Case Study

Project Summary:

A well-established, mid-sized company in the transportation industry had very little official technical documentation. The material that existed was quite obsolete, inaccurate, incomplete, or written in haste.

Project Overview:

Company executives were growing concerned that many critical processes and procedures only existed in the minds of senior employees or in scattered, unofficial documentation. Previously, vital information was lost to retirements or staff turnover, and the growing company needed better ways to preserve knowledge and to train new workers. In addition, tightening regulatory requirements increased the complexity of business tasks and employees struggled to maintain a clear understanding of how processes evolved over time.

The company called upon my experience to establish a documentation and training package from scratch, including the following components:

  • documentation templates
  • subject matter expert resource expectations
  • document use policies
  • review processes
  • a document storage methodology
  • periodic re-review recommendations

Project Narrative:

  1. I facilitated remote meetings with stakeholders to introduce myself, to get a feel for any existing material, and to learn how the company envisioned the end result. Meetings are critical to grow my own understanding of the type of language and documentation style that best suits the client's workers. I strongly believe in tailoring the language and presentation formats to the intended readership.

    During the introductory meetings, I learned that company workers prefer visual learning rather than large volumes of instructive text. Armed with useful information, I produced template drafts and obtained stakeholder approval.
  2. I produced test documents to demonstrate my recommendations for the use of screen captures, graphics, and text. I submitted the test documents for approval from stakeholders and workers, negotiating changes as required to satisfy company needs while still adhering as near as possible to technical documentation best practices. I find that providing early, tangible glimpses at the end result tends to increase a client's enthusiasm, and makes the project feel more genuine.

    My lengthy experience in a wide variety of industries has shown the importance of maintaining flexibility rather than sticking to rigid best practices, even when a client's needs require choices that aren't optimal. A new worker at a software company is likely to have much different needs than a new worker at a heavy equipment vendor. My top priority is to provide a documentation strategy that works, and I've learned several methods that allow me to present effective material to a range of readers without ignoring best practices.
  3. I engaged the client to discuss the following project details:
    • subject matter expert (SME) resource requirements. Many stakeholders underestimate the amount of time and effort required to produce useful documentation, and I make sure to provide my clients with realistic recommendations to avoid surprises. We discussed the relationship between the client's expected project timeline and SME availability to provide content and perform document draft reviews.
    • A document storage and access strategy. I recommend a proper document management system (DMS) such as Microsoft SharePoint when suitable, but many clients prefer to store documents on simple network folders. Network folder storage is often preferable for clients that lack the budget or appetite for a DMS and the accompanying IT support resources, or when field workers might struggle to use a DMS.

      Again, my experience with a wide variety of industries, budgets, and company sizes allows me to provide flexible options that best suit the client's needs. Regardless of the storage option that a client chooses, I can provide permission and access recommendations that allow workers to use the documentation effectively while preventing unwanted or accidental changes.
  4. As the project strategy came together, we discussed my recommendations for periodic documentation re-reviews into the future. In most cases, documentation naturally becomes obsolete as processes or products evolve, and periodic revisiting is critical to maintain accuracy.

    My recommendation for re-review frequency depends on the nature of the business. If a client's business practices, products, or services change continually, then periodic re-reviews must be quite frequent. In very dynamic cases, I recommend that the client integrates documentation into the change management process to ensure that product or service changes are quickly reflected in documentation or training material. Obsolete or inaccurate documentation is often worse than having no documentation at all, and I always stress the importance of appropriately frequent re-reviews.

I was pleased to leave the client with a realistic strategy that provided useful information in an attractive, accessible format that both workers and executives appreciated. My experience allows me to pull the best components from a variety of documentation styles to provide my clients with the best tools for the job.

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