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Social Business Discussions Are The New Documentation

Social business is changing how we document business processes and IT operations. Here's why.

When I was much younger and bought a new radio, TV, or VCR, the first thing I did was read the manual cover-to-cover so I could understand how the thing worked. This was easy to do because most tools and electronic devices had a single function, which usually equated to a relatively short and simple manual.

But today, when you buy devices like these, you also get remotes with about 30 or 40 buttons on them that all require manuals. My car comes with multiple thick manuals, too, including one just for the navigation system. And most software documentation is deceiving: You never really see the pages piled up on top of each other; you just get lost in a labyrinth of links as you jump across topics that are supposedly related.

As products become more feature-rich, their documentation becomes longer and more complex. As a result, it has the perverse effect of conditioning users to skip reading it altogether. When I get a shiny new car, smartphone, or TV, the last thing I want to do is spend a week reading the documentation before I use it. Instead, I just dive right in using the basic features and learn over time about the bells and whistles by trial and error, dipping into the documentation for a specific reference, searching for an answer on the web, or just asking somebody.

[ Do you have a long-term perspective? Read Picturing Your Social Business In 2020. ]

Inside an organization, the problem is often the opposite -- there's too little documentation, not too much. Think about your process for ordering office supplies or having your laptop updated: Most internal tools and business processes are poorly documented, if at all. Some are legacy systems whose creators are long gone. Some are ad hoc systems that were thrown together on the fly but worked so well that they've gradually become business critical. How many of you use "Bob's spreadsheet" or "Mary's monthly report"? (It's a dead giveaway when the tool has a personal name associated with it.) And none of them have information developers assigned to fully document their capabilities.

But how does this all relate to social business? In the past year, I've noticed how helpful our social software vendor's customer community site has been in answering questions. I'm not talking about how others respond to questions I might post -- although that's also been a very useful feature -- but rather the large collection of content that has built up over time.

When I have a question about their software, I bypass their documentation (sorry, tech writers!). The first thing I do is go to the community and type in some search terms. More often than not I find the answer to my question, and it's in a discussion rather than in a more formal document. Some of these discussions have spanned months and sometimes years, giving me context and nuance to the answer that I just couldn't get otherwise. For example:

"I have question X."

"Here's the answer."

"Well, that's true in most cases but if you have this configuration then you need to do Y." (Oh hey, that's my situation!)

When employees work out loud in a transparent social platform, they are documenting their tools and processes on the fly as they build them. Documentation is no longer the extra work that no one wants to do; it's a natural, inherent part of the process. As an added bonus, you often get an explanation of why something works the way it does, not just how.

There will always be a place for formal documentation, especially with commercially available products. But the complexity of those products and our behavior as consumers are pushing us toward a model that favors discussions over documents. And especially inside the firewall, as social business progresses and more employees begin working out loud, organizations may find that with a good search engine and a little bit of tagging they can document many of their tools and processes for free. What do you think?

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