Any aspiring astronaut, or any kid who dreamed of space
travel, has seen the photo of Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. It’s said
that it will take micrometeorites millions of years before it fades into the
Your documentation, on the other hand, is about as permanent
as a footprint on a beach. System upgrades, changes in business direction, and
the users’ varying needs make any permanence tied to documentation fleeting. Go
back through a few years of your organization’s documentation, and it’s probably
just a shade more valuable to your business than, say, a photo of an astronaut’s
To keep your documentation from becoming an historical
footnote for your business, put maintenance and update schedules in place. You’ll
ensure users have accurate direction and help maintain your documentation
department’s value. Here are a few guidelines.
Every month, every quarter, every year?
I once toured a former munitions plant that was trying to
convert to civilian use after 30 years of production during the Cold War. As
the property administrator took me on a tour of the sprawling property, he
explained to me that every year “whether it needed it or not” the
government would repave so many miles of road in the complex as part of the
plant’s efforts to keep a constant state of readiness.
Although it’s doubtful you’ll be able to redo the
documentation equivalent of 10 miles of road, almost all of your documentation
will need to be updated or replaced. Certainly, the plant had more resources at
its disposal than most businesses. For a resource-strapped documentation
department, your efforts will have to be more targeted. Deciding how to
prioritize the work can help you manage the task.
Establishing a revision or update schedule is one way to ensure
what’s documented continues to be accurate. For example, you could divide your
documentation efforts by department: In January, accounting’s documentation is
revised; in February, it’s Training and Education’s turn. Perhaps sharing your
schedule with each department can help them organize their in preparation for
Your ability to execute such a schedule will likely depend
on the number of documents you and your staff is tasked to maintain, new
projects requiring documentation, and other business shifts. Not surprisingly,
updating your documentation on a schedule sometimes becomes a good intention
instead of a realizable goal.
You may be able to estimate a ballpark figure of updates per
month after a few months of tracking your efforts. Once you have numbers, set
goals for your department or for each work. For example, each week you might
revise 10 pages of documentation or you might update five documents from one
department. If you can stay organized, adjust your figures every six months.
Understandably, it’s easier to keep track of the
documentation that you’ve put together personally. Three months after the
project has wrapped, you know who to call to see if an update is warranted.
But if you’ve been handed a manual or a brochure covering a
topic you’ve never seen, contact the author and ask for a list of people who
helped validate the documentation. Ask if there were any unresolved issues that
the author wanted to (or should have) included. Any major
business initiatives coming soon? Changing systems? New
governmental regulations? It never hurts to ask.
If your documentation is kept on a database, run a report to
determine the documents and related materials that are being used the most. If
you’re pressed for time, updating a manual that’s racked up 3,000 views will
take precedence over the one that was viewed by three users.
Encourage your users
to report problems
In the mid 1990s, many police departments implemented
so-called Community Oriented Policing. The idea was to encourage police
officers to develop relationships with residents on their beats so that when
problems arose, it would be clear who they needed to contact to solve their
In the same way, organizations should encourage their users
to report issues with documentation. Let them know how and where to report
issues and that errors and changes will be corrected quickly, and you’ll have
to spend less time searching out problems with your own work. If your
organization is small, you might place an e-mail address in the cover sheets or
footers that encourages users to e-mail problems to the person or department
responsible for documentation.
If you organization is larger, Web-based feedback forms that
let the user describe, for example, the problem, how it affects their job, and
how soon the issue needs to be corrected can help you prioritize your
documentation maintenance needs. It goes without saying that a reasonable
turnaround time will help ensure users are willing to take the time to help you
resolve issues. A simple fix, such as replacing a blurry screen shot, shouldn’t
take that long. Updating every screen shot in a 60-page manual will require
You should also ensure that you report back to the users who
reported the problem to let them know that the issue was addressed. And, lest
you take someone’s vigilance for granted, thank the person for pointing out the
Links, phone numbers,
In some instances, you can help your documentation age
gracefully by what you leave out. If you want to make documentation writers
cringe, show them a document peppered with links, phone numbers, and people’s
names–and then tell them to validate each one. (Maybe you can save this kind
of project for the summer interns.) It’s not as if this information isn’t valuable,
but it often has the unintended effect of revealing how quickly contact
information changes. The key is to use such information judiciously. For
example, a link to the home page of a Web site is a better choice than a link
within the site because it’s less likely to change. After all, you can still
get to TechRepublic using www.techrepublic.com
even thought the URL has changed to http://www.techrepublic.com.
E-mail addresses and phone numbers are even more temporary.
One of the most common small changes that I make to documentation at my job is
to change phone numbers that are no longer valid. E-mails that are tied to a
particular user can also be problematic. If you can, refer users to lists, such
as the directory tied to your e-mail system that are maintained as part of the
Use names sparingly, opting for titles instead. During a
recent project my main contact changed three times during the six-months I was
involved. If you can, use an employee’s title instead of their name. There will
always be a person who manages your accounting department, but it won’t always
be “Jane E. Smith, MBA.”