Internal Documentation 101: A Simple Guide to Get You Started

Are you interested in organizing your business’s knowledge into internal documentation? This guide will help you get to grips with the process of documenting your company’s knowledge.

Written by: Josh Brown

Published: September 20 2021

Every company has a huge amount of knowledge just floating around, hidden in Slack channels and email chains, stored in files and folders, or even inside your employees’ heads. This is not a productive way to deal with company knowledge and leads to wasted time and effort. 

In this article, we will talk about internal documentation best practices, and why it’s important to document your company knowledge. 

What is the Purpose of Internal Documentation

The definition of internal documentation is a written record of your company’s processes that employees can use to complete their work. In contrast to external documentation which is for customers, internal documentation is written only for employees. 

The aim of internal documentation is the process of getting your company’s knowledge together all in one place. Knowledge is documented for the benefit of HR, marketing, sales, development, finance, customer support, and any other team that is part of your company. 

Types of Internal Documentation

There are multiple types of internal documentation that you might come across. 

Team documentation is owned by specific teams in your company. This documentation includes important topics like style guides, meetings, team strategy, and more. 

Project documentation contains information relating to a particular project. Some examples include project roadmaps, project management plan, software documentation, technical documentation, etc.

Process documentation describes various procedures and workflows needed to properly execute a particular business process. Some examples include standard operating procedures, knowledge maps, etc.

Benefits of Internal Documentation

It’s no secret that many companies feel reluctant to invest in their internal docs. They see it as a waste of time, thinking no one will read it anyway, or think that they don’t need documentation in the first place. 

Indeed, it is true that if your documentation is haphazard, disorganized, and incomplete then employees are not likely to derive much value from it. If you don’t properly invest in your workflows and processes then the documentation you do produce is likely to underperform. 

Top-quality internal documentation is well worth the effort you put into it. Here’s why: 

1. Facilitates Knowledge Transfer 

The average employee spends 20% of work time searching for information or asking coworkers for help. When you encourage employees to create internal documentation, knowledge transfer can happen from one to many. Instead of valuable knowledge residing in employees’ heads, knowledge is shared across the organization for the benefit of everyone. 

2. Prevents Knowledge Loss 

When you fail to document your knowledge, you are in danger of losing vital assets whenever an employee goes on vacation, sick leave, or leaves altogether. Fortune 500 companies lose at least $31.5 billion a year by failing to share knowledge. Internal documentation means that you retain knowledge for future use, and you are guarding against employee attrition. 

3. Improves Productivity

Without internal documentation, employees have a hard time finding answers to common questions. Having relevant documentation available means that your employees spend less time searching for information, which improves their productivity and team morale. By practicing effective knowledge management, 70% of companies believe they can increase productivity by at least 20%

4. Train New Team Members Faster

A great employee onboarding experience means employees will stay with your company for up to three years. When new hires start at your company, senior employees must spend valuable time away from their normal tasks in order to train this new employee. Internal documentation means that new hires can be brought up to speed more quickly without having to take up so much of their coworkers’ time. 

Best Practices for Managing Internal Documentation

We’ll now go through some best practices to help you with managing your internal documentation. 

1. Assess the Documentation You Already Have

When you first start your new project of building your internal documentation, you’re likely to already have many knowledge assets hidden away in various company communication tools. 

Bring these documents together into one place as a starting point for organizing your internal documentation. You’ll need to put in less effort since you won’t be reinventing the wheel, and instead, you’re taking advantage of documentation that already exists. 

If you’re starting from scratch, then first identify which employees are in charge of the processes you're looking to document so you can enlist their help to create documentation. 

2. Assign Knowledge Champions

Documentation isn’t an activity that you should undertake alone. Make sure you’re working with members of every team to create content. After all, these employees are the ones on the front lines who know the documentation best, so they should be responsible for creating it. 

Your employees are not professional technical writers so they are likely to need help with writing content. Establish a content review process so you can take control of the content and make sure it is being written to a good standard. 

3. Plan the Structure of Your Internal Documentation

Your internal documentation needs a structure so employees can browse and discover content easily. The last thing anyone wants is an unstructured mess, which will simply deter employees from using your documentation and have them going back to their old ways. 

It’s important to invest in the information architecture of your internal documentation. Choose sensible categories for your documentation and ensure there is a left-hand navigation bar displaying your content and categories. 

4. Keep it Simple and Accessible

Your number one priority is to get employees to use your documentation regularly. In order to make that possible, your documentation should be simple and accessible. Avoid jargon if possible and use straightforward language that is easy to understand. 

Make sure to structure your articles into sections and subsections, use bulleted lists, and a table of contents for long articles. The whole idea is to make your articles as accessible as possible, making content scannable for your readers and reducing the effort it takes to read your articles. 

5. Choose the Right Documentation Tool

There are a whole plethora of tools out there that you can use for your internal documentation - ranging from document management tools like Google Drive to internal wikis and internal knowledge bases

We’d like to take this opportunity to highlight our own knowledge base software Helpjuice, which is a powerful and intuitive platform that is perfect for creating internal docs. The software is so simple you can get started straight away, and you’ll be up and running with new content in minutes. 

Whichever solution you choose, make sure: 

  • Content is easy to edit even for non-techie users
  • It contains a speedy and comprehensive search function
  • It enables you to create intuitive navigation for your docs
  • It integrates with other popular tools to optimize your workflows

Your internal documentation won’t work if your employees can’t run searches to find what they’re looking for. A lackluster search and navigation experience undermines the whole purpose of your documentation to begin with. 

The purpose of your internal documentation is to make it easy for employees to find information that they’re looking for and become better at their jobs. To help your docs fulfill their aims, make sure you invest in a robust search and navigation. 

Your search bar should have Google-like capabilities that employees can use to obtain immediate and accurate article recommendations. Interlink individual articles to make sure that employees can discover related content when using your knowledge base. 

6. Don’t Over-Document

You’ll probably find that you have a whole bunch of things you can document. But it’s important to avoid overwhelming your employees with loads of unnecessary content. Just document only the bare minimum that you need for your internal documentation to be effective. 

And that means regularly auditing your documentation to find content that could be removed because it is no longer useful. Don’t keep documentation “just in case” you might need it - be ruthless when pruning your documentation. 

7. Add Visuals to Your Docs

Your documentation is likely to disappoint if it is solely text-based. Adding images and videos, flowcharts and diagrams, will improve the documentation experience and engage your employees more than text alone. 

That being said, don’t rely too much on images and videos - give employees the option not to use them if for whatever reason they prefer not to use visuals. Your documentation text should stand alone and be possible to understand even if the visuals were taken away. 

8. Work From a Style Guide

Your company style guide is a powerful tool for making sure that your documentation remains consistent and on-brand. You’re likely to be having lots of subject matter experts working on your documentation, each of whom writes in a slightly different way, so you need to be able to point them to a style guide. 

When you follow a style guide for your content it makes the user experience much better because employees know what to expect. Without a style guide, content can end up fragmented and confusing. 

9. Keep Your Documentation Updated

Internal documentation is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of exercise. You are never completely “done” with your documentation because it evolves as your organization evolves. Be constantly alert to opportunities to update your docs to keep them in line with company policies and procedures. 

It goes without saying that you need to revisit your internal documentation often. Schedule quarterly audits of all your content so you can determine whether anything is out-of-date or just plain wrong. 

10. Gather Feedback From Your Employees

Don’t passively sit back while employees may or may not use your internal documentation. Actively solicit their feedback so you can get an idea of how well your content is working. Make sure to use a knowledge base that will allow you to set up a commenting function on each article where employees can take the opportunity to collaborate in real-time.  

Send out regular surveys to employees asking what they think about your internal documentation. Check your knowledge base analytics to find out the terms users are searching for and which ones aren’t turning up any results. 

Wrapping Up

If you don’t follow these best practices, then employees stop using your documentation and your subject matter experts don’t want to write it, since no one uses it anyway. Even if you do follow these best practices, it takes time to change a company culture, and cultivate the right habits.

Internal documentation is a long-term effort that is well worth the energy you spend on it. Making key documentation available means your employees are more productive and your organization is less at risk of losing important knowledge. 

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