Documentation isn’t cool – so what’s the point?

The Point

We have been thinking recently about organisational change and how it can be implemented. Last fortnight’s post focussed on how to make the change stick and some of the challenges. There were a few. Personal reluctance, which then fuels organisational reluctance, lack of higher level buy-in, inappropriate supporting documentation, and a general failure to commit over time to the change.

The purpose of this blog (not just this post) is to explore a framework for documentation that supports any individual’s understanding why and how their organisation operates at a strategic through to operational level. This is therefore the documentation that ultimately facilitates and underpins the status quo or specific changes occurring. But documentation of procedures (a key part of the framework) takes time, patience and commitment in itself and is often what freaks people out.

Documentation is just not cool and if the resulting benefits are not instantly clear then it begs the question – what is the point? If you go to the trouble of putting this corporate knowledge down on paper and either the physical change that was planned doesn’t stick or the motivation to retain and maintain this documentation does not exist, isn’t this type of documentation a waste a time?! That’s what we’re looking at today.

It is probably best to talk in concrete rather than abstract terms for this. Imagine you are the owner of a… Wait for it… Lolly shop. There, that’s original, isn’t it? You’ve never heard of this example before, have you?! Imagine that your store specialises in fruit chews and due to some amazingly good tactics you have put in place in terms of promotion, customer service, ordering and reporting, demand has sky rocketed.

So let’s pretend you are planning to go through a major change to operations. Due to your successful management you now have a staff of 50 and would like to start sub-contracting out some of the staff in supporting functions (like HR, reporting and finance) to help other franchisees in the chain. Therefore your core business will be expanding to not only sweet sales but also specialized franchise business support. That is a big risk, but it’s one you’ve decided is worth taking.

So what do you do? You don’t want to burn out your top quality staff so before you chuck them in the deep-end of a backwards-running business you have them document the policies and procedures that will form the basis of their work elsewhere. Then you organise the contracts, staffing arrangements, reorganize role descriptions and tweak some internal processes so your own business keeps running as efficiently as possible.

Now, I see that there are two ways in which the change may not stick.

Firstly, if people do not stick to the policies and procedures that have been written down.

Do the new arrangements seems to be working well? If not – oh dear. Well at least you have a set of procedures to fall back on. If the procedures iron things out – brilliant, and wasn’t that easy?! If not, well at least you have a solid starting point for improving the way business is done and smoothing out the problems.

If the arrangements do seem to be working out, well great! If I were you I’d take it as a win for the documentation process as it made your staff think carefully through what they were going to be doing post-change! At least you know that you have a decent set of procedures for new staff to get their head around things, and if things start going wrong you can revisit the documentation. However, if you want to be sure that your staff are doing things properly, cost effectively, efficiently and in a way that doesn’t expose your new arrangements to risk in the short, medium and long-term, then you are going to have to work with staff to develop a culture which supports this.

Is it just one person who hates following procedures? Well, if everyone else is following procedures then the one person who does not is going to stand out like a sore thumb. If everyone else is happy, then tie adherence to these procedures into job descriptions and performance reviews and then make a decision about how you are going to manage the situation.

Secondly, if the new arrangements do not stick or you need to reverse things.

As mentioned already, if there are problems with the new arrangements, at least you have a set of procedures to fall back on. If the procedures iron things out as a starting point for improving the way business is done and smoothing out the problems.

But maybe you realise that the new arrangements are just making it too hard to run the fruit chew side of things properly, and want to reverse things. In that case the documentation that streamlined your own original business operations will still be useful internally, whereas the documentation about your sub-contracting operations obviously won’t need to be used anymore. However that documentation is useful to keep on-hand as evidence to show how diligent your staff were for that short while (in case things with the franchisees you had started working with had turned nasty for whatever reason) and could even be sold in the future to anyone wanting to enter into similar operations.

So documenting the way things are done is useful however it plays out in this example.

And this is really no different to if you were running part of a government department or a not-for-profit organisation. Sure, your motivation might be slightly different – better healthcare for a certain section of society rather than bad teeth and a lotta profit – but you still need to know that what your staff is doing is accountably based on sound practices, contributes to your organisation’s aims, is not ludicrously expensive, and is not opening up your organisation to risk. Without either having core business practices documented or – failing that – regularly audited, how do you know what is really happening, or how well?

But what do you think?

Do you think documentation is cool? And what benefits do you see result from documenting corporate knowledge?

What do you think?