Naive. Shortsighted. Just plain stupid. Those words describe far too many businesspeople when it comes to documenting their IT procedures and processes. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to make a lot of extra money by rescuing one small business owner who didn’t plan ahead. Here’s the scoop.

The worst case: Up a cyber-creek without a paddle
You’re a small business owner, and you’ve shelled out several thousand dollars for a custom software system. Your vendor is a husband-and-wife team. (He does the hardware; she does the software.)

The programs generate the expected output. The husband or the wife always returns your calls. All is well, except you don’t have a user’s manual. (“The software is so intuitive, you don’t need one,” the vendors assure you.)

You do have a key operator. She’s someone who has been with your company for many years and always has done an outstanding job using the software to generate correct output. But she has never documented how she uses the software. You count your lucky stars this lady is so loyal.

Then two things happen that threaten your company’s survival:

  • The loyal key operator leaves the company. She gives two weeks’ notice, but she still never documents what she does. (For more on this topic, see “The importance of sharing institutional knowledge ,” by Bob Artner, TechRepublic’s VP of Content.)
  • The husband-and-wife team split up. Their business partnership is dissolved, and you can’t reach either one of them.

Recently, a small business owner in the Louisville area found himself in exactly that position. He was in a bind because:

  1. He never required the vendor to create a user’s manual.
  2. He never required the vendor to provide the source code for the application.
  3. He never required the key operator to train another staff person how the software works.

His failure to plan ahead had caught up with him, and he was in a heap o’ trouble.

The first response after panic
The business owner assigned his most computer-literate employee the task of learning how the program worked, and that person figured out how to enter data and generate some reports. The owner had landed a new client with specialized needs, however, and he knew he needed a new software module written in order to accommodate this client. (The legacy application isn’t exactly rocket science. It reads some raw data from a tape or disk, allows users to enter a series of Social Security numbers, and generates some basic printouts.)

The owner first went to the Yellow Pages and called some local consulting firms. All of them told him, “We won’t fix your existing system, but we’ll be happy to design a new system for you for several more thousands of dollars!” This business owner is still running 386-class machines, and he wasn’t about to invest in a state-of-the-moment system.

Here’s where I come in
The small business owner asks the people in his church group if anyone knows a developer who knows dBASE. One of my former coworkers says, “I know a guy who used to program in dBASE. I’ll give him a call.”

So I meet with the small business owner, and he shows me the undocumented legacy application. Then he explains the “special needs” of this new client and shows me the raw data. He admits that this client “has been waiting for months for us to get started.”

That’s when I knew this consulting gig was mine. I said, “As long as you don’t mind my coming in on evenings and weekends to do the work, I’ll do it.” I agreed to create a user’s manual for the existing application and to write a new module to process data for the new client.

It’s a great deal for me—I get to make a little extra holiday money to spend on my wife. It’s a great deal for the small business owner, too. But he’s paying now for the mistakes he made years ago—when he didn’t bother to document his software and his procedures.

Moral of the story for small business owners: Document now or pay later.

To respond to this column, please post a comment below or follow this link to drop me a note.
Subscribe to Jeff’s View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you’ll get a bonus of Jeff’s picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers. If you already subscribe, e-mail this column to a friend.