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Process Documentation: the Scourge of Infrastructure Management

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Which bits of your documentation need the most amount of work, in the least amount of time? To find out, use the quality-value matrix suggested by infrastructure expert Rich Schiesser in this article.
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The duties of IT professionals include such unappealing tasks as late-night calls, last-minute changes to test schedules, unreasonable customer requests, and weekend upgrades. But these relatively minor annoyances pale in comparison to one of the most unappealing scourges of all: process documentation. In the frequently heard words of a typical IT analyst, "I've just spent months planning, testing, and now implementing this process. You mean you want me to document it as well?"

The reluctance to document is understandable. Highly knowledgeable IT personnel usually excel more in technical skills than writing skills. Some view writing as a less important, peripheral part of their job. Others may see documentation as being "beneath" them. Many struggle with how to determine the true quality and value of the documentation they're generating. The following article describes how IT analysts can effectively make these determinations, and in the process transform a potential scourge into a possible blessing.

Evaluating Process Documentation

An important aspect of any process, such as logging trouble calls, requesting system changes, or executing disaster recovery plans, is the documentation that accompanies it. Many shops develop excellent processes but fail to document them adequately. After an initially successful implementation of the process, many of these procedures go unused due to lack of documentation, particularly as new staff members who are unfamiliar with the process attempt to use it.

Often, some documentation is better than none at all, but adding value and quality to the documentation increases the likelihood of proper use of the process it describes. Evaluating the quality of documentation can easily become a very subjective activity. Few techniques exist to objectively quantify the quality and value of process documentation. That's why the following methodology is so unique and beneficial. I developed this approach over several years while working with many clients who struggled with ways to determine both the quality and the value of their process documentation.

The purpose of evaluating the quality of content is to show to what degree the material is suitable for use. The purpose of evaluating its value is to show how important the documentation is to the support of the process and how important the process is to the support of the business. The quality of the content of documentation is evaluated with 10 common characteristics of usability:

  1. Ownership. This characteristic rates the degree to which the three key ownership roles—process owner, documentation custodian, and technical writer—are clearly identified, understood, and supported. For some processes, the same individual may have all three roles. In most cases the documentation custodian maintains the process documentation and reports to the process owner.

  2. Readability. This characteristic rates the clarity and simplicity of the written documentation. Items evaluated include the use of common words, terms, and phrases; correct spelling; proper use of grammar; and minimal use of acronyms, along with explanations of those that are used but not widely known. This characteristic especially looks at how well the level of the material matches the skill and experience level of the audience.

  3. Accuracy. This characteristic rates the technical accuracy of the material.

  4. Thoroughness. This characteristic rates how well the documentation has succeeded in including all relevant information.

  5. Format. This characteristic rates the overall organization of the material; how easy it is to follow; how well it keeps a consistent level of technical depth; and to what degree it documents and describes an actual process rather than merely duplicating tables, spreadsheets, and metrics.

  6. Accessibility. This characteristic rates the ease or difficulty of accessibility.

  7. Currency. This characteristic rates to what degree the current version of the documentation is up to date and the frequency with which it's kept current.

  8. Ease of update. This characteristic rates the relative ease or difficulty with which the documentation can be updated, including revision dates and distribution of new versions.

  9. Effectiveness. This characteristic rates the overall usability of the documentation, including the use of appropriate examples, graphics, color coding, use on multiple platforms, and compliance with existing standards (if available).

  10. Accountability. This characteristic rates to what degree the documentation is being read, understood, and effectively used; all appropriate users are identified and held accountable for proper use of the documentation.

These ten characteristics are intended to cover a broad spectrum of quality attributes to make them applicable to a wide variety of different types of documentation. The value of the documentation to the environment for which it was intended is evaluated next, using five common characteristics:

  1. Criticality of the process. This characteristic describes how critical is the process described by this documentation to the successful business of the company.

  2. Frequency of use. This characteristic describes how frequently the documentation is used or referenced.

  3. Number of users. This characteristic describes the approximate number of personnel who will likely want or need to use this documentation.

  4. Variety of users. This characteristic describes the variety of different functional areas or skill levels of personnel who will likely use this documentation.

  5. Impact of non-use. This characteristic describes the level of adverse impact that's likely to occur if the documentation is not used properly.

Each characteristic for both quality and value can be rated on a 0–3 scale, based on the degree to which elements of each characteristic were met. The ratings are defined as follows:

  • 3: All aspects of the characteristic have been met or are present.

  • 2: A significant, though not entire, portion of the characteristic has been met or is present.

  • 1: A small portion of the characteristic has been met.

  • 0: None or an insignificant amount of the characteristic has been met.

Using this rating system against the 10 attributes of quality and 5 characteristics of value enables virtually any type of documentation within your infrastructure to be evaluated. The maximum quality rating for any piece evaluated is 30 and the maximum value rating is 15.

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