Meeting the Challenges of Higher Education - Structured Writing
Documentation of various forms creates many of the key deliverables produced within an implementation project. In business, a failure in the documentation may lead to poor outcomes and, on occasion, devastating consequences for both customer and supplier.
I remember, earlier in my career, going along to a series of pre-sales meetings. Over two days I watched, mostly from the background, as the customers’ needs were matched to my organisation’s offerings.
I sat close by the customer’s lawyer, who would collect all documentation after each session and returned with it underlined. At the beginning of the next session he would go through each part with forensic detail, finding inconsistencies and points that were unclear. That was my first, and I admit, uncomfortable encounter with a close reader who saw words as something that bound the reader to the writer. I never treated a business document in a casual fashion ever again.
That said, I have also been involved with projects, typically lead by one of the “big” consulting firms, where the amount and complexity of the documentation becomes overwhelming and only serves to obscure information and distract from the build of the actual system.
With these salutary lessons in mind, the Higher Education department decided to use theories and methods of structured writing as part of their core process and through all parts of engaging with clients. That extends to training the client on the approach to ensure the entire project team understand and benefits from the approach.
So, why is structured writing so important to us?
Basically, the method exits primarily to make documents simpler; both simpler to write and simpler to read. Our adopted method is not just to promote efficiency, but it also improves quality by cutting down inaccuracies and inconsistencies. It allows our consultants, highly skilled people to be sure, but not professional writers to:
- Make documents easy to write and read.
- Cut down on jargon and acronyms
- Cut down on inaccuracies
- Reduce questions posed by the users because of our failure to make a clear point.
We based our approach on Information Mapping a system built by Robert Horn. He proposed a writing and presentation method designed around the nature of the information and - the audience’s needs.
The key points of the method are:
- Information is broken into manageable units or “chunks”
- Content is presented in bulleted lists of short sentences, as opposed to paragraphs
- Data Units/Information chunks are clearly labelled, allowing readers to quickly locate the data they need.
- Data is broken into logical groups with a logical flow which is consistent in documents of a similar nature: e.g. Scope should always be in the same position in documents, if possible
- Use consistent, simple language. Don’t show off your knowledge.
- Diagrams or information boxes should be close to what you are reading with the text supporting the graphic. Don’t put all your faith in graphics not everyone absorbs information that way.
Higher Ed progresses this method and related thinking and we have produced templates for our processes, from information gathering to process analysis, and all the way to testing and training. By providing these templates, there is a built-in structure for individual documents and the project as a whole. This structure then also serves as a checklist for the document topic (see more on the benefits of checklists in future posts).
There is always some resistance to our arrival with this set of ideas and the necessary training sessions when we step on site. No doubt, there’s a, “Let’s just get on with it,” rumble from the back seats – and isn’t there always. But our templates work and smooth the journey equally for both client and consultant team. This allows Inoapps to deliver a robust set of documentation alongside a well-built system all while maintaining an agile approach to the project.