Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ding Ding Ding


One of the things virtually every software office will tell you, usually with a sheepish sort of "Yeah, we know" kind of expression, is that their documentation sucks.

Everyone knows updated docs are critical. Everyone knows outdated docs are deadly.

And yet, I've never walked into a place where people didn't tell me their documentation sucked.

Why this happens is pretty well understood -- everyone's busy and there's always tasks to do that either

A) are more critical to company health; or B) are easier. Usually, it's B.

Because let's face it, updating documentation feels like being the art critic, compared to the artist who's out there fixing bugs or launching new campaigns. In the words of H.L. Mencken, it's like being the bell ringing frantically at the crossing as the train roars past. All the action is really up with the train. Who wants to be the crossing signal?

But the organization isn't just the train, it's the whole map: the tracks, the highways, the farms inbetween, all that. And (bear with me as this metaphor starts to creak under the strain) in that respect, the crossing signals are critical elements in making sure the trains, cars, pedestrians and what not don't run headlong into each other.

I was standing at Spadina and Richmond, the other day, waiting to cross, and watching oncoming traffic, and the light changed and I just stepped out in front of thousands of pounds of fast-moving steel. It occurred to me that I didn't have to make any sort of contact with the drivers of each and every vehicle coming my way in order to be sure that they would stop -- the crossing signal took care of that for me.

It seems like much of our technology can be understood as mechanisms for enabling communication between large groups of strangers. A crossing signal is really a way for me to send a message to a few hundred drivers, saying, "Okay, I'm crossing the street now. Please stop." Because I don't have to create a relationship with each and every driver on the road, I can get to work even though there's thousands of people trying to travel down the same roads I am. If I had to negotiate each and every social interaction as I travelled, it would take me hours to get to work.

Crossing signals simplify social interactions.

So does corporate and process documentation. And, understanding these organizational tools as crossing signals maybe helps to explain why keeping them up to date is so important.

And why, fundamentally, doing so is the boss' job. Not that it's the boss' job to decide on everyone else's process and tell them what to do, but it is up to the boss (note that we're using the term "boss" here pretty loosely. You decide if that's you or not) to make sure that the signals are up to date, that they are actually helping to manage the flow of traffic -- not just flashing pointlessly while everyone moving through the intersection ignores them.

A lot of things can make documents useless: inaccurate information is only one. Besides being out of date, plenty of corporate docs are just boring, if not actually painful. An organization where communication skills are not valued ends up with reams of documents that can't be understood or that just don't connect with readers and get them on board. And every single document that isn't used is organizational noise -- imagine if the city were full of crossing signals, multiple signals at each intersection, some of which were accurate and some of which weren't. In order to get anywhere you'd have to have someone show you which signals to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. This is exactly the situation in most offices -- you get led by the hand through a maze of outdated documents and told which ones matter and which ones don't. The latter list is almost always larger. Much larger.

Tools can help, but whether they use Word or Wikis or whatever, the real answer for most offices is investment in communication skills and the time needed to develop and most importantly maintain documents. This is why (and perhaps I'm biased on this point, what with an English degree and all, but still) solid writing skills are essential for a company to thrive. Along with a boss who understands the value of reliable crossing signals.

Ding ding ding....

Typewriting photo: Roberto Clix. Crossing Signal photos: Michal Zacharzewski