In your personal life, or in your business, do you find yourself wasting time everyday trying to find answers to processes you perform, regulations you must adhere to, or just how to do some task? You know that somewhere amid a mountain of folders hidden away in file cabinets, on computer hard drives or in someone's mind there exists the answer. But where?

Indeed, this is the "Information Age" but if all you have are pieces of paper, notes in Word documents or you rely on someone's brain you'll never get your hands on that information when you quickly need to solve your problems. What is the solution? DOCUMENTATION!

Benefits of Documentation

Documentation is simply the capturing of information on what a system or process does and what type of individual or individuals are involved in that workflow. It tells you, in a structured form, how things are done, where things exist, and who is responsible for what at each stage. Software manuals are an example of complex documentation, written to teach you how to use a system step by step. Recipes for cooking are an example of a simple, yet highly structured form of documentation, assisting you in recreating a food dish over and over again assuring you of obtaining the same results each time.

Both of these previous examples show you that the benefits of documentation lie not in its complexity but in its structure. Whether it's paper-bound, or computer based, well written documentation takes the reader step by step through a process leaving nothing to chance! Documenting processes also means that there is a permanent record of information and steps to be taken; easily accessible to all. 

Creating documentation

You don't have to be an expert or a professional writer to create basic documentation. All it takes is a bit of patience, and a willingness to attend to detail. Whatever it is you wish to record, start by first observing the process, going through it yourself or watching someone else do it.

During your first observation, you note down the steps taken, the information worked with, anything else important to this process. The next part is harder, you run through the entire sequence again but as slowly as possible, because now you want to make sure you capture ALL of the steps, everything involved in carrying out this process.

After you have entered all your notes into a typed document, you go back and step through the entire process just as you had written it down. You add whatever you missed on the first round. Finally you test for completeness and how easy it is to follow your instructions by having someone else do the task just using your documentation. This last part not only uncovers things you might have missed but is the proof that your documentation accurately reflects the process!

Businesses have always known the value of documentation but this can also be an aid in your personal life. Just think of all the times where you have to do something over again and can't remember the steps or what items you need to complete the project. A few examples: Document what you have to do for the holidays, when, who and what sequence. Vacation plans especially if they are complex like taking a cruise to another country. Filing your taxes. Even if you use a professional you still have to gather and prepare things beforehand. 

If you run a business, or manage a department, here is a list of the common types of documentation and their benefits:

* Policy Manuals -
Helps all employees to perform consistently throughout the organization and for managers to enforce company policies. 

* Procedure Manuals -
Invaluable in training new hires. Helps managers determine what system or department is responsible if a problem crops up.

* User Guides -
Allows the user to learn the software independently and have a handy reference nearby

* Software Technical Manuals -
Helps other programmers understand someone else's code and system inter-relationships.

* Regulatory Manuals -
Protects you from violations and lawsuits by listing all regulations your business must adhere to.

* Standards Guides -
Helps create consistency between departments for production of collateral materials, customer assistance, etc.

* Employee Manuals -
Saves Human Resources time by answering reoccurring employee questions. When given to a new hire, answers basic questions.

* Training Guides (on-line, CD-ROM, paper) -
One on one training allowing user to proceed as his or her on pace.

For businesses, in order to create accurate and usable documentation, it is advised to engage a documentation specialist who has been trained in the techniques of information gathering, interviewing and writing, and can assess your business' needs in order to create your manuals. You will find documentation puts your answers at your fingertips saving you time, aggravation, and money.

For your personal life, get out a pen, some paper, fire up you computer, engage the help of a friend or your spouse, and with a bit of patience you'll never have to ask, "How on earth did I do that the last time?"