Documenting in Detail: Creating Context with a Table of Contents

Few organizations attain the level of organization afforded by defining a shared filing system. More typical is a haphazard collection of “buckets” of shared documents with little or no internal organization. If you’re committed to leveraging documentation to improve organizational effectiveness, however, you’ll want to go further and not only provide easy access to documents through a consistent filing system but also layer an index on top of that system to provide context for and guide stakeholders to the documentation you’ve created so they don’t have to browse or search or ask around to find relevant documentation. This article describes four options for organizing such a table of contents.

 

Annotated Index

Perhaps the simplest documentation guide is a table of contents, stored at the top level of the shared filing system which it indexes, containing hyperlinks to the other documents that you want to highlight for a particular group of stakeholders. Such an index could take the form of a spreadsheet or a table in a rich text document containing a series of document titles as hyperlinks, preferably accompanied by a brief description of the document’s content and relevance.

Example: Initech Internal Documentation
Document Description
Filing a TPS Report Step-by-step instructions for filling out a TPS report
TPS Report Cover Memo Specifications Sample cover sheet for TPS report
Stapler Requisition Process Approval process for ordering Swingline staplers
Troubleshooting “PC Load Letter” How to fix the paper cartridge message on an HP LaserJet

 

Perspectival Planner

Adding additional structure to a basic annotated index makes it more useful and faster to navigate. One approach is to group documentation links and descriptions according to their relevance to the different perspectives from which one may view an organization, such as:
  • People: Position descriptions & related human resources documentation.
  • Policy: Organizational values, principles, policies, rules, and controls constraining the operation of the organization.
  • Process: Procedures grouped by organizational process areas.
  • System: Setup & configuration documentation for systems supporting organizational processes.
  • Schedule: Planning calendar/tickler system identifying time-based triggers for executing documented procedures
Example: Dilbertesque Departmental Documentation

People

Document Description
Chief Inspiration Officer Position description for executive cheerleader.
Brand Warrior Position description for aggressive marketing maven.
... ...

(Group position descriptions into divisions and departments as appropriate.)

Policy

Document Description
Flair Standards Manager checklist for wait staff dress code compliance
Policy Policy Our self-documenting policy on writing policies.
... ...

(Group policies into organizational units and topics as appropriate.)

Process

Document Description
Planning to plan Meta-process description for planning your planning.
Alphabetizing purchase orders A-Z guide to put order into POs

(Group procedures into process areas as appropriate.)

System

Document Description
LaserJet 2750p Printer setup & configuration documentation
HON H3000 Office workstation assembly instructions

(Group systems by organizational unit or type as appropriate.)

Schedule

Document Description Recurrence Pattern
Casual Friday enforcement protocol HR checklist for employee dress code compliance Weekly on Friday
Company Picnic Setup instructions for annual potluck Annually, on 3rd Friday in June
... ... ...

(Group triggers into recurrence patterns as appropriate.)

 

Workflow Matrix

A more sophisticated presentation of these organizational perspectives may be obtained by creating an integrated workflow responsibility matrix, which shows the interrelationships among people, policies, processes, systems, and schedules. A spreadsheet works best for such a matrix, as it allows the user to shift perspective and find relevant documentation quickly by sorting and filtering according to his or her present interest.

Role Procedure Trigger Pos. A Pos. B Pos. C Supporting System(s)
Software Engineering Quality Prepare TPS report Weekly, on M & W R   A SAP-Y ERP
Purchasing Administration Alphabetize Purchase Orders PO received by Purchasing   R   -
... ... ... ... ... ... ...


A further advantage of this integrated approach is that when complete, it can facilitate the automatic generation and update of detailed position descriptions.

 

Strategic Operating Document

Each of the preceding examples added value to your documentation efforts both by making the documentation itself easier to find and also by giving it greater context so that its meaning in relation to other organizational priorities is clear to your coworkers. Another compelling and direct way to add such context and meaning is to use the table of contents as a way to reinforce your organizational mission and core principles so that employees understand the “why” not just the “what” and “how” of your business. This understanding reinforces the link between executing the “what” of everyday work (and doing so well according to the “how” of your procedures) as a fulfillment of the “why” of your mission.

Based on Sam Carpenter’s ideas in the book Work the System,serial entrepreneurs Dan Andrews and Ian Schoen have worked out a practical implementation way to link "what", "why", and "how" that they call a Strategic Operating Document, consisting of four sections:

  • Projects: A list of current active projects.
  • Procedures: Links to operational procedures (equivalent to the “Process” contents previously described).
  • Principles: A concise list of maxims to be invoked when making decisions in areas not covered by established procedures.
  • Mission: A statement of the organization’s core purpose and values.


Regardless of how simple or sophisticated you make it, providing some sort of index as easy entry point to your organizational documentation will help ensure it actually gets read and referenced by those for whom it’s been written.


How do you ease access to your important organizational documentation? Leave your tips in the comment section below.

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