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.