Documenting in Detail: DIY Distribution

Now that you have identified your documentation priorities and started to generate some policies and procedures, how do you best disseminate them? Unless you’re creating documentation entirely for your own benefit, it’s likely that you’ll need to share it with others in your organization.

3-ring binder photo by Pavel Krok (used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license)The obvious, tried-and-true solution is to simply print the documentation and hand it out to stakeholders, perhaps neatly organized into 3-ring policy and procedure binders. Or, if you prefer saving trees, disseminating documentation as e-mail attachments comes to mind as another straight-forward distribution avenue. These methods are generally simple and easy to execute but suffer from the same shortcomings. Since both rely on creating multiple copies of the documentation, they fail to provide a “single source of truth”. Every time you change your processes or guidelines, you need to re-distribute the documentation. If practices change quickly or you develop a lot of documentation, this churn leads to a lot of extra distribution work for you as well as burdensome filing work for your coworkers. It also opens up the potential for error in the quite likely circumstance that not all copies of old versions are replaced after an update, leading to an out-of-date version being relied upon as a reference.

Given these downsides, this article focuses on sharing documentation in ways that maintain a single source of truth. We’ll start by exploring “home grown” systems building on common file sharing services. In a future article, we'll also briefly explore more specialized documentation and workflow management systems.

Home Grown Systems

Introduction

The simplest and lowest cost approach to distributing your documentation while maintaining a single source of truth is to grow your own system, preferably building on your existing method of sharing electronic files (assuming that’s not as e-mail attachments!). The proliferation of Internet file sharing services has made this DIY approach easier in the past decade than it had been previously, when it required significant IT expertise to set up file sharing servers, enable web publishing, and manage accounts and permissions. Now popular cloud services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox take care of all of the technical details, opening sharing up to anyone with moderate computer skills.

Alternatives

The following tables summarize leading alternatives for sharing documentation effectively. Most platforms are available in free versions with some usage limitations.
 
Attribute Description
Sharing Level Permission sets you can apply to shared documents.
Synchronization Client software (by operating system) enabling automatic document synchronization for up-to-date off-line access
Web Editors Web application(s) allowing direct editing of documents, if any.
 
Service Sharing Levels Synchronization Clients Web Editors
Google Drive View, Comment, Edit Google Drive for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android Google Docs Suite
Google’s Web editors are not quite as full-featured as desktop OS office applications, but offer excellent collaborative authoring capabilities. Google Drive can store any file type, so you are not limited to sharing native Google document types.
Microsoft OneDrive View, Edit Microsoft OneDrive for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Windows Phone Office Web Suite
While the Office Web editors may be more limited than Google’s equivalents, OneDrive offers seamless integration with the desktop and mobile OS versions of Microsoft Office, making it a good choice for Office-centric organizations.
Zoho Docs View, Edit Zoho Docs for Desktop on Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android Zoho Docs Suite
A lesser-known equivalent to Google Docs & Office Web, Zoho offers free and subscription productivity apps, as well as integrated specialty business apps for project management, customer relationship management, work orders, workflow, and more.
Dropbox View, Edit Dropbox for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Windows Phone None
Many other cloud storage providers exist, including Amazon Cloud Drive, Apple iCloud, but DropBox leads the market in functionality and integrations.
Microsoft SharePoint Online View, Edit Microsoft OneDrive for Business on Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Windows Phone Office Web Suite + SharePoint Wiki & Rich Text Editors
Many other collaboration/intranet/content management systems options exist, but SharePoint Online serves as an exemplar. It integrates document repositories with web pages, wiki sites, discussion forums, and custom workflow capabilities.
Wikispaces View, Edit None Wikitext editor
If your needs are for highly collaborative editing with a web interface, but little need for advanced formatting, then a wiki may be a suitable choice. Wikispaces offers hosting, but there are many free wiki software options if you host yourself, notably MediaWiki, on which Wikipedia is built.
Github View, Edit Various Git clients on Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android Markdown
Git is a popular version control system. While used primarily for collaborating on software projects, it can handle storage and version maintenance of any file type, so if tracking and approval of document changes is important to you, version control software may be useful. You can host your own for free or use a hosted service, with Github being the most popular. Other providers, notably Bitbucket.org, also provide free and paid plans for hosting Git repositories.
Windows (SMB) File Server View, Edit Microsoft Windows Sync Center None
Once the de facto choice for sharing files, a traditional file server is now one of the least desirable, as it requires self-hosting and special setup for publishing over the Internet securely. On the file server front, a myriad of other protocol and platform choices exist (MacOS X [AFP], WebDAV, NFS, FTP), but all require far more setup and administration than the previously listed alternatives.

Regardless of which publishing platform you choose, you’ll need to organize your documentation in similar ways. The next Process Pragmatist article will explore the essentials of organizing for efficient electronic distribution, including methods of creating master indexes of shared documentation for easy navigation.

In the meantime, please let me know what documentation distribution system you're having success (or challenges) with in the comments section following this post or via reply e-mail.

1 comment:

  1. As always Keith, practically useful. Thanks for this!

    ReplyDelete