How to avoid an information meltdown

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Business documentation needs to be specific with a clear purpose and a clear target audience established before we start to type. Derek Hill provides his tips on more effective business documentation, and why an 'information strategy' is crucial.

“How can they make that mistake? It’s there in black and white!”

“They didn’t follow the written instructions.”

“It’s obvious what they had to do.”

These are just a few of the comments and questions I hear when talking to people about business documentation. The simple answers are: Maybe it was there in black and white on the written page, but it was in 50 shades of grey to the reader of the document. Yes, I did follow the instructions but they were incorrect or confusing! And, No, maybe it wasn’t so obvious what they had to do.

I have taught 10,000 people how to write business documentation over the past 16 years. Basically, the same issues – like those above – come up, time after time.

At the beginning of every workshop I start by asking participants to put themselves in the position of a reader/user of documentation, not as the writer or author. I simply ask them: What are the main problems that you face as a reader of other people’s documents? And the same issues keep popping up, the most common being:

 

  • There’s no obvious purpose to the document
  • The document lacks a flow or structure
  • People don’t know why they need to read it
  • I don’t know what the writer wants me to do
  • The document is too big and isn’t targeted correctly.

 

Most people are never taught how to write business documentation. We go through the school system where we are taught how to write creatively, many go to university where we are taught how to write academically, and we enter the business world where it’s just assumed we can write business documentation – unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Making business documents work

Most of us don’t have the time to scroll through masses of nice-to-know content to find the information we require. Business documentation needs to be specific with a clear purpose and a clear target audience established before we start to type.

Take your lead from online authoring gurus. Significantly reduce word count, whether the information is published on paper or online. Don’t get caught up in document length, aim for usability. Consider white space as your best friend not your worst enemy. Remember the ‘look and feel’ of your document goes a long way to its success.

Finally, always let the reader know what’s required of them from reading the document, if you need them to do something be clear on what it is and when it’s required.

Information Strategy: essential to productivity and performance

Many organisations simply do not invest enough time and money to ensure that the right information is available to their people when and where they need it. In many cases, organisations try to purchase technology to ’solve’ these problems. Technology alone can’t improve information access. It must also have an information strategy – a plan governing how written knowledge and information is stored, maintained, improved, and accessed.

International Data Corporation (IDC) suggest that organisations with 500 employees waste at least
$2-$3m pa in lost employee time spent searching for information, failing to find existing information, or re-creating information because the original information was out-dated and poorly designed.

While the costs of not finding information are significant, they are often ignored. These costs are rarely perceived as having an impact on budget or operational efficiency. As the information explosion continues and information increasingly must be available to employees, organisations must prioritise analysing their enterprise-wide information strategy to ensure that information meets the operational needs of users, customers, managers and organisations.

About the author

Derek Hill is the Information Mapping Master Certifier, trainer and documentation consultant at TP3. He recently published the TP3 White Paper, ‘How to Avoid an Information Meltdown’, which is available at www.TP3.com.au. Contact Derek via email at Derek.Hill@TP3.com.au and phone (02) 9262 3777

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