First, a bit of history
Springtime in Ukraine begins as the deep snow of the past winter begins to melt. Streams of thaw water crisscross the country as the warmth of the new season falls upon the land.
Life returns to trees everywhere, and foliage of a myriad shades of green turns the Spring landscape into a beautiful precursor of Summer.
But the Spring of 1986 would bring anything but beauty to the Ukrainian panoramas.
Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant blew up on the night of April 26, causing one of the biggest man-made disasters ever to befall the world.
Major catastrophes are often an unfortunate combination of events. Events at Chernobyl culminated in a steam explosion that blew the 2,000-ton concrete lid of the reactor clean off, exposing the core.
The design of the RBMK reactor had inherent flaws and quirks that contributed to the disastrous outcome, for sure. But a major contributing factor to the Chernobyl was, believe it or not, a lack of proper and adequate documentation explaining how the reactor worked.
Even senior staff in the control room on that fateful night were stumped as to why things deteriorated so quickly. For example, there was no mention in the Operator’s Manual that because of rod design, inserting the control rods with the reactor operating at low power had an effect opposite to that intended, and no warnings that this configuration could lead to an uncontrollable chain reaction.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now you understand the importance of good documentation
Though the Chernobyl event is an extreme representation of how inadequate documentation contributes to a negative outcome, there were many other factors at play that night; no major disaster is ever caused by a single reason.
Fast forward to present day.
Companies are still reluctant to develop a proper documentation suite. Be it for budgetary constraints (for instance, by necessity startups have stringent budgets), a lack of in-house expertise, or experts not having time to actually write the stuff, the final result is a lack of proper support for the processes that drive the business forward.
There is always a case to be made for good documentation. It’s our calling card.
Case at hand: Let’s take the blockchain; the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies. If you’ve heard anything about blockchain, you may know about Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs). Startups often use ICOs to raise funds to get pet projects off the ground. Whatever the project is, investors expect a whitepaper. And not just any whitepaper. A good whitepaper. A poorly written one is even worse than not having one, and a sure-fire way to an early and densely populated ICO grave.
Of course, documentation by itself is worthless, just like writing a set of laws with no legal system built on them. You must back your claim. It’s about credibility. Your clients must believe in you and your product. Manuals written in poor English or with badly formatted screenshots will undermine your product and could help destine your business to fail.
Let’s not forget about maintaining your documentation. Documentation is an organic entity that needs care and nurturing. Your business will not be the same 12 months from now, hell, probably not even in six months. Things change. People come and go. Those there in the beginning may not be there tomorrow. It’s important to capture their knowledge before they move on.
Strategy for managing knowledge: What’s yours?
Knowledge is power. Data is the lifeblood of business. How your business manages knowledge has direct bearing on its day-to-day activities and largely determines if your product becomes a household name or a statistic.
Managing knowledge was once easy. Fathers would teach their heirs the best way to milk a cow or how to use the printing press, and the family business continued. This axiom no longer holds true.
In today’s multi-disciplinary business ventures, oral history is not enough. New employees cannot learn by osmosis. They must have instructions to know business processes—the better these are written, the more quickly they ramp up.
Because documentation is the glue that bonds your entire business, your knowledge management strategy is as important as having a reliable accounting team or flawless marketing strategy.