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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

Playing by the Rules: #5
Removing Obstacles

if it's too hard to find needed information, people just wing it

nutshell imageIn a Nutshell . . .

With a workforce that spent a lot of time at their computers, moving this client's procedures documentation onto their intranet removed an obstacle to doing the right thing. Policy messages that had been lost or overlooked by the audience, the lending staff, became instantly accessible when the delivery of the content was changed to a searchable, indexed, on-line reference manual.

And because more employees actually used the documentation, errors and inconsistencies in policies and procedures were discovered and corrected more quickly.

Case Study Summary

Business Function:

Lending, providing credit to both businesses and consumers in a regional market covering several states

They Said:

Elaborate paper manuals documented their procedures and policies. However, these manuals were physically unwieldy to use, and very difficult to keep up to date -- with different users in various locations and regions sometimes getting "out of synch" fairly easily. They thought that a computer-based reference tool would be easier for their employees to use, and that if they removed the obstacle of the cumbersome notebooks, they might get more consistent execution of the correct procedures.

My Take:

First, they were right! Electronic documentation was a good fit for them, given the type of work, type of reference material, and working conditions of their staff (more on this below). Ease and speed of access was an important consideration, but I could also see the importance of "single-source documentation" to maintaining their standards. In other words, because there would only be one version, in a central location (their intranet), whenever that was modified, it was instantly updated for all users, leading to more consistent practices.


Use single-source document management software to import existing procedures, which were kept in several different formats and departments, and produce a series of web pages with a consistent format and organization. The intranet approach had the advantages of an interactive table of contents and index, allowing users to "jump" directly to topics, along with a search function and internal links between related topics.


The intranet procedures are both easier to use, and better maintained. Minor updates to the content are very quick and easy. One of the key benefits of making it easier for the staff to really use the documentation is that more eyes are reviewing and applying the information. That means that errors, impractical procedures, or conflicting information are identified more readily than in the past, when different sections of paper documentation tended to have lives of their own.

Online Documentation: Considerations

It is easy to be seduced by modern technology, and it is often assumed that all internal documentation should be delivered in some online format.

But it isn't as simple as that.

As mentioned above, there are some advantages to this approach:

  • Electronic forms, whether HTML, a Help file, or another format, allow hyperlinks between topics. It is easy to jump to definitions and related topics. Contents, indexes, and search functions make finding information much easier.
  • Usually the electronic form is stored centrally, or at least on a function or region basis. That means that many users are accessing exactly the same documents, eliminating the problem of different individuals having different information. Updates are instantaneously available to all users.
  • If the documentation is relevant to tasks that are performed on a computer, there is no turning away or leaving one task to find supporting information or procedural guidance. That provides a welcome boost in efficiency and accuracy, in most cases.

But there are also some drawbacks, in certain situations:

  • Good contents, index, and search tools take time and effort to create. It is very common to badly underestimate the level of thinking and design that goes into making these tools useful. You only have to look at the indexes built into the Help files you get with most of the software you use to realize how useless poor tools can be. That means that without the requisite investment up front, putting your documentation on an intranet may ultimately lead to as much frustration as convenience.
  • Electronic forms are great when everyone who needs the information has convenient access to the central storage location of the files. But electronic documentation is not as portable as we sometimes assume. For many kinds of field work, warehouse and factory functions, and a host of other activities, there is no computer access, and even a laptop significantly slows down the work. For instance, in some functions a compact laminated card of specifications will be much more efficient than any electronic model.
  • Maintenance usually requires at least moderately specialized software, and a certain level of expertise. Compared to straight word-processing, it is a little more complicated, even though many things can usually be updated fairly simply.

© 2007 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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