In late August, Chicago-based global insurance brokerage and consulting firm Aon Corp. redesigned its corporate Web site so customers, employees and other affiliates could more easily and quickly find content and navigate the site.As part of the project, Aon's portal team also implemented a set of Web development techniques that would enable internal Web designers to reduce the turnaround time to post new and pertinent data and graphics onto the site, located at www.aon.com.

A Web lifeline

Little did Aon's portal team, which consists of 10 people, realize how quickly they would have to put their new tools into action.

The Sept. 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center, where Aon had 1,200 employees, produced instant fear, anxiety and concern for employees who were missing.

At a time when communication with its New York employees was extremely critical, paralyzed phone lines and e-mail servers severed the companies lines of communication.

Marshalling its resources in short order, Aon's team moved from offices in downtown Chicago and established a crisis center at the company's Glenview, Ill., data processing center, about 30 miles north of the city.

From this location, the team took its newly redesigned Web site and transformed it into a communication lifeline for employees and business affiliates.

In the days and weeks following the attack, Aon executives continued to operate without basic communication tools. And tragically they learned that about 200 of their employees were among the missing.

"We knew our New York offices were not there anymore," says Steven Ban, Aon's marketing communications executive. "Our employees, clients and partners and even the local media all needed access to vital information. So the hierarchy of the Web site changed to accommodate this need."

Three days after the attack, Aon continued to streamline its newly prioritized Web site. "We basically bundled the information according to target audience. There was one bundle for New York employees, one for all Aon employees and one for vendors and customers," Ban explains.

The 10 individuals comprising the portal team worked around the clock in shifts to post the relevant data, Ban says. They gathered new information from the Glenview crisis center, but also performed their duties remotely from home PCs.

A tribute

The Aon Web site will never be perceived the same as it was prior to Sept. 11-either by the internal team or by Web visitors. Even though many Web sites have the ability to project warmth, very few project compassion and personal healing.

But Aon's does. A permanent link has been established on the home page, called Aon Remembers, which is an online memorial that the global insurance broker created to celebrate the lives of Aon colleagues "who were lost to us in the wake of the recent tragedy," the company states. "Through this memorial, visitors can read their life stories, view and post photos, and create their own letters, poems and tributes."

A general guest book, the Aon Book of Remembrance, is also available where visitors can leave thoughts and memories.

To express thoughts, memories, and condolences, a visitor can select the appropriate name and click "display." Aon plans to add names as they are reported.

Best practices

As Ban reflects on the most difficult tasks that the Aon portal team faced to abruptly take a Web site and completely reorganize its contents with little time to spare, the challenges did not include workflow or technology deficiencies.

In fact, because it had implemented "best-practices" technology, Aon's servers were able to comfortably handle the crush of Web traffic. In the first week following the terrorist attack, Aon drew as many visitors to its Web site as it did in a typical month, Ban says.

The most wrenching challenge for the team was to try to remain focused and harness their emotions about the fate of their fallen colleaugues-while at the same time having hands-on responsibility to deliver the regretful news on the Web, Ban says.

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