Seven Proven Tips for Modernizing Your Organization’s Policy and Procedure Communication

Help employees find what they need, understand what they find, and use the information to take the correct action

Kathy Anton

October 23, 2019

Throughout our 30-year company history, we have witnessed over and over how clearly communicated systems, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and policies can transform business results. It's common to see dramatic improvements like 50-percent faster employee onboarding, a 65-percent reduction in errors, and lowered training and staffing costs. Yet too many organizations are missing out.

Many view policy and procedure communication only as a "necessary evil" demanded by regulatory compliance but lacking practical benefits. So they avoid all but the minimum effort.

Others seek the benefits, but their well-intentioned efforts fail because their perceptions and methods are stuck back in the 1980s.

Below is an example of the stories we hear all the time.

The million-dollar mistake we want you to avoid
A large global corporation wanted to capture "lessons learned" across the organization so everyone could function more effectively. Noble goal! So, the company invested more than a a year of valuable IT staff time and spared no expense to create a "knowledge management" system using MS SharePoint that would serve as a central repository. They created a slick, modern interface and a detailed categorization system. They linked thousands of their accumulated documents into it. It looked pretty. The CEO was impressed. Mission accomplished.

Not so fast.

When employees in the field clicked on a link and opened up a "best practice," they were confronted with the same old stuff: pages and pages of large-text blobs and no navigation. Content pieces were disjointed.

Consequently, employees didn't use the system and went back to the old tribal-knowledge culture. The organization wasted significant time and money because it missed the underlying problem: bad content.

Historically, when it comes to policies and procedures, most people think only about the management aspects. Although content and document management is important, better management alone doesn't mean that people will understand and use your content.

In this article, you'll learn proven tips for modernizing your organization's policy and procedure communication. We've also included links to examples and video demos.

With a modern actionable communication system, your employees will find what they need fast, understand what they find, and use the information to take the correct action.

Tip 1: Focus on the desired outcome (warning: may require mindset change)

Most people are so focused on the "work aspects" of writing up P&Ps, they lose sight of why they are developing them in the first place. Everyone is told, "Let's get this done so we can get back to our 'real' work." So, the real value is never communicated to the team, let alone management. This mindset is common in situations where there is no link to economic value.

Just shifting your thinking about policies and procedures can mean the difference between having an effective "system" for continuous improvement vs. hundreds of pages of documents that no one wants to read. Instead of documents, create a good policy and procedure system that is purposely designed to improve performance, products, service.

What is the performance outcome you want? What operational problem will this solve? Everything you do from here should serve this end goal. At the end of the day, someone ought to be able to use the system to achieve the desired outcome—without asking for help.

If you follow this approach, you will naturally create content that gives your audience what they need, the way they want it.

Want to watch a video and see some examples? Click here.

If your organization hasn't achieved the desired outcome, then your P&P system needs improvement. Continue improving it until the desired outcome is achieved.

Tip 2: Divide and link policies and procedures

Mixing policy and procedure confuses employees
The strategy for your business might be outstanding—genius-level, even—but unless your employees can understand what it is and how to implement it, nothing good can come of that strategy.

It's important to understand how policies differ from procedures, and why you need both information types.

Below are common mistakes to avoid.
Creating policies without corresponding procedures. Policies describe what you want to happen. That's a good start, but it's equivalent to saying something like, "It is our policy to be an equal opportunity employer." That's it. It's then up to the employees to figure out how to make that happen on their own. This is risky at best and can often be disastrous.
Standalone procedures out of compliance with policies. "How to" questions must get answered somehow. Operations manuals, training guides, workflows, and even Post-it notes all spring up at the corporate, department, or individual level to help employees do their work. However, when work procedures develop without being cross-checked with stated policies, your organization will at best be out of sync with itself, and at worst, noncompliant with legal, regulatory, or internal controls.
Everything all mixed up together. In an effort to address the pitfalls above, many organizations intermix their "whats" and "how tos"—often creating enormous, labyrinthine volumes of hybrid policy and procedure information. Employees must wade through all this detail to find answers to simple questions. It's counterproductive and can lead to big penalties. When everything is all mixed up together, finding quick, clear answers to any question can be nearly impossible.
Policy and procedure in the same document. A common misconception is that there is always a one-to-one correspondence between a policy and procedure, but that's rarely true. Most policies relate to multiple processes, procedures, and work instructions.

It's much easier to create one separate document for each policy and simply cross-link it to each of its related task procedures. When a policy changes, you can simply make the change one time and then see immediately what linked procedures are affected.

Dividing and linking is the answer
For best results, divide and conquer. Use policy documents to answer the "What do I need to know?" questions, and use procedure documents to answer the "How do I do something?" questions, and then cross-link them.

The benefits of this simple organizational technique are exponential. It accommodates the way people seek answers in daily situations, leading to faster, more accurate actions and better decisions. It is also vastly easier to maintain and keep updated.

To learn more and watch a demo, click here.

Tip 3: Avoid content problems that confuse readers

Often, when an organization decides to document its policies and procedures, it assigns different people to the task who then fire up MS Word and start writing. They write about this, write about that, and soon they end up with one big mess. How often we've heard the complaint, "Every document is a new experience!"

Inconsistent terminology is a major cause of slow-lookup time and makes it difficult to utilize a search engine. Because of this, busy professionals spend hundreds and thousands of hours "cleaning up" inconsistent, hard-to-follow material.

Inconsistencies happen when there is a lack of planning, and when people use the wrong tools for the job. Many have the misconception that Word styles alone can ensure usability and standardization. In an unstructured environment, there is simply no way to ensure standardized format or consistent terminology. It's impossible to prevent authors from "doing their own thing."

Example: One community bank we worked with sent us its policy and procedure content for review. We noticed that the list of its account eligibility guidelines was written several times, embedded in several documents. Every time we saw it, it was different. Errors like this cause inconsistent performance and is one reason employees often distrust "the official manual."

Any information that is utilized or referenced by several processes should be broken out into a separate document and then linked to related content.

The smarter, modern approach is to spend a little more time at the beginning setting the right structure and standards, and avoid all the hours of cleanup and rework later. Use a development tool that provides built-in structure and quality controls that guide authors in following policy and procedure best practices.

Tip 4: Create engaging content

Who says policies and procedures are always boring?

The key to a great communication system is content that employees will want to use. The best way to do this is to provide employees with an interactive, online system that is engaging and easy to use.

Knowledge workers, especially younger employees, will expect a better experience than scrolling through 100-page Word documents or looking up information in an old-style manual that's probably already obsolete.

In today's web-based world, it's easy to include videos, podcasts, photos, infographics, and more.

Case study: Justice, the largest global retailer for tween girls
Justice uses our Zavanta software to write, manage, and publish its policy and procedure content. Justice's portal, auto-generated from Zavanta, is available at cash registers and the back offices of 800 retail stores across the country.

The company's branded portal, Josie, even has its own persona. It embodies Justice's branding and is the hub for all store-operations knowledge. Store associates drill down to various categories. Individual procedures have built-in section navigation, so it's easy for users to jump to the information they need.

Clearly, this is not your old-style document repository. Now, instead of managers fielding questions, employees are instructed to "ask Josie" first.

Get inspired! See examples from some of our Zavanta software customers. Click here to watch.

Tip 5: Design for mobile devices, but don't ignore paper

Communication channels have evolved, yet most organizations are still using formats for their policy and procedure communication that were invented back in the 1950s.

Modern organizations give their employees access to an online policy and procedure knowledge system. Employees have access to everything they need 24/7, no matter where they are located. The benefits of online are many:
• Central organization
• Updates go out to thousands of employees in seconds (no replacement pages)
• Easier version management
• Integration with other online systems
• Faster lookup (e.g., navigation, hyperlinking, search engine)
• Easy to integrate video and audio (e.g., podcasts)

Note: Simply putting Word or Excel documents online "as is" is a big mistake, frustrates users, and slows them down. Documents created by word processors are created for print. They provide no internal navigation. As a result, users are forced to scroll and read the entire thing to get to what they really want.

Employees will be consuming information on smaller screens, including smartphones. This means that some of the formats that people are used to are probably going to become obsolete. It's time to ditch those clunky manuals.

Your development tool or system should generate output that is responsive, meaning the output adjusts itself to fit any size screen.
• Avoid wide formats and tables that become unreadable on small screens or that require a lot of pinching and scrolling to see.
• Make sure large images automatically shrink and resize to fit the screen.
• Make sure your site and internal document navigation change to fit the screen (navigation that works on large monitors won't work on small screens).
• Use a development system that lets you quickly preview how your output will look like on a large monitor, tablet, and smartphone.

In most cases, online should be your main distribution channel, but you may still need paper. For example, some of your workforce may not have access to a computer or smartphone. There may be times you need to send information to a stakeholder that doesn't have access to your online system.

Your development system should be flexible enough to provide both online and paper outputs, optimized for each medium without the author having to do any rework or reformatting. This is called "single-source publishing."

Tip 6: Give managers the tools they need to verify employee understanding and compliance

Read, verify, and test
You've optimized your content and published it. Congratulations! Now, how do you make sure employees have read and understood it?

A modern communication system includes attestation (i.e., verification that employees have read important policies and procedures). It should be easy to notify employees when they need to sign off on new versions. Managers should be able to track results and show proof that individual employees signed off on specific policies.

Adding testing or quizzes takes verification to the next level. A learning management system (LMS) can fill the need for comprehensive training, but a simple testing system is an inexpensive way to fast-track policy and procedure training.

Analytics give managers visibility to areas where employees need help
The benefit of an online, web-based system is that you can implement analytics. Analytics give managers and trainers real-time usage data such as: Which policies and procedures are most frequently accessed? What are the popular search terms?

These analytics, paired with testing results, give management powerful insights about areas where employees may need more help or training.

With the Zavanta platform for policies and procedures, managers can access dashboard reports that give them data such as:
• Number of passed and failed tests
• Test results for an individual employee
• Most frequently accessed policy or procedure documents
• Popular search terms
• Read-verify data for a given employee (e.g., version, date)

Policy and procedure audit tracking, and change management
If your organization must meet regulatory compliance requirements, it's important that your system track every change made to documents and report the version, who made the change, and when the change was made. Because compliance requirements often dictate policy and procedure reviews, automating your review and approval processes will save you time, reduce errors, and give auditors confidence that you have proper controls in place.

Tip 7: Give employees access to all the information they need to achieve performance goals

Policy and standard operating procedures (SOPs) form the foundation of your operations communication system. But don't stop there.

What additional information might employees need to achieve the desired outcome? What about: FAQs, job descriptions, lists, and maybe a company dictionary? Why not include contact links to the subject experts within your content?

Online, there are no limits to knowledge integration once you understand the power of URLs and linking.
• Include links to external sources, helpful references, industry standards.
• Include links to forms or spreadsheets at their point of use.
• Include links in your LMS, MS SharePoint, or other cloud systems to specific SOPs or policies.

Learn more and see some examples. Click here to watch.

About The Author

Kathy Anton’s picture

Kathy Anton

Kathy Anton is the Founder and CEO of COMPROSE Inc, maker of the Zavanta cloud platform for Policies and Procedures. Anton has spent over 30 years building services, methods, and software that helps organizations achieve their strategic goals through the clear, actionable communication of their processes and policies. Zavanta customers include McKesson, The Ohio State University, Cap Gemini, Colonial Bank, Justice, Stein Mart, Spirit Aerospace, and Crossland Construction. For more information, visit:


7 Tips Article

Kathy, this article was very interesting. I think each of the seven points appropriately broke down the needs for implementing and controlling policies and procedures. I also don't think it's emphasized enough in companies that there's a big difference between the two. My question for you is, regarding Tip 5, do you find it hard to find a balance between paper use and digital?