Knowledge Sharing: The Importance of Documentation

Today’s blog post is written by Emily van der Harten, Documentation Specialist, PatronManager.

Recently while catching up with a friend, they mentioned they were moving on to a different company and had found a replacement for their current position. This position was a many-hats-for-one-person kind of job… sound familiar? Since my job here at PatronManager is literally to document processes, the first question I blurted out was, “Whoa, did you document all the stuff you do for your replacement?” They replied with an emphatic “Yes! It took me like three weeks to write it all, but it’s done.”

While my friend and I waxed poetic on the merits of creating and maintaining documentation on best practices for fellow colleagues, it got me thinking about my own love for thorough documentation, and why it’s important for organizations to value it. Creating and fostering organization-wide documentation has multiple benefits. It encourages continuity, efficiency, and a collective memory so your organization can thrive!

If you have training documentation in place for new hires, for example, some of their learning can be self-directed, which will free up time for your trainers to work on other projects. Or, perhaps your organization hosts an annual fundraising event — wouldn’t it be great to have a document containing timelines, roles, vendor recommendations, and other vital information instead of starting from scratch every year? Likewise, when a colleague leaves your organization, their thorough documentation can ensure a smooth transition and set their successor up for success. After all, you don’t want to have to call your former colleague every time you have a question about how they did their job!

Now that I’ve illustrated why documentation is good for the health and sustainability of your organization, you might be thinking, “but it’s so time-consuming, and I don’t know where to start.” Worse yet, you might already have some out-of-date documentation within your organization that hasn’t been touched in years. To help you digest what may seem like the Mount Everest of all projects, below are a few tips for planning and writing effective and engaging documentation.

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel: Assess what resources you already have and from there, identify your documentation gaps! Once you’ve gathered everything, you can start to see where documentation is lacking, and where it needs improvement.
  • Keep it clear and simple: Make sure to convey ideas in a straightforward and concise manner — humans learn in so many different ways, and the goal is for virtually anyone to be able to understand what you’ve written.
  • Use images to illustrate: Where appropriate, add visual cues to your documentation. Doing a step-by-step instruction guide? Add screenshots to each step to show what you’re telling the reader to do. A little humor goes a long way, so throw in a meme or a gif every so often. Just make sure the humor adds to the content and doesn’t distract from it!
  • Structure is key: Write documents in an accessible format and organize your content wisely. Include a table of contents, use headings and subheadings to visually break down your content, and avoid walls of text, especially when explaining something complex.
  • Ask a colleague to review your work: One of the best ways to know if what you’ve written is accessible to others is to have others read what you wrote! Ask for honest feedback, and if applicable, have them test it out.
  • Set expectations and bring in others where appropriate: On a broader level, documentation takes some time to execute. And no one person knows every single detail about your organization. To assist in your efforts to create and sustain documented best practices for your organization, bring in a little help from your friends. If able, assemble a cohort of staff, each representing different areas of your organization; each ambassador can be a resource for documenting best practices for their respective departments. They can also work cross-departmentally and collaborate to establish an overarching ethos.

Whether you’re moving on from your current position, passing a job responsibility to a colleague, or writing best practices to help train new hires, you’ve learned plenty at your job and should have a record of all the processes you’ve come up with to make work-life smoother and more efficient. It’s important to pass that knowledge along to your colleagues to alleviate confusion and foster support. They’ll appreciate the blueprint you’ve established for them to work from. Not only is it considerate, but it’s also essential!

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