A Business or Operations Manual explains ‘what your company does, who does it, how they do it’, and also usually includes contact details and company policies. Developing one, however, is often way down on a company’s priority list.
You ask yourself, is it really necessary? After all, everyone manages to get by, there’s billable work to do, and it just sounds like ‘busy work’.
Why you need one
No matter how small your business, a business manual gives you a measure against which you can judge performance and delivery, and ensures business continuity. It is an essential part of quality assurance, particularly now as the nature of work undergoes significant change. The need for a manual will be obvious and most pressing if your company:
- is a franchise
- uses external consultants
- is in a regulated industry
- has high staff turnover
- starts to scale rapidly
- expands into different regions or countries, or
- relies on one or two key people for operational knowledge.
Without a manual, obtaining the vital information can be time consuming and costly, and you can also be at risk of legal problems.
Here are our 10 top tips to developing a great manual for your business.
Set things up to succeed!
Tip 1 – Focus on the user
Often businesses (and some writers!) focus on the information itself. Imagine instead that you are a user experience specialist. Focus on what the user needs to know and how they can find and access the information most easily.
This focus should guide your choice of format too: printed manual, web page, eBook, LMS, etc. This in turn will inform what platform you want to use to store and share your content.
Tip 2 – Provide Executive direction
Everyone has their day jobs, so if this project is not given priority by the executive team, things will be hard going! So at the start of the project, hold a meeting with all staff or send out an ‘All Staff’ message. Introduce the person leading the project and tell staff it is important that they provide information when it is requested.
Ensure that you sign off key milestones and that your involvement is visible to staff.
Tip 3 – Appoint an experienced technical business writer
Writing a business manual is different from other writing.
The technical writer should be someone who:
- understands and sees both the wood and the trees
- enjoys being a detective
- is a problem solver
- likes grappling with varied and new information
- is a good interviewer
- likes structuring information, and
- enjoys working with people.
It is also worth choosing a writer who has experience with different business information systems and an interest in technology, so that they can make informed decisions based on your business needs. Ideally, you also want a writer who is a strong project manager, or appoint a separate person to manage the process, set the deadlines and keep everything on track.
You may have this person in your team, but if you don’t, hire a consultant who can help you document your operations to save you money and pain in the long run, and get your business humming.
Assuming you are clear about the business needs and don’t need to conduct a full business analysis, the writer can begin.
Tip 4 – Develop the structure
Write up a Table of Contents to provide a framework for the manual. Just producing this structure will give you an idea of what you have and what’s missing.
High level headings for basic manual could be:
- Business policies
Tip 5 – Decide on the format
The format (look and feel) should be simple, clear, and most importantly be consistent. And remember tip 1 – make it easy to read, whether it’s in print or online.
If you aren’t using a content management system or cloud solution, set up a basic Word template, track versions carefully, and make sure everyone involved uses the same template and software.
Tip 6 – Begin with the Org chart
Use the Org Chart, and ask employees to write up their current job descriptions and get these ratified.
Tip 7 – Map the processes
Interview the necessary people, including the inhouse ‘guru’ (always your friend at times such as these!) and individual employees.
This can be done either visually with process maps, checklists, or by using dedicated software.
Tip 8 – Test iteratively
Start small and develop one or two chapters. Test each documented process or procedure with someone who is unfamiliar with the role. This will let you know what you’ll need to tweak or change.
Get sign off on the final process, and move on.
Then test whether the information on your platform of choice is accessible. Once again see Tip 1. Can people easily find the information? What do you need to change?
Tip 9 – Communicate
Keep the staff up to date on a regular basis with a short formal update and progress report. Give them news that is relevant to them, rather than a lengthy status report that shows how much work you’ve done!
Tip 10 – Maintain the manual
It is easy to think the job's done once the initial manual has been written. However, maintenance is just as important. Set a regular schedule for updating, and assign someone to the job. Maintenance is easier with a content management system, but someone still has to do it.
Anna von Veh is a consultant at Plan A – Specialists in Business Writing. Working with clients across New Zealand and internationally, the Plan A team are experts in tenders, reports, plans, manuals, and presentations. Find out more at www.plana.co.nz