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Advancing Document Management into the 21st Century

1 March 2008
Dr. Moria Levy
A person drawing a diagram

Our world is inundated with documents, drowning in their sheer volume. Analysts engage in a competition of bleak statistics to depict the information explosion. Despite this, most of us continue to craft documents like we did a century ago. No, I'm not referring to the technical aspect – we've long bid farewell to typewriters and printing orders, with computing leading the way. This article delves into methodological tools for elevating our documents, ushering them into the twenty-first century. Instead of delving into advanced technology, it leverages the tools and capabilities available on every computer in the office environment. The focus is on providing organizations with tools to create documents that are not only easier to write but also simpler to read and understand. The overarching principle is to enhance the internal organization of the document, benefiting both the writer and, more importantly, the reader.

This article applies the advocated method, offering a practical demonstration of its significance. It should be emphasized that the method's strength lies in its simplicity.

The article covers the following topics:

  • Understanding the Need

  • Lessons from Other Content Channels

  • Document Map

  • Knowledge Snippets

  • Concise Writing

  • Supporting Infrastructure – Organizing Documents

  • Illustrative Example – Organizational Procedures

  • Benefits – What We Gain

Understanding the Need

Our affinity for novelty is evident as individuals – be it the subtle rustle of change, flashy technologies, or evolving fashion trends. However, the haste to embrace new things often overlooks the essential question: is having new technology reason enough to utilize it? Not everything that glitters is gold. Therefore, before proposing a new writing method, it's imperative to articulate the shortcomings of the current situation, justifying the article's relevance and potential application within an organization.

Numerous challenges currently hinder us in dealing with documents:

  1. The act of initiating a new document proves challenging for many. While it's easy to read a document by a colleague and provide many ideas, facing a blank page feels like all creativity has vanished. The initial moments of uncertainty, staring at the empty page, create a barrier that often leads to procrastination. As an organization, reducing the writing time can be instrumental, as the hurdle of those first lines often prompts people to postpone the entire task.

  2. Determining whether a document will be beneficial proves challenging for those seeking information. In the age of advanced search engines, we are exposed to a vast array of documents, requiring us to sift through several before deciding which might assist us. Rapidly grasping the essence of a document upon arrival is crucial to avoid situations like the one where engineers sought external help for a recurring problem they had previously solved internally due to the lack of efficient filtering and document comprehension.

  3. Identifying the correct document is only the first step. Lengthy documents, particularly ones requiring periodic review, need to be revised. Employees may find it impractical to read through comprehensive documents repeatedly, leading to instances of improvisation or reliance on memory rather than consulting procedural guidelines. There's a genuine business need for a method that enhances our documents' writing and reading experience.

Lessons from Other Content Channels

In numerous aspects, our focus has shifted to the Internet, and rightly so. The Internet has not only influenced computer usage and purchasing behaviors but has also shaped how we communicate. Even in seeking life partners, the Internet plays a transformative role, with a growing number of individuals, particularly young people, turning to social networks for this purpose. The Internet has altered our perspectives on life, and this influence extends to crafting advanced document solutions.

Drawing insights from the Internet, it's evident that web content is rarely presented as a continuous, uninterrupted sequence.

Consider any news site as an example. The homepage typically features a primary news item and headlines from various categories such as economics, current affairs, culture, etc. Clicking on a headline directs the reader to the complete article, often accompanied by links to related articles. This approach delivers information gradually, allowing readers to delve in and out without needing continuous reading.

Another informative content channel to learn from is the print press. Peruse a weekend newspaper, and the way articles are structured reflects the principle of graduated reading. Gone are the days of a single headline followed by an article. Today, alongside the main headline, subheadings provide additional context, and the sides of the page feature sections with representative information from the article. Reading involves assessing the main headline for potential interest and then glancing at striking subheadings. If the decision is to continue reading, readers often peruse the side sections for more insights into the content and writing style before committing to full reading. In essence, even without computerized tools and hyperlinks, graduated documents can be effectively produced.

Document Map

The primary principle we aim to instill in new documents is the concept of internal organization. Special attention is directed toward the initial page, termed the "document map," which serves as a comprehensive guide for the reader. This map encompasses information designed to aid the reader in understanding the document's relevance and content. We will delve into each component individually:

A concise introduction or preliminary description helps the reader quickly assess the document's relevance. For instance, in an engineering specification, the component may provide an overview of its connection to broader assemblies or devices. This applies to various document types tailored to their unique characteristics.

While it may seem straightforward, the challenge of the document map lies in combining both the introductory elements and a visual representation of the document's contents on a single page. The difficulty arises because we aim to give the reader a rapid understanding of the document's context. Winston Churchill once expressed the challenge of concise writing, noting that he lacked the time to shorten a letter, so he prolonged it. Indeed, it is often easier for us to write at length than to condense our thoughts. The reader may rightly question where the promise of making it easier for both reader and writer is fulfilled. Despite appearances, I assert that we do make it easier for the writer for the following reasons:

  1. Concise writing is a learned skill. Initially challenging, individuals quickly adapt, and the practice of concise writing sharpens their thought processes, ultimately benefiting them in the writing process.

  2. Organizations adopting this approach focus on two main categories of documents: lengthy documents and fixed-structured documents. Long documents that share commonalities, such as procedures, guidelines, product specifications, and usage guides, are identified for this initiative. While the writer may not start from scratch, the structure allows for variations in the flow or subset of components, making the process less daunting.

The document map, including the visual representation, serves as a tool for graduated reading. It lets readers grasp the overall content at a glance, reminiscent of journalistic writing or online content. While reading on a computer, the visual map may include specific links to navigate directly to focused sections. However, this is not mandatory, as the map fosters focus, and visualization aids in comprehending the document's entirety.

Knowledge Snippets

If the document map seemed somewhat intricate to plan, or at least initially, the subsequent sections are anything but. These sections are comprised of fragments and segments. Each such segment is referred to as a knowledge section, an integral part of the visual map mentioned earlier. Significantly, each knowledge section is limited to one page—no more. This deliberate constraint ensures concise writing, allowing returning readers to effortlessly focus on relevant questions without delving into extensive appendices. While marking sections with colors or symbols that mirror the visual map is recommended, it remains a suggestion rather than a requirement.

Concise Writing

Establish expectations early. We don't expect every document writer in an organization to become a skilled journalist. However, a few straightforward rules can foster better writing habits:

  1. Keep it to one page. When there's no alternative, you learn to write concisely.

  2. Use positive language simply and clearly. While sophisticated language may be suitable for esteemed magazines, in organizational life, straightforward writing has an advantage – the kind where each word carries a single meaning, and every reader understands our intended message.

Experienced content editors are well-versed in a broad range of rules, but we propose an approach suitable for every employee in the organization. Thus, we focus solely on the most critical and meaningful rules for concise writing. Once accustomed to these, it's sufficient.

Supporting Infrastructure – Organizing Documents

A document's internal organization is a significant step toward advancing documents into the 21st century. However, in implementing this step, it's crucial to recognize that it is a complementary measure and doesn't replace established practices:

  1. Provide the document with a meaningful (external) name to ensure that people open it in the right context.

  2. Accompany the document with external features that simplify searching or store it in a library that allows easy and swift retrieval.

  3. Group all documents related to the same subject in a common environment to ensure a single copy and version of each document.

We won't delve into the details of how such processes are executed. Most organizations are already familiar with them and strive to implement them, some more successfully than others. The key takeaway is that internal document organization aids those who have already accessed the document. In contrast, external organization assists in the preliminary stage – understanding which document is suitable and valuable for us to access.

Illustrative Example – Organizational Procedures

There is no obligation to instigate revolutions in organizations. Gradual changes may take longer, but they are more likely to be embraced and executed. The same principle applies to intelligent document writing. In several organizations, adopting the method for organizational procedures has commenced. A recurring issue in many organizations is the existence of well-detailed procedures that, despite significant investments, are rarely utilized. This realization becomes apparent through various quality tests and investigations. The astonishment is perennial – procedures are published, but their practical implementation is nearly nonexistent.

Efforts to guide and assimilate persist, while others resort to rigorous enforcing and punishing. However, the crux of the problem lies in how we compose procedures. The conventional approach involves crafting lengthy procedures with numerous introductions, terminology, methodologies, and version listings. By the time an employee reaches the essential point, exhaustion sets in. Though some diligent employees may read the entire procedure the first time, it is unlikely that, in practical scenarios, employees will refer to the procedure for specific, focused guidance.

The proper internal organization of the procedure document, as proposed below, can and significantly enhance the readability of procedures by orders of magnitude in organizations where the method has been implemented. It reduces the time spent writing procedures, as the author adheres to defined, uniform rules, filling out something more akin to a form with specified fields than a free-form document. Sections are delineated, making writing more straightforward. For the reader, life becomes considerably simpler. They gain an overview of the procedure through the map, especially with the aid of the visual map. Reading the entire process, pausing from one knowledge section to another, serves as intervals for digestion and understanding. Readers can adopt an internet-style method – diving in and rising. When deliberating, they can focus on the relevant passage and quickly be located with the help of the visual map.

While it is too early to statistically measure the decrease in malfunctions due to a change in the procedures system, initial organizational projects have yielded positive results. Successful procedures inspire others, creating a demand for enhanced procedure writing. The method's application appears to overcome a previously addressed obstacle only through symptomatic treatments (training and assimilation) rather than the core problem. As the saying goes, one does not argue with success.

Benefits – What We Gain

Implementing the method outlined in this article yields benefits for everyone involved: the writing employees, the reading users, and, most importantly, the organization's profits. Authors experience the following advantages:

  • Clear, concise writing by defined rules, ensuring systematization and accuracy.

  • Establishment of a unified language in document writing.

  • Defined individual writing processes.

  • Enhancement of the flow of pertinent information to the right employee.

Readers also reap numerous benefits, including:

  • Easy navigation through documents using a map.

  • Swift identification of relevant knowledge.

  • Access to the necessary knowledge.

  • Opportunity for an overview of the written document.

  • Interactive reading tailored to the reader's preferred style.

The organization itself gains substantial advantages, such as:

  • Improved utilization of information and knowledge within the organization, serving as a stepping stone to enhancing the business's competitive advantage.

Achieving these benefits is a significant accomplishment, rendering additional gains unnecessary.

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