CXO

Documentation: Why you must look back to look ahead

If aliens kidnapped you or a member of your staff, would your business keep running without a hitch? If you said no, you need better documentation. Read these TechRepublic articles for information on documentation and why the process is critical.


Philosopher George Santayana wasn’t kidding when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s probably why he spent his life writing things down, including a three-volume autobiography. He was obviously very interested in recording details both big and small.

How responsible are you when it comes to documenting the processes that your coworkers use every day? If you fell off the face of the Earth tomorrow, could a replacement find a way to continue your work? If your answer is no, perhaps you live by the philosophy of another writer, Aldous Huxley, who wrote, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

The history of your enterprise and the people who run it is a critical piece of your business plan. These articles from TechRepublic will bring you up to speed on documentation.

You’ve been warned: Keep accurate records
If you do not maintain accurate, thorough records, there will be a price to pay. It’s not only important to have processes and procedures written out, but you must "Be persnickety about documentation." You have to be familiar with the legal ramifications of documentation and why accurate, updated information will protect your enterprise.

If you are unaware of the standards that exist for documentation, and the fines for violating those standards, read "Careful documentation critical in avoiding liability" to find out why PanEnergy Corporation of Colorado paid fines exceeding $60,000 due to “offenses regarding faulty documentation.”

Are you wondering "How to get started on your company's internal documentation"? One of the first steps in documenting for your organization is to get a handle on exactly what you want to document. That will help you define the scope of the project and get some idea of the time frame the project will take to complete. To help your planning process, read "Internal documentation: Avoiding critical mistakes." This article explores the importance of keeping the scope of your project and the associated goals on the same level. Do you want your documentation to: Shorten the ramp-up time for new employees? Document critical processes in the event that key people leave? Improve productivity? If so, the finished project will ideally do all of this. However, if you want to keep the scope small, you'll need to limit the goals to those that are most important.

To serve and protect: Help “clients” help themselves
Who are your clients? Are they paying customers? New employees? Software users? Do you provide documentation to help them help themselves? No matter whom you serve, you’ll save your time and theirs by giving them resources to find answers for themselves.

In "Documenting projects leaves a professional account of your work," columnist David Parkinson explains that proper documentation allows consultants to keep a relevant history of their work. He also asserts that proper documentation adds value to the finished project by providing a means of client support.

Writing good documentation creates a win-win situation for you and those you serve. If you have a detailed work history, it’s easier to "Make an airtight case for a raise." You’ll also save time “supporting” new employees with a detailed view of processes and procedures.

Let the writing begin
Once you’ve outlined the scope of your documentation project and done the necessary research, the next step is to write. If you are a good trainer, you’ve conquered half the obstacles in writing good documentation. It’s a step-by-step process, just like the progression of lesson upon lesson in the classroom. Not convinced? Then read "Creating idiot-proof documentation,"Jeff Davis’ advice for creating simple, easy-to-use instructions.

And if you hate to do anything twice, you’ll want to read Angie Stahly’s "Seven tips for getting training documentation right the first time."Her tips will keep you from getting to the “testing” phase of documentation and finding that you’ll need to rewrite large portions.

If you’re worried about the writing process, TechCom Plus, a consulting services firm, offers several technical writing resources on its Web site. In addition to a recommended reading list, TechCom Plus offers articles about "How to Make User Manuals Better," "Structuring Your User Documentation to Improve Usability," "Designing a Readable User Manual," and more.

Learning from your mistakes
Scientists, researchers, and other technical types learned the value of documenting their every move long ago. Documentation provides a point of reference to refine processes, as well as explicit instructions that allow you to repeat your successes.

Conversely, the lack of documentation can cause our mistakes to recur. It’s like the lawyer author Clarence Darrow said: “History repeats itself; that's one of the things that's wrong with history.”
Has documentation saved your organization time and energy? How long did it take for the work of documenting processes to pay off? Send us an e-mail or post your comment.

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