Documentation: a Vital Business Tool

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Last week, Miles told us about his unexpected time off work due to illness, and how his business managed without him. It made me think of my own situation. As a small business owner and interactive director at an agency, there are hundreds of tasks I perform on a daily or weekly basis that only I know how to do. Some of them are mundane technical tasks, while others require higher-level thought processes. Some might see this as job security, but I know it’s a liability.In an absolute worst-case scenario, you could die or become disabled. More likely, you’ll be sick from time to time, and you’d probably like to be able to take a vacation every now and then without your mobile phone ringing nonstop.When I realized the number of tasks no one else could perform where I worked, I decided to start documenting as many procedures as I could. Below is a general overview of how I began to document the day-to-day procedures.PasswordsOne of the most important pieces of information to document is your passwords. I use SplashID, a password management application, to store all my usernames, passwords, and other critical information. The software itself is also password-protected, and the data is encrypted so it’s kept safe if my laptop or iPhone is lost or stolen. The files can be exported and stored in a safe place. There are lots of ways to manage passwords, but the key is to not be the only person that knows them. Make sure you have passwords stored in a secure place, and that a colleague has access to them in the case of an emergency.ProceduresI’ve been documenting procedures using Google Docs in our Google Apps account. I created a folder titled “Processes and Procedures” and shared it with our entire team. In it, I’ve created about a dozen documents (so far) that walk through how to perform different tasks in detail.If you really think about every step in a process, even the simple procedures we take for granted can seem fairly complicated. For instance, one of the processes I have documented is the purchase or renewal of an SSL certificate. At first, it sounds relatively simple, but the procedure is actually quite complex.What to IncludeWhen documenting procedures, avoid vague commands and instead include step-by-step instructions. Use bulleted lists, and add screenshots or, if you have time, video of the actual procedure. The more detailed, the better. You want enough information so that anyone can pick up the instructions and complete the tasks successfully.Keep Documents UpdatedOnce you have most, if not all, procedures documented, make sure you keep them updated. Passwords change fairly regularly, and web services are constantly changing their user interfaces, so documentation can become out of date quickly. It’s of no use if it’s inaccurate, so be sure to update your documents as soon as you notice any changes.Peace of MindI’ve barely scratched the surface with documenting all the procedures here, but I already feel so much better. Knowing that a colleague can easily step up in an emergency and take over with little or no instruction makes me feel so much better about being out of the office for an extended period of time — whether it’s a planned vacation or an unplanned emergency.One More BenefitA positive side benefit to documenting your procedures now is that if you hire a person to perform some of these tasks (perhaps to free up some of your time), you’ll have a detailed manual. They may still need some additional training, but you’ll be off to a great start!

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  • http://www.brothercake.com/ James Edwards

    I’m still amazed at how many developer tools – things like APIs and extension frameworks – are released without any documentation at all, as though it’s an optional extra. When I wrote the CodeBurner extension for Firebug, I had to do it with no documentation at all, working almost everything out by trawling through Firebug’s source code.

    When it comes to business processes, it can be a disaster, and as ugly as it is to think this way, the most sensible approach is very much to think in terms of “what if I died?”

  • Max Kosyakov

    Sir, have you seen ISO 9001 at all?

    I’d recommend reading it to every business owner, no matter how small the business is. This does not imply one should certify as ISO 9001 (IMO waste of money for a small business). However, this standard clearly explains everything that needs be followed to ensure business won’t stop one day because of a small incident (hopefully not accident).