Whether you are working on internal audit, accounting, governance, risk management, project management or any other discipline for that matter, documentation underpins a lot of the work you do.

From reports, to spreadsheets, to presentations, to memos, to matrices, we all “do” documentation every day. But do we – and our organizations – “get” documentation? Experience tells us no.

In this article, I am taking a turn from talking about audit and compliance to explore the exciting but untapped world of documentation best practices. Let’s take a look at the super standards of documentation that give you a new tool for measuring the quality of your documentation, and for making it better too.

The 5 Super Standards of Documentation

The 5 Super Standards—Re-Performance, Clarity, Findability, Use, and Engagement—will give you insight into what is working, what is not working, and the sources of your documentation problems. Use these standards to judge your documentation and focus your energy on the right areas.

1. Re-Performance Standard

Re-Performance Standard: The ability of a stand-alone document or system to allow a user to perform the related task or process again.

I think of the Re-Performance Standard as a best-kept secret of the audit world. I swear by this standard for audits and Internal Control work. It is the standard adopted by the Big Four accounting firms and by professional accounting and audit bodies. It is the world’s de facto standard for Internal Controls over Financial Reporting (ICFR) .

But you can use the reperformance standard for much more than just internal controls or compliance. When I work with companies beyond their audit or accounting needs, I apply this concept to achieve the same powerful results in areas such as:

  • Training materials: Can the user perform his or her job using the documentation? Is it easy for a new employee to get up to speed?
  • Process documentation: Can the user perform the process following the documentation? Does it describe the process in enough detail?
  • Disaster recovery documentation: Does the user know what to do in the case of a disaster? Can a user carry out the steps successfully in the case of an emergency?
  • Safety documentation: Can the user understand the process clearly enough to prevent an incident? Can the user re-perform all safety procedures?

2. Clarity Standard

Clarity Standard: The ability of the stand-alone document to clearly explain the intended use of the document to the intended audience.

The Clarity Standard is something you probably do instinctively. While it seems like a no-brainer, it is shocking how often the Clarity Standard isn’t followed. How many resumes or LinkedIn profiles have you read and wondered what this “results-oriented, people-person” actually does?

You can test your documentation using the Clarity Standard by asking:

  • Does the reader understand the document without someone explaining it?
  • Are the key concepts “getting through” to the reader?
  • Are the key concepts understood by the reader quickly?
  • Are there any gaps in the reader’s understanding?
  • Does the reader understand the message easily?
  • Does it support the Business Judgment Rule (. i.e., the legal standard which assesses whether management can prove they did their due diligence)?

3. Findability Standard

Findability Standard: The ability to easily and quickly find a document or other piece of information using the stand-alone system, setup, or process.

Search and findability functions are what many of your users will see as the main drivers of your documentation project or program, especially if you are designing systems and sites. 

The master of the Findability Standard is Google, which has perfected the standard and spoiled us in doing so. Most people believe information should be as easy to find as it is to google. But behind what seems like Google’s simple search function is world-class technology and thousands of highly paid programmers and software engineers. Meeting the Findability Standard is not as easy as googling!

You can test your documentation systems for the findability standard by asking:

  • Can a user find documentation without asking others?
  • Can team members find documentation quickly?
  • Does the team or organization know what documentation it has?
  • Does the team have criteria around what are critical documents, how they are named, and where they are stored?

4. Use Standard

Use Standard: The frequency of use of your documents or document systems. 

I have built beautiful web pages for projects that no one has looked at. I have put together thoroughly designed processes that no one has looked at. I have built documentation storage systems and found out later that people are just working off their personal drives.

The Use Standard asks if your audience is looking at the documents you created.

  • Did anyone use the document or documentation system after it was developed?
  • Is the documentation used going forward? How often?
  • Is anyone asking questions about the documents or engaging with its content?
  • Is anyone referencing the documents or documentation systems?

5. Engagement Standard

Engagement Standard: A measurement of whether the user was able to grasp the key concepts quickly and efficiently, and their ability to recall the messages and information in the document.

The Engagement Standard could also be called the “sticky” standard. You know your document is meeting the Engagement Standard when you get any of the following:

  • Recollection: You hear points from your document talked about in a meeting.
  • Impact: You see the recommendations or ideas in your document being implemented.
  • Reaction: You get questions or feedback about your documents (even corrections or criticisms).
  • Thinking: Your document impacts decision-making.
  • Emotion: Your document makes people excited, energized, or concerned.

If your materials are not sticking and no one can recall what was written, you probably have an engagement problem. Our ability to make things stick in the minds of our audience tests our intuition and our writing skills.

So how do your documents, processes, and systems line up to the standards? Consider which ones are most applicable to your situation and what these standards tell you about your documentation challenges.

Reference this table below to understand the issues you may be facing.

This article is an excerpt from my latest book – The 24-HOUR RULE and Other Secrets for Smarter Organizations.