machu-picchu-43387_640The highlight of my summer was a trip to Machu Picchu with my 74-year-old Dad. Although we deemed hiking the Inca trail a bit too ambitious, we spent two glorious days in the Lost City of the Incas.

Our guide, Juan Aguirre, was invaluable. He patiently explained not only what we were seeing, but also the significance of the sights. Much of his explanation was based on what archeologists and engineers have been able to piece together (not always with complete confidence) since a young Indian farmer led explorer Hiram Bingham to the then dormant city in 1911.

Unfortunately, much knowledge about the Incas has been lost. For example, we know that the Incas performed surgery. Lost to time, though, are the techniques and means by which they were able to make patients unconscious. This is because the Incas had no written language. Instead, they passed down tribal knowledge verbally from generation to generation. Of course, no one could have predicted the Spanish conquest that nearly wiped out the Incas, taking much of this knowledge as well.

TMI (Too Much Information)
I was reminded of the importance of passing on tribal (or, in this case, corporate) knowledge by an article in the August issue of TD&J. Titled “Training Is Broken,” the article cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics which estimate that today’s workers will have 10 to 14 jobs by the time they turn 38. In addition, the article noted that one in four workers today have been employed by their company for less than a year.

Couple this trend in workforce mobility with the astonishing pace of knowledge creation (according to researchers at the University of California Berkeley, the amount of information created in 2002 was double that created just three years earlier) and it becomes crystal clear that the need to identify and document best practices to preserve corporate knowledge has never been greater.

Best Practices for Best Practices

Below are some tips for the relatively painless documentation of best practices on the fly.

1) Break best practices into small chunks.
The documentation of a best practice should ideally take no more than a single-spaced page. It’s when documentation becomes overly long and complicated that people develop writer’s block; they don’t know where to start, where to end, or how to get through the middle.

2) Offer a choice of simple templates with examples to show what “good” looks like.
Possible templates include:

▪                Step-by-step directions

▪                Process flowcharts

▪                Frequently asked questions

▪                If/then decision tables

▪                Checklists

3) Search out opportunities.
Look for situations where only one person on your team knows how to do something and you’d be in real trouble if he or she left.

Look also for innovations in processes and decision making that your team members develop. Did someone just put together a spreadsheet that calculates inventory? Great! Now make sure that they also write directions on how to use that spreadsheet so others can benefit from their ingeniousness.

4) Limit the time spent documenting.
I’ve seen clients go whole hog documenting every possible best practice all at once. This is often a sure fire way to burn everyone out, even if you bring in a team of professional writers to do the actual writing. Instead, try documenting one or two best practices a week, spending no more than a half hour total.

And, if at all possible, see if you can piggyback the documentation process onto something else. For example, if training is being developed in a particular area, try to get your best practices documented as part of the training materials development.

5) View best practice documentation as a work in progress.
Don’t wait for perfection before you write something down. Instead, as the famous Nike slogan says, just do it. And then revise what you’ve written as the best practice evolves. Best practice documentation can be the launch pad for process improvement.

What’s In It for Me?

In my own business, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to document what we do and how we do it. In a small business, this can be quite challenging because our first priority is to pay the bills; in other words, do client work.

However, making time to document best practices allows me to capture the expertise of current team members so it is not lost if they are unavailable to work on a particular project. I can then leverage this knowledge to get new team members up to speed quickly and cost effectively. Given the increasing rate of both information creation and employee turnover, it may be time for us all to consider how we can make this best practice part of our routine work process.