Three Ps: Policy, Process, and Procedure

There are several tasks rotating on my plate as a technical communicator. Some days I investigate how people in my office use our Sharepoint 2010 shell. Some days I lead workshops on knowledge management or Microsoft OneDrive applications. Many days, I work on designing and/or updating policies, processes, and procedures. These last documents may be the most important part of my job as a data center technical writer.

In order to get a handle on policies, processes, and procedures, I did a little online research and came up with a very simple way to define these three types of writing. When workers must follow procedures to complete a task, like file for a change, or get a waiver against a standard, they must follow a policy, a process, and a procedure – all of which work together toward this single task. I have them written out this way:

Policy = Guidelines & Laws

Process = Global View of tasks

Procedure = Local View of task steps

Developing documents that tell workers how they must complete recurring tasks comes with responsibility to the audience. If my procedure is incorrect, hard to understand, or vague, then my intended audience cannot complete the job. Or if they do figure out how to complete the job despite my document, I have just wasted their time and complicated their work life. I am a proponent of efficiency over all. If my document causes someone to have to work harder, then I have failed myself and my user. This means that my language must be simple and free of possible double meaning. I also like to practice minimalism. If I am uncertain whether a sentence is necessary, it probably isn’t, and I delete it. My audience does not want to read a novel when they are trying to figure out how to close out a ticket.

At times, it has felt like my work on policy, process, and procedure isn’t particularly important, but since I get to sit in on meetings to learn how people actually perform their day-to-day jobs, I often see how important set procedures are. Without set definitions, for example, people take their best guess, and some of the time these guesses can create more work for people. Last week I wrote about the importance of images. In a procedure, an image of the placement of the ‘save’ button can keep a worker from contacting another worker and asking for help. If I provide my audience with the visual, I potentially just saved two workers several minutes of their time that they can use in other ways. In a capitalistic market society, these minutes add up and effect the flow and income of the company.

Policy writing may not seem like the sexiest work out there, but it is quite important, even outside the corporate environment. Any large organization can benefit from some well-written ‘how to’ documentation, complete with illustrations. Of course, any document of this sort needs to be updated to fit changes in practice, or technology. That just means the world will always need technical writers.