Making Great Documentation: The Documentation Process.

Making Great Documentation

One of the biggest misconceptions about documentation is that it is just an end product. Rather than being a static pile of paper, documentation is actually a process that offers many compelling advantages to increase the tangible value of your organization. Each step of this process must be done correctly in order for your organization to maximize effective use of its documentation

WHY THINK OF DOCUMENTATION AS A PROCESS?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Documentation is not about perfection. By viewing documentation as a process, your organization will focus more on the cost/benefit rather than agonizing over the details of a “perfect” finished product.
  • To drive momentum, documentation must become usable quickly. Too many organizations spend tons of money on documentation projects with the expectation of seeing the benefits only at the end of the project. To be effective, documentation must gain feedback from its intended audience early in the process and create a natural momentum that drives the project and the understanding of stakeholders forward.
  • Quality documentation demands continual feedback and updating. You can’t have great documentation without having it vetted by the right sources. This process demands a continual feedback loop where documentation is communicated and vetted by relevant stakeholders.
  • Documentation is about strong communications and storage of the material, not just having the material. Why bother documenting when you don’t show it to anyone and when you can’t find it anyway? The Documentation Process emphasizes communicating and storing the information effectively rather than focusing solely on the end product. 
  • STEPS OF THE DOCUMENTATION PROCESS

The Documentation Process consists of the following five important steps:

STEP 1: CAPTURING

Capturing information does not mean writing everything down. Step 1 requires an understanding of your documentation objectives, and discernment over what information needs to be included. The technique used to capture your intellectual capital is very important because it will affect your final documentation output.

The techniques used for capturing include: facilitated meetings, interviews, surveys, research and/or reviews of existing documentation. The tools used for capturing may include: whiteboards, illustrated pictures and graphs, meeting notes and tape recorders. No matter what the technique or tool, it is essential that you are actually capturing information. It is not uncommon for project managers and project team members to run great facilitated sessions and to host great meetings with interesting discussion. But it is less common for them to ensure that the team is effectively capturing the discussion.

STEP 2: STRUCTURING

Structuring is probably the most poorly done of all of the steps in the process because it is often the most difficult. Many professionals, including project managers, business analysts and technical consultants, understand how to capture data, but they don’t necessarily understand what to do with the data once they have it.

The best (and most common) example of professionals missing an opportunity for good structuring is with meeting notes. Most professionals consider meeting notes to be a good business practice, but in reality rarely use them effectively. We typically use meeting notes to regurgitate what the attendees said in the meeting in chronological order. Conversations, however, rarely follow a perfectly logical pattern, and it is only human nature for your employees to talk in disjointed thoughts and in circles. To make effective meeting notes, you need to examine all the relevant points discussed and then document the points in logical categories, highlighting new ideas, new information, action items, decisions made, and decisions yet to be made.

Structuring demands the use of analysis to dissect information, remove unnecessary information and build the remainder into logical categories that are relevant to and actionable for your organization.

STEP 3: PRESENTING

It is a common misconception that documentation does not need to be readable or engaging. It’s only documentation – why bother? It’s a wonder why organizations spend so much money on documentation if no one expects to read later. Documentation is always created for a purpose – to ensure that the organization captures information that it can leverage for future value. Effective presentation of the material ensures that your organization can read and understand the information captured. Presenting information involves effective use of language
to communicate your messages clearly (Technical Writing). It also requires engaging visual composition through formatting, graphics, diagrams and colour (Visualization).

STEP 4: COMMUNICATING

The value of your documentation is only realized when it is disseminated among stakeholders: so spread the word. Some may argue that communication is not what professionals think documentation is for, but communication is a critical step in the process. It ensures that your message is getting out to your key stakeholders rather than sitting in unread files.
The tactics used in Step 4 are straightforward: emailing the document or presenting it at a meeting for stakeholders. The main purpose of Step 4 is to ensure that your team, department and organization are using your documentation to assist with their projects and operations, improving your organization overall.

STEP 5: STORING & MAINTAINING

Once you have communicated what it is that the document needed to say, it is critical to have it protected and stored for future use. There are many technologies for storing documentation such as databases, file share programs and intranets. Technology is rarely the issue behind why you can’t find your documentation; human organizational skills are. Your storage system doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to cover a few basics including; searchability and retrieval, accountability, audit and continual review, and monitoring your employees and consultants.

Note! The Documentation Process is a circular, not linear, process. You can return to previous steps in the process to improve your documentation until you are satisfied.