Professionalism Series- 3: You, the company, and writing documents

September 5, 2006 6:42 am 0 comments

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This is the one thing people in companies have the greatest aversion to.

I have been surprised even to have team leads and managers tell me that a certain minimum amount of metrics were ‘too much of an overhead to be effective’.

Anything is more effective than having no idea what anyone is doing in the company.

Here is the hard truth: Every professional’s life in every company is full of documenting activities, ideas and decisions.

I agree that documentation can seem like a time-consuming overhead, but it is only such if you consider it an overhead.

In fact, documentation is often a necessary part of working in a company – often more important than the actual work.

The most important reason for this is the idea of ‘future reference’. Someone should be able to ‘go back’ in the future to find out what you did today, why you did it, and why that made sense. That someone is most likely going to be you.

Everything we plan and decide needs to be written down so that we can get back to it later on. Everything we do should be written down as evidence of why we chose to make a certain decision.

Reasons to go back can be many — unless you can go back to understand exactly why you made a certain design decision, you will end up discussing the same thing over and over again and add unnecessary overheads in your design process. Reinventing past decisions is an overhead, not documentation.

Unless you can say “What was the decision we made which resulted in this win / loss?” you can never be accountable for both rewards or losses.

Most quality-standards, such as ISO or CMMI, base their recommendations primarily on what to document, how much of it to document, how to structure the document, and how to perform the process of documentation. Clearly, putting methodology in the way you can create written evidence of your activities / decisions has a profound way on the quality of the company operations.

Why should everyone need to document things?

The part that a lot of people have issues with is why they (be they graphic designers, marketing or creative staff, system admins, technicians, support staff, engineers etc) should have to document, when it should only be a manager’s job.

In truth, a manager’s job is not necessarily to document things, but perhaps managers understand the importance of doing so much more.

Everyone in the company should be able to describe their deicisons so that the rest of the team can know precisely what is happening, when it is happening. This helps the team, as a whole catch any risks or issues early and fix them early, rather than creating chaos when that decision fails later.

In addition, much of the documentation is specific to the person involved in the tasks — if your work results in a research publication or patent, no ‘technical writer’ will ever be able to help with that.

The best way of documenting

The easiest way of writing down evidence is to document-it-as-it-happens. Trying to first get the job done, and then starting on building documents will certainly take way too much time (time that business in the world today cannot afford to spend).

It is better to be documenting concurrently as you are doing things. Always have a notepad or word document or something open, and keep jotting down your thoughts as soon as you realize that piece of thought could be important to someone, somewhere.

If you do this, you will notice that it only takes a few minutes out of your tasks, but immediately gives you miles of benefit.

If your company provides IT tools, making full use of them also helps, because the tools will automatically create audit trails around your activiites.

The mind-set shift

As I said at the start, the basic shift in the mindset required is when you can accept that creating documentary evidence is an unavoidable consequence of working in a professional environment.

It is an inherent part of being a professional, because it helps the entire company run like a well-oiled engine.

So on the way towards greater professionalism, start getting more familiar with your typing speed.

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