information on the bank, lists open positions and provides a form for creating an instant electronic resume. Since the site debuted last June, resumes have begun streaming in, and the number of accesses on Mellon's homepage has nearly doubled every month into the tens of thousands. Initially, human resources and other departments creating the site worked with the media lab at nearby Carnegie-Mellon University and with a local consultant, Internet Services Group. Now, Vismore works closely with the company's corporate staffing vice president, Elizabeth Knobloch, to tweak and update information. Trained employees at the bank create the HTML pages.
Speed matters on the Infobahn.
Interesting text and good organization are only one part of the online equation. Since most individuals accessing the World Wide Web are connecting at modem speeds between 14,400 bps and 28,800 bps, the amount of time it takes to load a graphic is an important issue. Too large of a logo or photo can slow things down to a crawl and make viewing intolerable. For most users, waiting anything more than 30 to 60 seconds for a homepage to load is unacceptable and usually translates into clicking off to another site. Second and third-level pages can take longer, experts say, because it's clear the person wants to see the material. Better yet, many Web sites now offer an option for text only, which allows a user to by-pass graphics entirely. Another common way to deal with the issue is to provide thumbnail photos. Clicking on the tiny image brings up a much larger graphic.
Many firms, including semiconductor giant Intel Corp., make it a point to use small but attractive graphics that load quickly. Santa Clara, California-based Intel also offers a table of contents that allows anyone browsing the site to instantly locate topics of interest. And rather than provide long documents, the company allows a user to click on text and graphics to choose the exact information that streams onto their computer screen. In fact, Intel's site (http://www. intel.com) is a model for how effectively the Web can work for a company and its HR department. It's easy to glean detailed information about the company, its benefits and compensation, various divisions and career opportunities, and actual job openings. By clicking on a company site—say the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico's—it's not only possible to learn about that specific business unit, a cybernaut can use hypertext links to view detailed chamber of commerce information about that city. Ditto for other sites such as those for Chandler, Arizona and Portland, Oregon.
Intel posts only its hottest job listings online, and they remain on the Web site for a maximum of 30 days before scrolling off. New listings are added every week, and resumes submitted electronically are reviewed daily. The company also funnels traffic into its site by purchasing hotlinks—buttons that lead directly into its server—from other Internet services such as Career Mosaic and the Online Career Center, both hotbeds of employment activity. The idea, quite simply, is to make the Intel name as visible as possible to those surfing the Web—a demographic group that ties in perfectly to the company's goals and interests.
"One of the things we know is that there tends to be two entirely different types of folks using the World Wide Web," says Nancy Pressel, online marketing program manager for Intel. "There are hunters, and there are gatherers. The former are people who know what they want and they're in a hurry to get it. Therefore, a site has to be navigable for them so they can find what they want quickly and easily. The latter really don't know what they're looking for—they just want to browse—and often they enjoy looking at something cool and interactive. So you have to satisfy them as well. The bottom line is that you have to offer content and provide good information, but you also need to make a site entertaining and interesting."
Intel's site clearly fits that description. HR data is only part of the package. Financial data—including annual reports—are available for investors; there's product information on Pentium processors and video teleconferencing; press releases; a schedule of industry conferences; and a list of white papers. If someone surfing the site still is unable to find what he or she is looking for, it's possible to search the Intel Web Server using keywords. Hundreds of pages of documents all tie together seamlessly, and it takes only a few seconds to jump from one topic of interest to another.
How does the company manage so much information? An interdepartmental online marketing team ensures that pages retain a common look and feel. With two to three dozen members at any given time, the team meets periodically to tackle major issues and sort out problems. Meanwhile, the Content Standards Task Force pores over details and ensures that every button, hypertext link and page is consistent with the rest. The Corporate Identity Department reviews all pages to ensure they tie in with the corporate personality, and a Management Review Committee oversees the entire process and sorts out major philosophical issues.
Says Rick Ludeman, Intel's project manager within the Strategic Staffing Group: "You don't want to put information on your site just because it's available and you can do it. Our goal is to differentiate Intel from everyone else, not provide a laundry list. Ultimately, the Web site opens up new ways to provide information and interact with people. And that must remain the focus."
Representatives from HR contributed content and expertise to the creation of Intel's site. They also continue to serve on the Content Standards Task Force and the interdepartmental Online Marketing Team. They help decide what data should appear, and they ensure HR data is presented accurately as it's adapted for Web use. It's not enough, says Ludeman, to simply convert HR documents that describe benefits or company philosophy to HTML for the Web. "You have to find ways to make the information more enticing, entertaining and exciting. It has to have a visual appeal."
Ensure you have sufficient staffing and a marketing strategy.
Compared to other media, such as print or broadcast ads, a site on the World Wide Web is a relatively inexpensive proposition. Using an outside consultant to create the original design can cost as little as $500—though it can run as high as $25,000 for a full-blown corporate site, and an equal amount on annual upkeep and maintenance. A company that handles its own design and site maintenance, on the other hand, can often get by spending as little as $1,000 to purchase publishing and graphics software and another $100 a month or more for an outside server. Of course, the latter expense can be eliminated by purchasing a server for $3,000 to $10,000.
But equipment and software are only part of the picture. It's necessary to provide the staff to keep a site up-to-date. Few things prove more irksome for those browsing the Web than sorting through old listings and useless information. And in the world of Web publishing, things change at a supersonic pace. New capabilities—colors, backgrounds and effects—seem to evolve in weeks rather than months or years. And it's easy for complacency to settle in. "After the initial enthusiasm of establishing a site up on the Web, there's the day-to-day reality of making it function," says Faulkner. "Periodic facelifts, perhaps every three to six months, are essential."
Marketing savvy also is required to stay at the forefront of the cyberspace race. As Faulkner puts it: "You can build the most incredible site in the world, but if people don't know it's there, it doesn't do you any good." Indeed, a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), or address for a Web site, can only go so far—even if it appears in ads and promotional materials. Because hypertext links allow Web surfers to jump from one site to another, many firms establish links to their site from other homepages on the Web. In some instances, the link might be free.
It's a good idea to keep track of how often the site is being accessed and what pages are the most popular. Although it's not possible to glean an individual's e-mail address when he or she logs onto a Web site, it's relatively simple to track the number of hits on each page, which Web browsers were used and the Internet provider used to connect to the site. Not surprisingly, such data can offer insights into how a Web site should be designed and what features it should include.
Finally, Faulkner recommends that any organization creating a Web site register its address with the various search engines, such as Yahoo!, InfoSeek, Web-Crawler and Lycos. With Web content growing at such a phenomenal rate, it's increasingly difficult for users to find the information they're looking for without turning to these indices. Presently, at least a dozen major search engines exist, and dozens of lesser-used tools also are available. Most don't charge for the service. "And that's how the majority of people using the World Wide Web find the sites or subjects they're looking for," he says. "Otherwise, it's like trying to find a book in a library without using a card catalog or index. You can roam around and never find what you're looking for," he explains.
Hype and hoopla aside, companies and human resources departments that have made a commitment to the Web are finding the effort pays dividends. To be sure, many college students search corporate sites to examine job and career possibilities. For them, it often seems more natural than picking up the newspaper or reading a trade magazine. Many established professionals are finding it valuable as well. Clearly, the World Wide Web is helping put HR at the forefront of the technological revolution. "It's more than vanity, it's a powerful way to connect to the world and process work more efficiently," says Schlumberger's McCann.
Personnel Journal, March 1996, Vol. 75, No. 3, pp. 26-33.