Process documentation, as the name suggests, is all about writing down the steps within a process. It can include visualizations, such as images and flowcharts, in addition to details about the departments, people, and resources involved in a process.
Organizations often go to great lengths to develop efficient processes but neglect to dedicate much effort to recording the details within these processes. Some organizations don’t prioritize process documentation because it often isn’t customer-focused, while others simply don’t want to spend the time necessary to write down the information.
However, when integrated within your organization’s culture, process documentation can provide great benefits for your employees, management, and customers. In this guide, we cover the importance of process documentation and explain why you need it in your business.
Take a look at the chapter summaries for a quick overview of each section, and then read up on each area for actionable details you can apply to your organization today.
Chapter 1: Introduction.
Chapter 2: Why process documentation is important. Most processes rely on the knowledge and experience of your employees. What happens when they aren’t there to complete a process? To ensure someone else can step in, your organization needs process documentation. Other benefits of process documentation include operational consistency and resource reduction.
Chapter 3: Tips to start documenting processes. Not sure where to begin? Don’t worry — we cover all the details, from understanding the nature of the process to speaking with subject matter experts to distributing the documentation. You’ll find helpful advice to start documenting processes in this chapter.
Chapter 4: How to document trade secrets. If you’re worried that writing down confidential information may be risky, you’re not alone. We’ve got advice on how to protect your trade secrets while still creating process documentation to help your employees. Learn about access, software security, data collection, and nondisclosure agreements in this chapter.
Chapter 5: Different types of process documentation. Depending on your industry or department, your process documentation may have specific criteria. For example, the process documentation for human resources is quite different from that of quality assurance. Learn the nuances in this chapter.
Chapter 6: Process documentation best practices. Should you use active or passive language? Should you use numbered lists or bulleted lists? What about linking to additional resources or processes within the document? We cover all of the best practices to ensure you create comprehensive and useful documentation.
Chapter 7: Make process documentation easy with templates. If multiple people within your organization are writing process documents, you can ensure consistency and accuracy with templates. Jotform can help not only collect data but also transform that data into polished documents.
Ready to dive in? First up, we’re going to cover why process documentation is so important for your organization. Then we’ll move on to how you can get started.
Why process documentation is important
If your organization is two people, 20 people, or over 200 hundred people, process documentation can play an important role in making sure your employees have the details they need to properly do their jobs.
Whether your team has been there for decades or you have a revolving door of newcomers, employees need thorough process documentation to work effectively in a variety of areas.
One of the key reasons organizations need process documentation is for knowledge transfer. Businesses in all industries run effectively because of their processes.
While organizations can automate many processes, most require some human intervention. Having employees who are subject matter experts in specific processes ensures those processes run smoothly — but what happens when those employees are ill, on vacation, or leaving for another position?
Process documentation helps other team members learn how to complete specific processes in their absence. Requiring your employees to write down the steps in a specific process is a way to transfer their hands-on knowledge to others in the company.
In some cases, employees may have time to train others on how to complete the processes they manage. However, if a more seasoned employee can’t be at work due to a last-minute issue, then the less knowledgeable team members can read the process documentation to learn how to complete the tasks.
Without process documentation, the organization may be at a standstill until the employee returns or other team members figure out how to do the work in question.
Employee onboarding and training
Process documentation is a great way to teach new employees how to complete specific activities. Written documentation can work like a syllabus or textbook that new employees can refer to as they do their jobs. Eventually, they will memorize the steps in processes they complete frequently. However, until they do, they can refer to the process documentation as a guide.
Using process documentation as training material can also speed up the onboarding process because the new employees don’t need to rely on other employees to train them. Newcomers can learn on their own following the process documentation and fill in any gaps of experiential knowledge by speaking with their teammates.
Documented processes also help organizations conduct performance evaluations and coaching for employees. Josh Rovner, a talent, change, and effectiveness leader, notes that having something to coach against, such as a written process, makes it easier for managers to provide employees with better direction and mentoring.
There can be a sense of inconsistency and confusion in organizations where multiple employees complete the same process, especially when they don’t follow the same steps or achieve the same results.
This can be especially problematic in customer-facing positions, where customers expect the same level of service and quality no matter which employee they deal with. Even in internal-facing positions, inconsistency can result in disagreements, inefficiencies, and errors.
Process documentation ensures that a process is completed exactly the same way every time — regardless of who is completing it. This means customers and internal stakeholders can expect the same results each time. Consistency is critical when it comes to product quality, customer service, time savings, and many other benefits an organization provides.
Ernesto Pineda, chief strategist of sales operations for 25 Ventures, an advisory and consultancy company, notes that everyone takes in information differently. This is where process documentation can be the source of truth for an organization.
Process improvement and analysis
The benefit of writing down a process is that you can really understand how it works. Through process documentation, organizations see who is involved, which steps they take, how long they take to complete the steps, why they take certain steps, and, ultimately, the results of the process.
This bird’s-eye view of a process provides organizations with the ability to make it more efficient. For example, by documenting a process, a business may find redundancies and reduce the total time it takes to complete the process.
When an organization is trying to make its processes more consistent, it can have multiple people write down their version of the process. Then, the organization can analyze and compare the different versions to see which elements are most effective and should be implemented in the final process.
Cost and time savings
Why do organizations place such importance on process documentation? Because it helps save the company time and money, says Tiffany Patterson, founder of Tiffany Michelle & Co., an operations management and virtual assistant company. Although it may seem like writing down the steps also takes time and resources, this is only in the short term. In the long term, the company realizes major time and cost savings.
For example, if an employee doesn’t know how to complete a process, a manager may need to show them how to do it two or three times before they get the hang of it. This training could take several hours.
However, if a senior employee documents the process in detail, the new employee may only need to be shown how to do the process once and can then refer to the process documentation if they forget any steps.
While writing down the process may take only 30 minutes to an hour, it can save multiple hours over time. Process documentation ensures organizations can focus on high-value tasks, instead of spending time on low-value ones, notes Yvette Owo, CEO and chief strategy officer at Yvette Owo Coaching & Consulting. This saved time leaves more bandwidth for companies to scale.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of process documentation, it’s time to learn how you can start documenting processes in your organization.
Tips to start documenting processes
It can be overwhelming for any organization to begin a new initiative, especially one where it doesn’t have experience. It’s normal to have a lot of questions about what you need to do first and the mistakes to avoid. If your organization is considering starting process documentation company-wide, be sure to use these tips.
Understand the nature of the process
The first step to starting process documentation is understanding the process in question. According to Rovner, there are eight key components of every process document:
- The desired outcome or result of the process
- The standard of success or completion of the process
- The trigger, time, or situation for starting the process
- How often the process needs to be completed
- How long the process takes
- The key stakeholders for the process
- The tasks within and decision-making flow of the process
- Any potential derailers of the process, the consequences, and potential solutions
Understanding the scope of the process will help your organization write a more comprehensive process document. As part of the scope, it’s important to know the audience for the document. For example, is it employees without a technical background? Is it customers who are proficient in the product? Defining your audience will ensure your process document answers their most common questions.
Use process documentation software
As with any task, process documentation is easier when you have the right tools for the job. Depending on its complexity, this may include process documentation software that makes it easy to write or illustrate the steps or components in a process.
You can also use tools that involve people, such as group interviews, one-on-one discussions, and surveys to gather details about the process. In addition, tools that visualize information, such as flowcharts or workflow diagrams, help document certain types of processes.
Patterson recommends recording someone doing the process with software like Loom. Often, this is the best place to start documentation.
Rely on subject matter experts
A key component of process documentation is process knowledge. Without this knowledge, you likely won’t be able to write down useful instructions.
Subject matter experts on the process are typically those who complete it frequently. It’s important to consult the people with the most process knowledge during your documentation.
In some organizations, those with process knowledge write down the processes, while in others, the subject matter experts act as consultants. In either case, people with process knowledge provide the bulk of the documented material because they are intimately familiar with every step.
Owo recommends the person learning the process be the one to write it down. They can watch a recording of the subject matter expert completing the task and create the documentation based on it. This helps them learn the intricacies of each step.
Create a process documentation team
Once organizations begin writing down processes, they often realize the sheer quantity of processes they need to document. Pineda recommends establishing ownership of the process documentation function. It helps to have an individual or team whose main focus is writing process documentation manuals, training materials, and onboarding materials.
In some organizations, people who specialize in content, such as those in the marketing or communications department, take on the process documentation role. Another way to incorporate process documentation into the workplace is to have subject matter experts write the first draft, then have a content expert edit and finalize the document for consumption.
As an organization starts process documentation, remember that consistency is the key to effectiveness. This means the organization should write down each process in each department, not just ad hoc processes in certain areas of the company.
When businesses document all processes, they can ensure employees have the knowledge they need to complete any tasks. Essentially, organizations should ingrain process documentation into the company culture instead of as an afterthought for certain occasions.
An effective way to make process documentation part of the company culture is to consider it part of the process itself. If a company is creating a new process, part of that process should automatically be documenting all the steps.
Evolve the documentation
Keep in mind that process documentation isn’t set in stone: It’s a living, breathing document, notes Pineda. Processes may evolve, and certain steps or workflows may change. As a result, the process documentation needs to change accordingly.
One of the best ways to ensure documentation is always up to date is to audit it frequently, perhaps quarterly. Have an employee follow the documentation as it’s written to determine if the process is still accurate. If not, make the necessary changes.
Make documentation accessible
Once process documentation is complete, an organization shouldn’t file it away and forget it. An important part of the process is content distribution.
Companies must share the documentation with important stakeholders, such as managers, existing employees, and new employees. Ensure you have a platform for sharing process documentation, which can be as simple as a folder on a shared drive or as complex as a learning management system.
Next, let’s cover what to consider when you’re documenting trade secrets or confidential information.
How to document trade secrets
Whether they realize it or not, most organizations have a trade secret or two. Rovner notes that by definition, most organizational processes are proprietary. It may be a unique ingredient or material in a product, or perhaps a methodology within the customer service framework.
Regardless, what makes an organization unique from its competitors provides great value to the business. When process documentation contains trade secrets or confidential information, it’s vital to be careful about how you share that information.
You don’t want to end up in a situation where your organization’s trade secrets are — accidentally or purposefully — shared with your competitors.
Maintain secure access
One of the most effective ways to ensure your information remains secure is by carefully controlling access to those documents. This applies to both paper materials and digital files.
When creating any kind of process documentation, enact a policy about how your organization will share information. Patterson recommends clearly noting which parts of a process anyone can implement versus those parts only people with specific access can implement.
Access can depend on long-term factors, such as department, role, or seniority, or short-term factors, such as project involvement. Ensure that only the people who need to see the details have access to files — and no one else.
It’s best to involve your IT and security teams in this initiative, so they can provide their expertise on how to keep your information secure. They may recommend encrypted or password-protected files. You may need to lock paper documents in a safe.
Update access regularly
Just like the processes themselves require updating, so does the access. Employees may change departments, get promotions, or take on different projects within the company.
As a result, their access to certain confidential process documentation should change. In addition, when employees leave the company, they should lose access privileges immediately.
Use secure software
Manually managing document access can be challenging, especially if your organization employs a lot of people. The IT and security teams may not be able to keep up with changing access based on role changes or employees retirements, for example.
It’s best to use secure software to help with the management of trade secrets and confidential information. First, software security ensures people outside the organization can’t gain access. Second, many software solutions offer options like role-based access, where an employee’s access to content automatically changes based on their role.
Prioritize data collection
While it’s important to ensure the final process documentation is secure, you also have to consider the forms or surveys used to collect data for the process document. In some organizations, the most effective way to gather details about processes is by having employees fill out forms. However, their answers may contain confidential information or trade secrets.
Jotform, which offers many forms for the data collection aspect of process documentation, has drum-tight security to make sure your valuable details remain in the right hands.
Consider nondisclosure or confidentiality agreements
Rovner suggests always consulting legal counsel when it comes to securing your confidential information. In addition to the actual technology used for the process documentation and the documents themselves, it’s important to consider other ways to protect your organization’s valuable information.
Having all employees, old and new, sign confidentiality or nondisclosure agreements legally prohibits them from sharing your trade secrets with anyone. If you share confidential processes with other stakeholders, like partners, it’s worthwhile having them sign similar agreements to protect your trade secrets.
This chapter covered how an organization can keep its information secure and in the right hands. Next, let’s take a look at the different types of process documentation and how each one benefits an organization.
Different types of process documentation
In essence, the goal of process documentation in any organization or department is the same: Write down the steps of the process in enough detail so that any employee can understand and execute them.
However, there are certain considerations for some types of process documentation, particularly in the technology space. Other departments, like human resources, also have unique needs for their process documentation.
IT process documentation
In many organizations, the IT department is responsible for meeting the technology needs of all company employees. This department may handle all service requests for technology, such as upgrading software or hardware, as well as troubleshooting issues. In addition, the IT team may need to handle compliance and auditing based on the regulatory rules of the industry in which the company operates.
IT process documentation may include highly technical details as the audience will also be technical. Documents may cover compliance rules, technical specifications, automation instructions, and more, often following an IT process documentation template. Documents might also advise on asset management to ensure the IT team can properly oversee the company’s technology properties allocated to employees, such as laptops and phones.
Software development process documentation
Several steps make up a software development life cycle, each of which requires software development process documentation. Different kinds of documentation in this area include
- Process documentation: standard operating procedures, project plans, test schedules, reports, business meeting notes, and more
- Product documentation: details on software products, usage information, technical specifications, and business logic
- Systems documentation: how systems work, architectural details, source code, frequently asked questions, and design details
- User documentation: end user information that covers instructions, tutorials, user guides, and troubleshooting
All of this documentation shares the same goal, which is to ensure all stakeholders are on the same page at any given time.
QA process documentation
Similar to software development process documentation, there are several different types of QA process documentation. Quality assurance is part of the software development process and helps ensure the company delivers a successful product. Process documentation within QA includes
- Test plans: testing strategy, testing schedule, available resources, and a big-picture view of the process (Documentation also includes details on specific features to test and relevant acceptance criteria.)
- Test progress reports: details on testing progress, including data on the findings
- Test cases: all scenarios that are part of the test plan (Test cases are updated as each test is completed, often multiple times.)
- Defect reports: issues found during testing, how to reproduce them, and the severity of the problems
The key goal of quality assurance in software development is to ensure there are no bugs in the software. The detailed documentation helps employees monitor and track all the testing.
HR process documentation
Human resources is part of every organization no matter the industry. Even if a business doesn’t have a dedicated HR department, it likely still follows human resources processes for recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, performance evaluation, payroll, benefits administration, and more.
An organization must clearly document all of these processes so it can properly support employees. Without details on how to complete critical functions, such as hiring and payroll, the company wouldn’t survive.
Workflow process documentation
Workflows are similar to processes but often require a different type of documentation. A workflow includes a series of processes to complete a task, usually involves multiple people within an organization, and has different outcomes depending on the required steps.
For example, a manager approving an employee vacation request is a simple workflow. The outcome is ultimately approved or denied and requires both the employee and the manager to participate.
Many organizations document workflows visually, such as through a flowchart or diagram. Workflows are often trigger-based as well, which means employees must complete the steps in order. Using software like Jotform to automate the approval process within workflows is an excellent way to ensure consistency and efficiency.
We’ve learned about the different types of process documentation. Next, let’s go over process documentation best practices you can apply to your organization.
Process documentation best practices
Documenting the different processes within your organization doesn’t have to be complex. When you follow best practices, you can ensure the information is clear, direct, and easy for your audience to understand and put into action. Taking a different approach may result in process errors, confusion, or inconsistencies.
Focus on audience needs
Process documentation is all about the end user, notes Patterson. Before you even write a word, consider who the documentation is for and what they need from it. For example, if you’re writing a user guide for a customer, the content will differ from a user guide you write for an employee.
You have to consider what your audience already knows about the process, the information they are missing, the questions they may have, and their level of expertise.
Write in actionable terms
Be sure to write the process or workflow in actionable terms, using active voice instead of passive voice. For example, “Save the document” is active, while “The document needs to be saved” is passive. Active voice helps your audience understand what they need to do, while passive voice can often sound confusing or convoluted.
Use plain language
Regardless of the technical nature or complexity of the process, it’s best to use plain language as much as possible. Don’t use cliches or overly flowery language within the process documentation. Instead, stick to the facts so the content is actionable. To ensure anyone can understand the process, not just specific employees with the appropriate background and expertise, try to avoid using industry jargon.
Carefully consider formatting
Readability is as important as the content itself. To improve the readability of the document, avoid long paragraphs. Break up your content with headings or use numbered lists for steps that must be completed in a specific sequence. Use bulleted lists for items that don’t need to be completed in order.
Link to additional resources
In some cases, a process may be connected to other activities within the company. Provide links within the process document to all relevant resources, so the reader can follow along for more information when they need it. For example, in a process document for performance evaluations, you may want to link to the process for merit increases.
Owo believes process documentation can both guide and instruct. For processes with higher risks, she suggests organizations use checklists as part of the documentation to ensure employees don’t miss any important steps.
Stick to one process
It can be tempting to combine processes, especially when they are closely related, like requesting vacation time or sick leave. However, it’s best to include only the steps for one process in each document. This way, you provide focused information that’s easy to follow. You can always link to other processes if necessary.
Perform frequent updates
Remember that your process documents are never final — they are always works in progress. Be sure to audit them regularly, such as quarterly or annually, based on your organization’s needs.
Assign a team member to update the details as they change. On each process document, write the date of the last update, so the timeliness of the process is clear. Rovner suggests reworking process documentation if the process no longer provides the outcomes or results for which it’s intended.
In some processes, especially workflows that involve multiple people, it’s helpful to provide visual descriptions. You can use flowcharts to show how the actions of different people connect and relate to one another. Visuals also make it easier to understand complex instructions. For some processes, you may need to include both written instructions and visuals.
Avoid using employee names
It may feel natural to include employee names within the documentation, such as “Diane will provide approval” or “John has to file the compliance paperwork.” Instead of using actual employee names, it’s more logical to use titles, such as “The marketing coordinator submits the invoice to the accounting assistant.” This way, it will still be clear who needs to take action even as employees change positions or leave the company.
Create a style guide for consistency
If multiple people or teams are in charge of process documentation, it’s valuable to create a style guide or a best practice guide, explains Pineda. You can even create process documentation templates for employees to use so they can fill out the proper information. Documentation is then fully standardized, making it easy to read, understand, and follow.
Provide an avenue for feedback
Remember that your team may have feedback for the documentation, especially when processes change. Let employees know how they can provide feedback. This may be as simple as commenting directly on the document or as sophisticated as submitting a change request via a ticketing system.
Owo suggests requesting feedback once the process documentation has been in place for a month to see whether employees notice improvements in their efficiency and productivity. Noting their results is a good way to get buy-in from other departments that are considering process documentation.
These best practices will ensure your process documentation efforts are off to a great start. Last, let’s learn how templates can make process documentation easier and more efficient.
Make process documentation easy with templates
When it’s time to put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboards, many employees may not know exactly what information is required for a process document or understand how to present it. To clarify process documentation for your team and ensure you create comprehensive and helpful information, use templates.
Using process documentation templates standardizes all the content. Templates don’t need to be overly complicated and may include just simple details, such as process name, department, relevant roles and systems, and steps to complete. Other templates could include more fields that employees need to fill out.
Organizations can create customized templates for each department or use the same template for all process documentation. Patterson values the flexibility of Jotform’s software and the different types of forms and workflows organizations can create with it.
Ensure complete and accurate information
Employees who aren’t familiar with writing process documents likely won’t know all the required details. Templates ensure the documentation is complete and accurate because they include fields that employees must complete.
Because employees can see exactly which details they have to include, there’s no guesswork for them. Without templates, a process document can end up missing details, leading to confusion, workplace mistakes, or wasted time and resources.
Create templated final documents
Not only can organizations use templates to collect details for process documentation through forms, but they can also turn those details into polished documents ready for employee or customer consumption.
With Jotform’s online PDF Editor, organizations can automatically convert form responses into professional PDFs. Creating templated final process documents is a breeze with this tool.
While it may seem like a minor administrative task, process documentation provides great value to an organization. By writing down or visualizing processes, organizations can transfer knowledge to different employees, improve efficiency, and ensure consistency.
Be sure to carefully set access and permissions for your process documents so you aren’t revealing trade secrets or confidential information to the wrong people.
Review the different types of process documentation so you understand the nuances of each department, and be sure to follow best practices when writing the steps and workflows.
Remember, you can make the writing process easier by using templates to help standardize and publish content. Not only does process documentation contribute to your organization’s effectiveness, but it can also function to improve the processes themselves.
Meet your process documentation guides
Ernesto Pineda is currently chief strategist of sales operations for 25 Ventures, an advisory and consultancy company. He has more than 20 years of sales and operations experience, ranging from individual contributor to director to advisor.
Josh Rovner is the author of the Amazon no. 1 best-selling business book Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the Ten Critical Flaws in Your Company. Rovner has more than 20 years of experience as a leader and consultant, working with all levels of small to large corporations to grow revenue and improve performance. He leads change and transforms businesses by communicating clearly about complex subjects, designing effective processes, and developing and coaching people.
Tiffany Michelle Patterson
Tiffany Michelle Patterson is the founder of Tiffany Michelle & Co., an operations management and virtual assistant company. Before starting her business, Patterson spent over 18 years providing operational, project management, and executive-level administrative support to Big Law attorneys and Fortune 500 executives. She’s passionate about showing professional service providers how to leverage systems, workflows, and automation to increase productivity, profit, and peace of mind.
Yvette Owo is CEO and chief strategy officer at Yvette Owo Coaching & Consulting. She and her team help CEOs and owners increase profit and free up their time. They guide CEOs by bringing decades of experience helping Fortune 500s and pairing each client with a seasoned business owner who has overcome the same challenges. CEOs don’t just get advice; they gain a partner to help them develop a tailored business strategy and execute that strategy to see more profitability and free time.