Why traditional documentation is so bad
The traditional approach to documentation, as a collection of separate documents, cannot work. This is not an operational problem that would be solved if only your managers were more diligent in updating their documents. It is a fundamentally flawed approach to knowledge management.
- No management of the body of knowledge
- Focus on documents, not knowledge
- No unified definition of scopes and accountabilities
Your documentation is a body of knowledge: your collective know-how about how your organization works as a whole. Its primary value lies in defining and explaining how the parts of your organization work together. That value is damaged or lost when you divide the knowledge up into discrete documents.
In practice, the division into documents is always somewhat arbitrary: some content gets organized by accountability (human resources, IT, safety, quality, etc) and some by document type (policy, procedure, work instruction, SOP, etc). So determining what information belongs where will be similarly arbitrary. Which results in duplications, gaps, contradictions, and turf wars. And the poor end user doesn’t know where to look for the information they need, or which version to trust.
No individual manager has the time or the authority to be across the whole set of documents. New documents get added to the collection. Old ones don’t get removed.
There’s no way to track the impact of changes. No-one is saying If you add that document to the collection, section three of this document is now obsolete.
There is no rigorous definition of the scopes of accountability across the organization. There’s usually general agreement; but the documentation problem is to be precise about the the boundaries. Where does function X hand off to function Y? In practice, each area defines its own responsibilities through its own sets of documents. No-one checks that these match up. The result is overlaps and gaps. Work is documented twice, or not at all.
In many organizations, document control has become a substitute for content management. People get obsessive about checking document formats and review dates. No matter that the content is meaningless or that no-one has read it.
Underlying all of these problems is the issue of management commitment. Bad documentation doesn’t add value, and everyone is busy. So why spend time on it? Documentation is seen as a chore, to be kept up-to-date only as far as necessary for audit purposes. Documentation is treated as a background task. The organization makes changes, and the documentation is done later. With the obvious result that the documentation is always a bit out-of-date.
You can’t expect your employees to be committed to reading and following the documentation unless your managers are equally committed to keeping it up to date.