Almost always business documentation is static, written once and put on a shelf. That’s not to say you don’t revisit it from time to time, most people do. But they do it after a certain amount of time has passed, not after a certain policy or procedure has been updated.
Change should happen continually, but retrofitting printed documents and effectively communicating change can be difficult. The secret to managing change and growth is in how you build your library in the first place.
“My standards and procedures aren’t printed, they’re PDFs. We put them on our Dropbox/Google Drive/Fileshare and people download the latest.” – Person who spends lots of time writing
No. They don’t. Listen, having a central repository for business documents is the right thing to do. Notifying users every time there is a change is the right thing to do. But PDFs are the same as printed docs in that once someone has a version (saved to their local drive, or printed out) they don’t keep up with every update.
(When was the last time you heeded your computer’s warning to update your security? Do you download every other version of your phone’s OS?)
So, what’s the answer?
There isn’t a single answer to managing growth, but it all starts with a particular mindset: Change happens. It’s continual. You will never be finished.
That shouldn’t be depressing. Good business documentation (manuals, handbooks, playbooks, standards and procedures) give your users the information they need to self-service, to find what they need without talking to someone.
That means faster, and more thorough, training. For franchises it means business consultants spend more time with franchisees on strategy and improving their business, less time on the minutiae. It means better compliance with standards. It means lower support costs.
Plan for Growth
A second answer to how to manage growth is to plan for it in everything from how you structure your material (content strategy) to how you write it (documentation). A content management system helps, as does scheduling changes instead of making them the moment someone suggests it.
Content management is a standalone science. Thinking about the way content is used and managed before you create it makes change easier.
Ways Content Changes, and How to Deal With It
Here are some tips to help make updates (semi) effortless, maybe even eliminate the need for change altogether, in some cases.
- Evergreen content. Unless there’s a regulatory, safety, or standardization reason for it, it’s better to be general than exact. Instead of “we have 106 locations”, say “more than 100”. Instead of “email@example.com” use sales@.
- Use topic-based authoring. Instead of a 600 page manual, with 60 topics, create 60 documents that are ten pages each. It’s easier to re-purpose information when it’s in smaller chunks, compiling them for specific purposes such as a customer service training manual. Smaller means more flexible. (This is another area where a content management system makes this very simple.)
- Audiences change. Instead of a single, 800 page manual, your maintenance team only needs schedules, vendors, and instructions to keep things in working order. They don’t need your marketing procedures and best practices (but the marketing interns do). Good business documentation distinguishes between roles and use cases. Static manuals don’t.
- Eliminate duplicate copy. If you find yourself making a change, then cutting and pasting that change into all the areas that same copy exists, you have a risk of being inconsistent. There are two ways to handle duplicate content, and you’d use them in different circumstances.
- Number one: link to a central repository. Rather than add a standard legal disclaimer after every mention of a policy, link to one place. Any time that disclaimer changes, you make the change in one place. This works best for web-enabled pages, not so much for print.
- Number two: same concept, but different technology and more universal – create a snippet that, rather than being linked to, you pull into the page you want to update. Write once, change everywhere.
A good analogy for creating good business documentation that adapts to change is to consider how buildings along fault lines are constructed to withstand earthquakes. Rigid architecture is more likely to crumble when the ground begins to shake. But flexible building material (and technology) enable buildings to go with the flow, making them less likely to fall apart at the first movement.
Your business documentation should be flexible enough to grow and change. If they can’t keep up with your pace of change – without simply throwing another human resource at the problem – your business growth will be limited, too.