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How to ace internal documentation

Pull information out of your team’s brain to store somewhere safe

Illustration of two people editing a Confluence page

You know that one coworker who has been on your team for years, handles a ton of tasks independently, and is always the go-to resource for quick questions?

Now, imagine that they just put in their notice. 

Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time for someone else to get up to speed on everything that veteran works on. When they leave, you’re going to lose out on a ton of knowledge and expertise that your team has come to rely on. 

Sorry if you're suddenly feeling anxious! But that rock in your stomach really shows the value of internal documentation.

Let’s dig into everything you need to know to get started and/or refine your process before you need it. The best time to fix a leaky roof is when the sun is shining.

What is internal documentation?

Internal documentation is the practice of authoring and maintaining clearly detailed processes and procedures for reference by your internal team members. 

It’s different from external documentation, which (as the name implies) is used by people outside of your organization – like the manual you give your customers, for example.

It’s no secret that internal documentation can get a little confusing because it’s talked about a lot in regards to development and IT. Those teams need to carefully document the code for the software and applications they build. 

But, while it may have somewhat technical roots, documentation is a practice that can be helpful across your entire company, from your human resources to your customer support teams. 

Types of internal documentation

Most of what we’re going to talk about in this article relates to process documentation: recording steps for tasks or routines that your team members are responsible for.

However, it’s certainly not the only type of internal documentation. Other common types include:

  • Team documentation: This is information related to the work that’s being done by a team. Think things like goals, project plans, team schedules, status reports, meeting notes, etc.
  • Reference documentation: Process documentation falls into this broader bucket. Reference documentation educates people on important topics, processes, and policies (like how to request a vacation day, for example).
  • Project documentation: This type of documentation is specific to a particular project. It can include things like proposals, product requirements, design guidelines, sketches, roadmaps, and more. 

In this article, we’re going to focus primarily on reference documentation (and, specifically, process documentation). But, knowing those other types is still helpful context to have.

Internal documentation is the practice of authoring and maintaining clearly detailed processes and procedures for reference by your internal team members.

The importance of documentation

Way too many companies fail to realize the impact of internal documentation (until a crisis falls into their laps, and they’re left scrambling). In fact, according to a BPTrends survey, only 4% of companies always document their processes. Another 50% admit to only doing so occasionally. 

Allow us to get up on our soapbox for a second: don’t be part of that statistic. Internal documentation really is important for a number of different reasons.

Get more things done with less waste

Say you’re taking over a coworker’s duty of sending a monthly summary to your clients. Would you be faster if you tried to fumble through it all yourself? Or would you be speedier if you followed detailed directions and screenshots that taught you exactly how to pull and distribute that information? 

Obviously the second option, right?

Internal documentation serves as a resource for common processes – whether it’s filling out expense reports or scheduling a meeting with a client – that team members can turn to in order to get tasks done efficiently. That’s far better (not to mention less stressful) than crashing their way through them with a ton of guesswork.

Up level your onboarding

Research from Gallup found that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees.

That’s frustrating, because there’s little that’s worse than starting a new job and feeling like you have to fend for yourself.

Strong internal documentation practices give your new team members a font of knowledge they can turn to to confidently tackle different aspects of their new role. 

Of course, documentation is no replacement for things like mentoring and personal contact during that fragile onboarding period. But, it’s certainly a helpful supplement and a great way to immediately give your new team members some autonomy and independence. 

Enable knowledge sharing

Far too often, important information and expertise stays siloed in the brains of your individual team members. When that’s the case, you’re looking at a big problem when those people leave – especially since 42% of respondents in one survey admitted that the knowledge they require at work is unique.

That’s why it should be commonplace to get this insider knowledge out of people’s brains and documented. This knocks down those siloes, boosts knowledge sharing, and makes it way easier for your team to succeed through unexpected changes and absences.

Document management best practices

Now that you know the why, let’s get to the how. 

Follow these best practices to create internal documentation that actually helps your team, rather than frustrates them even further.

Make it easy to follow

Nobody’s going to look at your documentation if they feel like they need a dictionary to figure it out. Say things simply and avoid using too much jargon, acronyms, or complex language. Make sure to also use plenty of section headers and bullet points to make your documents skimmable and not overwhelming.

Screenshot of Confluence page

Use examples and visuals

Nothing adds clarity like some examples and visuals, so make sure to incorporate those instead of relying solely on text. Rather than just describing how to complete a mail merge for your annual luncheon invites, walk through that process with screenshots from the last time you did it.

Make it accessible

If you want people to use it, they have to be able to find it. Your internal documentation should be accessible and not buried within dozens of folders. That’s one of the perks of Confluence. It uses an open, page-tree structure, which means documents won’t get lost in endless layers of folders. When naming your files, think about what terms your teammates would use to try to find those instructions. Plain and straightforward language will make for a much easier time discovering what they need.

Provide enough detail

When you’re intimately familiar with a process, it’s easy to skip over steps and gloss over important specifics. When in doubt, lean in on providing a lot of detail. Then check yourself by asking someone who isn’t familiar with the process to review your document and see if they can follow it. If they get stuck, hone in on where and think through how you can make those areas more clear.

Strong internal documentation practices give your new team members a font of knowledge.

Open the door for contributions

If the above tip didn’t clue you in, you don’t need to be handling internal documentation yourself. Bring your team members in on downloading your company's brain onto a page and ask them to document some of their own common processes. After all, they’re the ones who are most familiar with those tasks.

Use living documents

Things change quickly within your company and your team. Just because you write something down doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. The last thing you want to do when a process changes (for example, maybe you’re using new software or you simplified some steps) is to re-do or tweak a PDF or other static resource. Use living documents (Confluence is great for this, by the way!) that make it easier for your internal documentation to evolve as your team does. As an added bonus, it also makes it that much easier for your team members to contribute.

Creating an internal documentation process

A refined internal documentation process (with templates!) can help you make your documentation so much less work and more consistent companywide. There’s a process for creating your processes – and we’re here for it. Follow these steps.

1. Identify key processes

We’re big fans of documentation, but that doesn’t mean that absolutely everything is worthy of a meticulously detailed record. There's no need to over-engineer procedures for one-off or random events.

Start by setting some ground rules for what sort of things you’ll document. Does a process have to occur a certain number of times (say, three) before you deem it worthy of documenting? Does it have to be done on a frequent basis (like at least once per month)?

Setting out with the intention of documenting everything is a bit ambitious and you’re bound to feel under water. That’s why it’s smart to establish some criteria for what’s worthy of documentation.

2. Create a standard template

You can save yourself time and ensure consistency of your documentation by creating a template that everyone can use. Make sure that your template includes fields for:

  • A brief description of why this process exists
  • Who the key players are in this process
  • What people will need (such as software or supplies) to complete the process

These fields will ensure that everybody has the information they need to follow that document with ease. 

BONUS TIP:

To encourage employees to use the template to document their own processes, consider building a reward program to incentivize their participation. Documentation probably isn’t your team’s idea of a good time, but they’ll be way more motivated to do it if documenting 15 processes by the end of the month means they’ll win a pizza lunch or a half day on the last Friday of the month.

3. Decide where processes should be stored

Remember, your documentation needs to be accessible if it’s going to be used. If you haven’t already, create a folder or hub where all of these records can live. 

Ideally, whatever you use should also be easily searchable so people don’t have to dig for what they need.

4. Schedule time to clean up

Even with a refined documentation process in place, things will still occasionally get messy. Documents end up in the wrong spot or steps will need to be updated.

Set aside some time each month or quarter to check in on all of your documentation and clean things up – whether that means tweaking processes or organizing your filing. That will help keep your system in tip-top shape and, as a result, way more likely to be used. 

Check out this guide to dig into the nitty gritty details of how to create a process for your internal documentation.

How internal documentation software can help

Your team can be a big help when it comes to pulling together your internal documentation, but technology can step in and make this easier too. Opt for internal documentation software, rather than a file system that lives on individual desktops. Doing so enables seamless contributions, since software gives you the ability to jointly edit pages, collect feedback using inline and page comments, and tag other team members for their input.

Software also allows you to create an organized knowledge hub with related pages grouped together in a dedicated space and advanced search functions. The result is an organized resource your whole team can rely on. 

Sound like a big help? We thought so. Check out Confluence to begin creating internal documentation that ensures consistency and reduces stress.

Save your team headaches and hassles

It’s tempting to write off internal documentation as an unnecessary formality. But, ask yourself again: what would happen if your rockstar employee put in their notice today? How much valuable knowledge and experience would you lose?

Implementing some solid documentation practices will ensure that you and your team are ready to tackle those unexpected circumstances with a sense of optimism and confidence!

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