This is the fourth in a series of articles sharing tips that will help both individuals and business managers reorganise their computer files to increase productivity and reduce digital errors. (Follow the links to read part one, part two and the third instalment).
This time, we’re looking at communication – the lifeblood of every business. Yet too many business leaders, caught up in day-to-day challenges, overlook the need for giving employees practical ways to share information.
What I mean by "sharing information" encompasses oral communication, written documentation, maintaining a server, writing email, and more. For the purpose of this article, I'll focus on electronic documents, but it's extremely important to consider how information sharing happens across the organisation and at all levels.
The importance of sharing
Why is sharing information important? The better your information sharing is, the more effectively your business will operate. Giving employees the information they need to succeed and do their jobs better increases their job satisfaction, too.
When information is not shared well, businesses run less efficiently and waste money. Every time a new employee joins the team – whether as a permanent replacement, temp (disability, maternity leave, sabbatical), or in a new role – that person needs to learn a huge amount about his or her job function, as well as how the business operates. When employees share information well, new team members learn what they need to know faster. And what they really need to know is how and where to find information, rather than specific answers to questions. It's the "teach a man to fish" principle.
Hiring is one of the most expensive costs in a business because of the time lost in getting new employees up to speed. The quicker employees figure out how to answer their own questions, the sooner they can make significant contributions to your bottom line. Your goal in improving information sharing across the company is to make it easy for people to solve their own problems. Another goal is to minimise the number of times people repeat the same mistakes. Imagine how much more smoothly and profitably your business could operate if you minimised these costs.
Types of information employees share
Let's consider a few specific types of information that should be shared: Procedural documentation, staff organisation charts, workflow charts, staff contact information, client contact information, and human resources forms. In all likelihood, your business has made HR forms easily accessible to all employees – usually because the law requires it. When it comes to all those other documents, though, chances are they're out of date or they don't exist at all.
Instead, a lot of the information that should be written down is stored in someone's head, and that's problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, one person should never be the sole keeper of any business-critical information. It's just too risky. If that person falls ill, leaves the organisation, or comes to resent people or practices within the organisation, it could set the business back years! Secondly, when information is stored in someone's head rather than in a visible location, no one else can contribute to it. Thirdly, other people who need the information are never sure if they have the most updated version. The reasons go on and on.
One of the most amazing assets of the entry-level workforce is that they know how to look stuff up. If they need to know something (such as how to write formulas in Excel) and can figure out the basic terms used to describe it (for example, sum, product, linked spreadsheets), they can find the answer online.
All too often, businesses are not designed to support this kind of self-sufficiency. In the workplace, you can't always look up the answer. Sometimes you have to hunt down people and shake the information you need out of them, as I mentioned in the previous section. The answers aren't stored in a searchable place. But they should be!
Getting people to share
If you're reading this article and thinking: "My business is in the weeds. We will never have the time or the resources to do this kind of backlog work," then fear not. Here's how you break it down into a four step manageable project:
1. Explain the importance of sharing. Bluntly tell the people in your organisation, in a 15-minute meeting, why having shared documents is important.
2. Set aside a half day for the documentation project. Buy everyone lunch if you have to sweeten the deal.
3. If your business is arranged into teams, each team should meet to discuss what documents they need to assemble or update. They can also prioritise which documents are most important to create based on what knowledge lives only in one person's head.
4. During the half-day project, each person will be responsible for just one document. For complicated processes, two or more people can be responsible. The goal of the project is to set up the documents the business needs – not finish every one entirely that day.
At the end of the half day project, the team members (or the entire organisation, if your business is small) should share with one another what they created and how far they got. Make sure everyone understands that all the documents are meant to become living documents.
That last step is crucial and deserves a word or two of explanation.
A living document is one that changes with time and typically can be changed by a group of people, not just one administrator. It's crucial that everyone who is affected by the documents have a chance to weigh in on how they're handled and what's in them, even junior staff, who might in fact be the most knowledgeable people about certain tasks.
The whole purpose of living documents is to make them open and transparent to all the people who need access to them – and not just existing employees, but future employees, too.
Recently, a friend of mine needed to fix a spreadsheet that his organisation had been using to calculate costs in a department. The spreadsheet contained incorrect formulas, and the person who had set it up had locked the file – and had retired a few years earlier. After a little poking around on a shared server, my friend found a document that only senior staff could access, which contained the password. He was extremely lucky that the previous employee had thought ahead to put that information in a place where the right people could find it. However, even in this case, it would have been better had my friend (and all the senior staff) known ahead of time that this document with the password existed, where it was located, and what it was named.
Living documents can be kept on shared servers or managed as a wiki. If the files are hosted on a server, you'll need to roll out your guidelines for naming conventions so that as people add new files and folders to the server (or archive older files), they're doing it in a consistent manner. If everyone is on the same page, the names will be consistent, and everyone will be able to find what they need quickly.
The last step in sharing information is making the living documents available to the people who need them, and for this, you'll need to return to file naming and folder naming conventions. Even if you create a wiki, you'll want to have some kind of standard in place for how pages are named and organised within the site.
Be sure to explain to all the employees what naming conventions are being used and why. Be clear about what you want them to do and why. Here are some key points to emphasise:
1. Being organised helps us succeed as a business and as a team.
2. Using consistent naming conventions keeps us all on the same page and enhances our team mentality.
3. Having a system saves you time because you'll be able to find things quickly.
4. You'll minimise your own errors, such as deleting data or overwriting files.
5. As the organisation grows, we will be able to handle new business more efficiently.
6. When we hire new employees, training them will take less time, and getting them into our pattern of thinking will happen faster.
The important ideas to take away from this article are:
1. Sharing information is crucial to business success and requires everyone's participation.
2. Living documents can and should change over time; living documents must be accessible to multiple people who are able to change them, as well as visible to all the people who rely on them, both present and future.
3. Documents that are labelled and stored in a consistent manner are easy to find, and thus will actually be used.