As a business develops and grows, each member of the team inevitably acquires intangible equity in the form of "institutional memory." The office manager knows that one vendor can be cajoled into a steep discount because an excuse to flirt with the receptionist is worth the slim margin. The folks in the IT department know that if the company intranet is down, a swift kick to the aging air conditioner is the fastest way to cool the overheated rack of servers. And the CEO who founded the company is the only who can get in touch with an investor who can be counted on to buy some shares for cash when the bank won't extend credit.
If any of these players moves on, important details of day to day operations they accumulated on the job go with them. Without proper documentation, any replacement is forced to learn all the nuance of the position from scratch and is bound to make many simple mistakes and errors in judgement that could have been avoided -- resulting in unnecessary stress, frustration and inefficiency across the organization. Team chemistry suffers, bad decisions are made, customers notice and, ultimately, it hurts the bottom line.
As is often the case, there are tech solutions to your problems. And, take heart: documenting critical systems doesn't need to be difficult or expensive.
Microsoft Office and OpenOffice both provide word processors to create manuals, spreadsheets to create reference tables and presentation software to punch-up tutorials. Add images for how-tos with a digital camera, or use the screen capture tools built into most operating systems for snapshots of steps and settings on a computer. Backup these illustrated guides for free with Google Docs so everyone can access them for quick reference or print when necessary.
A cheap Flip or DXG USA video camera can be used to record an expensive session by a top consultant or an exit interview with a company veteran to archive for training material later. And screen capture tools can also record video of tasks executed on a computer. You can archive these videos for free by uploading to sites like YouTube or Vimeo and restricting access by marking them as private.
Programs like Microsoft Visio, or free alternative OpenOffice Draw, make it easy to outline workflow, create project timelines, map decision trees and detail other business processes graphically. From company organization charts to phone scripts for customer service representatives, roles and responsibilities presented visually can be quickly understood.
Set up one or more "wikis" for free at PBwiki or Wikidot and encourage employees to create pages for any topic ranging from workplace safety tips to sandwich orders for delivery at lunch. If an employee demonstrates particular skill and enthusiasm in editing wikis, encourage them to set aside time for keeping the sites clean, easy to navigate and up to date. And reward them for their initiative and new responsibility!
The important thing is to clearly place value on making sure nothing goes undocumented. It will take a programmer a little longer to write a script if they are expected to leave detailed, verbose comments explaining the code. But the investment pays off when a new hire, contractor, vendor or customer can scan those notes to find a bug instead of tracking down the creator, who may be long gone, for an explanation. And the same principle applies to everything from how file cabinets are organized to where the office holiday decorations are stashed.
So remember: Document first, ask questions (and get answers) later.
Jackson West is a writer and web geek living in San Francisco, California and he can be found online at jacksonwest.com.
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