You can significantly reduce your team’s workload – and increase the quality of your content – by future-proofing your company’s documentation. So what does it mean to future-proof? Future-proofing is a philosophy that “change happens”, and rather than being surprised by it you embrace it.
It’s not a silver bullet – you’re still going to have to make changes to your documents – but it does make changes easier, from routine tweaks to major process overhauls. Planning for change in small ways can have big benefits, and by adding some best practices to how you create documents, you can minimize the work it takes to keep your documents fresh, relevant, and accurate.
Technology helps you more easily manage your manuals, guides, and playbooks, but by applying some simple techniques to how you write and manage your content, you’ll find all kinds of benefits:
- Improved accuracy
- Better version control
- Less redundancy
- Less time spent making changes
- Improved consistency between manuals
- Ease of re-use, from manual to web site to training material
There are three factors against which you’ll need to future-proof, and we’ll go into each one in a little more depth below:
Processes change. Organizations grow. Technology evolves.
Everything changes: people within your organization come and go, new software changes a process that has been accepted for years, a new product can change your customer base, a new supplier can affect the whole distribution chain. You might even suddenly find yourself, and your entire staff, working remotely one day.
Topic-based Authoring: This is a distinction with a difference – assign ownership of topics, not to documents. This means every topic has a subject matter expert, regardless of what manual, guide, playbook, or channel the content appears in.
Loosely Couple Ownership: Related to topic-based authoring, each topic should be owned by a role, not by a person. That is, the Marketing Manager is responsible for the company social media policy, not Kelsey, who happens to be in that role now. You won’t have to find all instances of email@example.com, because firstname.lastname@example.org is how you list things (this applies to names, phone numbers, email addresses, and vendors).
Single-source Content: Websites make use of a content manager’s best friend: hyperlinks. No need to duplicate content when you can simply link to it. This is more difficult, but still achievable, in other media (print, slide decks, learning management tools). If you use a content management system to keep track of your manual library, there are tools you should use to ‘write once, update everywhere’.
Evergreen Content: This is a little more art than science, but a good system will differentiate between “high-frequency change” topics and “low-frequency change” ones. A manual that gets printed is probably a low-frequency change medium, filled with topics that come and go and need to be tweaked more often than you print. Writing in a general way, and referring to an authoritative source like a fileshare, is one way to ensure that the overall idea remains evergreen, while the specifics can be updated more frequently.
Your business plan probably presumes your organization will grow. As it matures, so does your need for documentation. Onboarding new employees, training partners, evolving processes, and the passing of time all affect your existing content. You might now have multiple people writing your material, maybe even working together from different departments. Maybe you need specialized playbooks – one for marketing, one for equipment maintenance, one for emergency planning – and the increase in volume can be overwhelming.
Editorial Calendar: It’s more important than ever to review each piece of documentation on a regular basis. Regulatory policies might need to be reviewed twice a year (or quarterly during a pandemic), whereas human resources and training material might be done yearly. Some material – like cleaning and care of equipment – might be reviewed only as-needed (when you upgrade to a new model).
Topic Ownership: Like topic-based authoring, you should assign a single subject matter expert to every topic, reviewing from time to time to ensure that person is still in that role and adding back-up contacts for the topic.
Single-source Content: This was mentioned in the Change section as a way to easily make universal changes to a document. We mention it again here because now that change might occur in more than one manual. An opening checklist from the Operations Manual is also used in the training guide, within the learning management system, printed for employee reference, and within a playbook for new locations. Without a single source, you are much more likely to either duplicate content (increasing effort to change) or deliver inaccurate information (change deployed in two places, but not in two others).
Social media messaging wasn’t much of a consideration ten or 15 years ago, and if it was it was purely promotional. Now that customer service is highly entwined with social channels, remaining consistent across a website’s help system, employee training and documentation, is critical.
But that is just one example. Manuals used to be printed, but later were converted to PDF and stored on an intranet. Mobile considerations have made even PDFs outdated. Search snippets have made FAQs more important, and voice search, virtual assistants, and AI chatbots have all changed how we enable customers and employees to self-serve information – without the need for a 250 page manual.
Innovation, cost-cutting, and ease of use mean that technology will continue to alter how we write, manage, and publish information.
Topic-based Authoring: If you’re seeing a trend, it’s because topic-based authoring is the foundation for everything from internet searches to chat-bot technology. It improves speed and accuracy of content for multiple channels, in multiple formats, for multiple audiences.
Component-based Authoring: Pages and pages of content are still relevant, but to someone looking for a quick answer, they only need one part of one of those pages. Component-based architecture – breaking topics down into re-usable parts – can help new systems quickly ingest existing content, making you more innovative, faster.
Metadata: Most people are familiar with the term meta tags from knowing a little about how search engines work (keywords, description), but they go much further than that and are really powerful. PDFs have metadata capability, but most authors don’t know how to take advantage of it to improve internal search. Intranets and cloud-based fileshare systems, as well as Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMs), rely on good naming and good tagging to make their search engines useful. Setting yourself up for success on, say, Google Docs can speed your transition if your company moves to Dropbox or Sharepoint.
Keeping up with change can feel like you’re on a treadmill. Future-proofing content can make that seem more manageable.
Synergy of Future-proof
Topic-based Authoring was mentioned in all three areas, but really, all tactics are useful for each type of change. Meta data will make your library more accessible to users. Component-based authoring improves your ability to share content across channels (web, print, learning management) and across formats (PDF, print, HTML). Editorial calendars, topic ownership, and evergreen content are tried and true ways to scale content from a single manual to a library of manuals using the latest, best in class technology.
What does the future hold?
Content management, at its core, is the ability to balance the volume of content – documents, policies, web pages, blog posts, playbooks, guides – with the frequency of change (eg: changes to process, price, regulation, dates, people).
All of this is complicated by the number of channels, formats, audiences, and variations your organization’s information must serve. Best in class fileshares, learning systems, and collaboration tools are going to continue to evolve. Customers are going to demand information in new channels. Competitors are going to require you to act quickly or lose share. And nobody expected to be working remotely full-time, with completely different “office hours” than in the past.
If it seems like you’re on a treadmill, and that keeping information fresh, accurate, and relevant is increasingly difficult, you’re not alone. Future-proofing your content can make a dramatic difference in the way you create, manage, and measure your content across channels and audiences. And decreasing the churn and headache that comes with change can dramatically improve your overall quality of life.