Company policy at your fingertips

Peter Hanney explains how complex reference material can be made accessible, with a little hi-tech help
Imagine you want to know your organisation's policy regarding the depreciation of computer equipment. Assuming that you did not set the policy yourself, you might just think of looking in the finance manual. If so, you might be among a minority who could find a well-maintained and accessible manual.

This example illustrates a growing problem facing all organisations. But few recognise all aspects of the problem and even fewer are addressing it effectively. The challenge, therefore, is to make relevant reference material more accessible in a business environment which is becoming ever more complex. This is especially true of the finance function. Fifteen years ago an accountant could reasonably be expected to have a detailed, up-to-date knowledge of company policies, the latest systems developments, accounting standards, company law and tax requirements. Today, individuals can no longer hope to do this. Instead, staff tend to have an overview of a wide range of subjects but have an in-depth knowledge of an increasingly narrow range of subjects. The need for good reference material is, therefore, paramount.

So what are the key elements of the problem? First, if reference material is not readily accessible, this increases the risk of things being done inconsistently or incorrectly. For example, reference material might describe the corporate response to the outside world in areas such as quality, safety, financial control, legal compliance or dealing with difficult customers. Defining the most appropriate response in these areas encourages best practice and reduces risk. This contributes to promoting and protecting the organisation's reputation.

Second, managers are increasingly deluged with ever more complex reference and other operational information. The finance function is no exception; staff now have to keep up with a body of information that seems to be growing exponentially. This includes new financial reporting standards only marginally shorter than War and Peace, together with company policies and procedures, systems user guides, service agreements, industry regulations - all subject to regular revision.

In addition, the accessibility of this information and material is not made any easier if it is inadequately indexed and cross-referenced. Managers need to be confident that they can access the latest guidance at a stroke. They want to be able to find the relevant sections that will answer their question as quickly as possible.

Finally, manuals are almost certainly out of date almost as soon as they have been published. But, if they are to be at all useful, they need to be kept up-to-date.

Part of the solution to the problem lies in taking advantage of the increasing use and sophistication of information technology. New technology has revolutionised both the creation of operational information and the dissemination of reference materials.

For example, at Coopers & Lybrand we needed to develop a manual to support one of our latest software tools and methodologies. CLIME is a multi-dimensional reporting toolkit for large corporations. The manual for CLIME had to be easy to use. We expected there to be several releases of the software over the first 18 months of its life and the manual would need to be updated with each new release. By using Biblos, a specialist electronic publishing software package produced by Point of Reference, we were readily able to produce a new manual in electronic form with each release of the software.

As a result, we have no stock of out-of-date printed manuals. Users are spared the inconvenience of receiving loose-leaf update pages, and still have the option of printing all or part of the manual if they prefer a paper copy. Moreover, we can help the client to integrate not only documentation on the software tool but also accounting policies and procedures in the same electronic environment. So all information relevant to the corporate reporting process is easy to access.

Such an approach offers several advantages. First, information can be presented in a way that is more accessible to the end user. By ensuring the content is always clear, relevant and up to date, it will be more likely to be used. Easy access is provided by key word search facilities. And users can annotate the material so that it meets their own needs.

Building electronic links with other documents, for example accounting regulations or company legislation, also offers clear benefits. Links across documents allow different functions or processes within the organisation to be better co-ordinated. For instance, linking the disaster recovery section of a finance manual to the organisation's overall disaster recovery plan will help to ensure a consistent approach.

Second, new technology can be harnessed to disseminate reference material in a more effective way to users. Electronic publishing software such as Biblos offers significant benefits over traditional paper based distribution. For instance, central library management and version control is provided, copies can be printed locally if required and electronic books can be created easily from existing word-processor files. In addition, usage tracking allows monitoring of how effectively the reference material is being used. This can help to assess value for money or to identify possible training needs.

Finally, electronic communication provides the opportunity for a dialogue between the developer of the reference material and the user. In this way, material can be developed and refined in response to users' needs. For example, one possible model is the use of Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) lists on the Internet, which deal with topics of common interest. People who contribute in one area also benefit from the contributions of other people in other areas. FAQs are always relevant to real needs rather than being written from an abstract compliance-driven viewpoint.

So new technology allows organisations significantly to improve the creation and management of useful reference materials to help staff. As organisations become increasingly dependent on areas of specialist information in a complex environment, they may need to invest more in protecting the core knowledge which helps to safeguard their future.

The writer is a management consultant with Coopers & Lybrand.