CoolData blog

5 October 2010

How to steal from your employer

Filed under: Training / Professional Development — Tags: , , — kevinmacdonell @ 11:56 am

Your work processes are more complex than "How to unfold a chair." Do yourself a favour and document them. (Image used via Creative Commons licence. Click for source.)

Looking for an easy way to cripple your employer’s chances for long-term success? It’s easy! Fail to document your work.

You don’t have to do anything special, or illegal. In fact, you’re probably already stealing and don’t even know it. To all appearances, you’re a model employee — cheerful, helpful, productive. But you’ve got a dirty secret: You’re not writing anything down.

I don’t care what work you’re doing. If you’ve got a process, then document it. A “process” is any set of steps that you tend to repeat, or are likely to need to repeat in the future. If it’s a task that involves more than one definable step, it’s a process. I am thinking primarily of knowledge work (such as data mining), but probably every job involves processes, and every workplace can benefit from having them recorded.

Yet so many of us don’t bother. Why?

When I am the victim of undocumented processes, when I am forced to slog through the Swamp of Unknowing, I curse the schmuck who with malice aforethought neglected to scribble the simple map that would have led me out of the barrens. But is it really malice? When I’m the one who’s the malicious schmuck (though I try hard not to be), I know what the reason is: I’m busy, and documentation just doesn’t seem as urgent as the task I need to complete. Nor do I think it’s about power — some urge to guard one’s knowledge in order to continue to be indispensable.

I think the reason is a failure to see the big picture. You may be doing your job today, and doing it well, but what about the future? Do you not owe something to the future? On any piece of documentation I produce these days, I include the admonition: “This file MUST be reviewed regularly and kept up to date as processes change. Any good you do in this world today is undone tomorrow to the extent that you leave your work undocumented. Try not to be a net loss to Dalhousie University. Thanks.”

That’s what I sound like when I get on my high horse. But do I have any practical advice? Of course I do.

If you’re an employee: Want to get better at documenting? Forget about the “hit by a bus” scenario your boss mentions every once in awhile.  No one expects to get hit by a bus. And anyway, benefiting your replacement is probably not much of a motivator. You need to think in more immediate terms. Think of how forgetful you are, and how helpful it would be to simply pull that how-to sheet out of the file every time you need to be reminded how to construct that spreadsheet formula, or build that SQL query, or whatever. Or consider how tiresome it is to have the same co-worker ask you over and over to explain that same process to them; send them the Word document and be done with it! Too pressed for time? Well, turn that idea on its head: Consider all the times that failing to take notes has actually added to your workload.

If you’re an employer: Consider how costly it is to have your organization reinvent the wheel constantly. Not just the big wheels but all those little wheels, like the spreadsheet formula. It’s up to you to develop a culture in which documenting processes is taken for granted. And don’t just think it of it in terms of coping with  turnover — that’s short-term thinking. Understand that even in a stable staffing situation, effective knowledge-sharing cannot happen in the absence of documentation. And if you do suffer from high turnover, consider how much of that is due to the fact that new hires spend way too much time rediscovering and re-developing processes out of nothing, simply because reference documents are not available. By the time they’re up to speed, a year has passed; they feel they’ve added nothing to the cause, and are thinking of finding more rewarding work elsewhere.

In a future post, I’ll talk about what documentation consists of, and the simple tools you need to create effective documentation. But at bottom, you don’t need tools. You just need to care.



  1. Thanks for writing this, Kevin. Since it was obviously something stressed in my text analytics course last year (come to think of it, I’m surprised it’s not stressed *everywhere*), I posted a link back to this blog on the course’s group linkedin page.


    Comment by Jennifer Schmidt-Olomon — 5 October 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  2. Right on man i hit this same topic last week on my blog. It’s the thing i did the littlest of when i was younger and the thing that keeps on coming back to bit me in the ass. it’s like making out carnie one time who keeps calling you once a year when there in town and they think your in a relationship with them. Thank god for caller id right ???? lol

    Comment by RIchard Lewis — 6 October 2010 @ 11:58 am

  3. […] MacDonell with a fresh way of looking at process documentation.  First hint should be the title:  “How to steal from your employer.” Possibly Related Posts:(auto generated)Basic Text Mining for FundraisersFinally have the time to […]

    Pingback by Jennifer Schmidt Olomon » SQL Saturday, and the Importance of Documenting Your Work — 9 October 2010 @ 5:30 pm

  4. […] — Tags: documentation, documenting — kevinmacdonell @ 7:36 am In an earlier post, I sounded off on the topic of documentation. Documenting your work is essential to making smooth progress in data mining, and in most other […]

    Pingback by The Hows and Whats of documentation « CoolData blog — 14 October 2010 @ 7:36 am

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