Finding Paths to Success in Documentation Projects

During the initial stages of my last project, my team came up with the idea of organizing a “Lunch and Learn” for team members, as well as for our subject matter experts. The idea was to introduce the SMEs to the new document formats, naming conventions and stylistic standards we had developed. We also wanted them to learn how to use our SharePoint site, which contained our document library, and our wiki.

We ran several of these lunch hour meetings, provided dessert (which ensured most of the SMEs would show up), and facilitated some good learning experiences. The experience built rapport with our SMEs and helped us learn more about their capabilities.

The team member who suggested the L&L got the job of organizing the events, and I decided to add a modest contest to the mix. I called it the “Find the Gold Coin on the Wiki” contest, hoping that a search for the coin would help them learn to navigate and see what was available on the wiki.

The contest rules were simple: The first person to find the small graphic of a gold coin embedded somewhere on a page in the wiki would win a “fabulous prize” (although what the prize would be was not specified). The contest and rules were announced during one of the Lunch and Learn sessions and a notice posted on the wiki home page.

At that point in time our wiki, (set up on our SharePoint site) was not large. It included about thirty pages of information on how to create new documents, set up headings, write procedural steps, create graphics and insert callouts, as well as other information. Granted, this information may not have been as interesting to our SMEs as it was to the technical writing team, but since the SMEs were expected to create initial, rough drafts of documents, we thought it would save them time and frustration if they knew what was expected.

It may not come as a surprise to anyone that several months went by before anyone found the “gold coin” and only then by a newer member of the technical writing team.

So, what did I learn from the fabulous “Find the Gold Coin on the Wiki” contest?

First, I chose not to conclude that the SMEs had failed; if anything, I had failed in my expectations. The SMEs, who had many tasks to accomplish, couldn’t assign a high priority to surfing through wiki pages in search of a gold coin. And expecting them to spend time on the wiki in a self-directed learning quest was even more unrealistic.

The SMEs did eventually learn how to use the document library, because it addressed an immediate need they had to access documents. But the wiki became a reference—a source of information that they went to only when necessary.

Over the duration of the project SMEs did learn a lot about standards and formats, but it became clear to me that they learned best when a technical writer worked one-on-one with them. Over time we learned to review drafts with them, showing them where we had made changes and explaining why. Sometimes it required a few iterations of this process but eventually we developed effective work processes. Also, the one-on-one approach allowed us to adapt those processes to each individual, ensuring we got the best results from each.

For me, our Lunch and Learn meetings, and the “Find the Gold Coin” contest, reinforced my belief that every documentation project is different, and that it takes time to develop effective processes. I haven’t found a “perfect path” to making a project work, but I have learned that some creativity and flexibility goes a long way toward finding a “successful path” to completion of a project.

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