Feng Shui your stale documentation

by Amanda Reid-Young

When I started working in technical documentation, I was always pleasantly surprised to encounter a client organisation that actually had existing documentation. This showed (I believed) an appreciation of the value of documenting corporate and system knowledge and made it easier to develop documents to be added to a library of information.

Attitudes to documentation and information have shifted in recent years, however. Documentation is routinely produced for compliance purposes, for quality management, to record the knowledge of a shifting workforce. Many of the corporations I consult to now have arrangements whereby many individuals can publish to their intranets, creating a proliferation of information online. This in turn has produced a surge in the condition I shall call “information clutter.”

Documentation is like anything else you accumulate in life: it needs regular springcleaning, with a reassessment and a decision whether to keep it, refurbish it or throw it away. In Feng Shui, too much clutter will block the energy flow in your home or office. In the same way, excessive documentation in the information space of an organisation is a block to the information (knowledge energy) flowing in the right directions. And it will have parallel negative impacts on the organisation’s wisdom, creativity, relationships and prosperity.

Information clutter arises when multiple people in an organisation are producing documentation, either over time or simultaneously but in different departments, without coordination. Members of staff create personal manuals that document their workflows, the whereabouts of their files, how to carry out specific tasks in their systems. IT develop help screens to provide field level information about systems. Managers produce policies and guidelines for carrying out regular tasks. Trainers write training workbooks that include specific procedures and directives for using company resources. Human Resources write job descriptions that outline the tasks carried out by individuals. Then a new policy is developed. A project is initiated to review the processes affected by the policy and streamline the workflow. The new procedures are written and added to the documentation heap – or a number of heaps in different areas of the enterprise.

So how do you keep your documentation under control? Here are eight Feng Shui principles that can help you to clear the clutter and create an environment that clarifies and enhances the tasks and relationships of the workplace.

1. Identify the problem areas

Your business units or departments are like the rooms in a house. Where is the information clutter accumulating? The intranet may be full of documents that haven’t been revised. New software releases have been documented in small supplementary documents, instead of updating the core user guide. Different sites have multiple versions of procedures. Make a list of the issues.

2. Recognise the impact on your business

Having named the problem areas, consider what impact they are having on your organisation. If policies and procedures are not easy to locate, is the organisation non-compliant? Is the morale and efficiency of key personnel undermined? Are users failing to exploit the full (expensive) functionality of the core systems? Identify the priority issue that you want to shift and start there.

You may contract HCi at this point to help you to tackle the problem. The following principles are ones that we will always apply in reviewing your information environment.

3. Look at what’s already in the space

Review all the documentation you already have. Is it inaccurate, out-of-date, irrelevant, repetitive, too obscure or just inaccessible? See what is worth keeping; you may be able to rearrange it a bit and make sure that those who need to can see it. There will also be other areas or people affected by the issue. They probably also have documentation that should be consulted and reviewed, or integrated with any new material. Make sure they are “in the loop” as your project progresses, or they may duplicate some of the work you are doing.

4. Consider throwing out the old stuff

Old documentation can have strong negative connotations – what we might call “ancestor energy”. It reflects old work practices and technologies and inhibits workers from adopting more effective processes. Knowing that one area is inaccurate undermines the credibility of the whole package. When documentation is seriously out-of-date it is usually better to throw it out and start anew rather than review and amend it yet again. If the same information is repeated in more than one place, decide which one you want to make the primary source and get rid of the others.

5. Only keep the things you use

Give workers procedures and guidelines for the jobs they actually carry out every day, rather than policies or instructions for using equipment devoid of context. Try not to burden everyone with 300-page reference manuals when 50 task-oriented pages will meet most of their needs.

6. Make sure information energy can flow freely around the organisation

Deliver your documentation in the appropriate media for its audiences and in the places where they need to find it. If you are using an intranet as a repository for a lot of information, spend effort on making it logical and easily navigable so that people can find what they need in their workspace. Create a documentation structure that reflects the shape of the business you want to have.

7. Be ceremonious

Launch new documentation with ceremony so that everyone knows it is there.

8. Keep your documentation clean and up-to-date

Clutter has a habit of creeping back in to cupboards, buildings, bookshelves and intranets. It is essential to keep documentation relevant and fresh for its audience by regularly reviewing it. Make sure you have processes in place to review your documents in response to new regulations, system updates and policy changes. Once its relevance lapses, employees’ confidence in it will rapidly wane and a full review becomes an expensive and time-consuming stumbling block to communication of knowledge.

Looking on documentation as a flow of knowledge energy, rather than as a static resource, can provide you with insights into how it affects all aspects of your enterprise. Communicating appropriate knowledge to your workforce and customers can invigorate internal and external relationships, enhance the “smart working” of the organisation and improve efficiency and profitability. With all those aspects working for you, re-orienting the Accounts department in the prosperity sector of the bagua may just be gilding the lily.

Acknowledgement: this article arose from reflections triggered by Karen Kingston’s book “Clear your Clutter with Feng Shui” published by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Limited (1998).