The difference between Policies, Standards, Procedures and Strategies

Over the years I have written many policies, processes. strategies and standards and related documents.  These documents outline how a business operates and help when a team member requires a reference. so to answer a question: what is the difference between policies standards procedures and strategies?

The agony point for me is when a professional consultant does not know the differences between the document types and refers to one as another, the other as another and cannot grip the function of a specific document. In the meantime, steam billows from my ears while the consultant continues to sprout opinions on the various documents.

For the uninitiated here is my explanation of the difference between Policies, Standards, Procedures, Standards and related documents.

Policy document?

A policy sets out an agreed management policy which might refer to IT Security and Risks. However, it will not give any direction on how to execute this vision or strategy.

A set of policies are principles, rules, and guidelines formulated or adopted by a Business to reach its long-term goals. Policies are signed off by management and published in the Company’s preferred medium.

The writing of Policies is to influence and determine major decisions.

Processes and Procedures are the specific methods used to express policies in action in the daily operations of the Business.

What is a Process

It is a task, a procedure – it is NOT a Plan.

The ISO definition of a process is:

A process is a set of inter-related activities that turn inputs into outputs’

You MUST learn the process; know WHY you need it and How to perform the process end-2-end.

  • Process a high-level description of a series of inter-related tasks covering an entire business.
  • It is an internal, ongoing process that must be updated as per Policy guidelines
  • serves as a crucial guide for employees and managers.

Procedure 

A procedure contains more detail than a process but less detail than a work instruction. It tells users HOW to perform a series of sequential tasks to achieve a specific outcome.

Participants will complete a procedure from start to finish in one continuous time frame (no significant delays between steps).

Work Instructions (WI)

A WI contains a detailed description of a task. Its sole purpose is to explain step by step how to do a specific task.

Plan

IT IS NOT a Process

      • Organisations have Management Plans which outline WHAT you are going to do, it does not explain HOW you will perform a task.
      • The Plan determines precisely how resources are to be allocated and provides backup plans if resources are not available at a crucial time.
      • The Plan document outlines what components must be included to demonstrate How a process will work.
      • A plan is how you will move from A to B and should support your strategy by providing a method to reach B containing an acceptable balance of risk and reward

What is strategy?

A strategy document explains the strategy – how an organisation will move from point A to Point B

      1. How will you get there?
      2. Issues, problems
      3. Solutions and tools to get you to point B

A strategy is a solution to move from A to B taking into account any unforeseen issues and problems that may occur to slow your journey to B.

Your strategy is WHAT you want to do

Understanding the difference between a strategy and a plan allows you to make useful strategic planning decisions that separate the two.

What is the standard?

Standards are mandatory actions or rules that give formal policies support and direction. One of the more difficult parts of writing standards is getting a company-wide consensus on what standards need to be in place. This can be a time-consuming process but is vital to the success of your information security program.

      • Used to indicate expected user behaviour. For example, a consistent company email signature.
      • Might specify what hardware and software solutions are available and supported.
      • Compulsory and must be enforced to be effective. (This also applies to policies!)

Choose the right Writer

I wonder how many technical writers like me receive calls from agencies trying to source a content writer? It is not uncommon. Many writing jobs these days appear under the banner of ‘Content Writer’. If you want to choose the right writer, read on.

One day I had to explain the difference between our two titles. A comparison of my technical authoring skill-set to that of a content writer.

If you were asked, or you were seeking a writer—do you know the difference? If you get it wrong it will be a costly mistake.

So, what do you know about the following job titles?

        • Technical writer
        • Documentation manager
        • Content Writer
        • Content strategist
        • Content manager
        • Information governance

Technical Writer

Firstly we have the widest skill-set. We take complex information and make it accessible to people who may need to accomplish a task or goal. We need to understand what can be a complicated process and write detailed instructions, including process diagrams (PCI, ISO, ITIL, GDPR).

Before starting a large project, I would ask if they have a strategy that identifies the important documents, the MUST haves. If not, I will create one with a timeline that identifies the production of critical documentation using MoSCoW. Process authors write:

        • Policies
        • Processes
        • Work Instructions
        • Standards
        • How to guides

In addition, we have document management skills working with an application such as SharePoint to manage and control the documentation. .

In the software industry, you could be writing a wide range of documents such as:

        • user guides,
        • detailed design specs,
        • requirement docs,
        • whitepapers, and
        • manage a back catalogue of previous documents.

Technical Author’s Skill-set

      • Communication skills to write and communicate the narrative around the document
      • focussed on detail – without it, the user could make mistakes, worse throw the document away as useless
      • create a consistent process everyone can follow
      • teamwork – impossible to create documents without SMEs
      • technical skills to understand the terminology
      • writing skills go without saying
      • document management

Document Controller / manager

This role aligns with technical authors; the duties of this role will depend on the industry type.  A document manager is responsible for control, security, accessibility, and review of organisational documents used by employees, such as policies, procedures, guidelines, forms, templates, and training materials.

Content Writer and Manager

The aim of Content writing is to produce engaging content for Web material and later with experience manage the pages and ensure content connects with their audience. They’re also responsible for setting the overall tone of the website. Content writers accomplish these tasks by researching and deciding what information to include or exclude from the site.

If you read up on various sites regarding the skill-set, there are many variations and opinions. These are the most commonly mentioned:

      • Writing skills
      • Focus
      • Originality
      • Research
      • Customer knowledge
      • SEO and
      • Editorial skills

Content Strategist

The job is to create engaging content that resonates with customers and draws. The writer may have significant experience with the subject matter and business.

Information governance (IG)

IG is a strategy to manage information to maintain compliance requirements and operational transparency. To work correctly, any organisation must establish a consistent and logical framework for employees to distribute content through their information governance policies and procedures. IG lends itself to information security, storage, knowledge management and business operations and the management of data.

The differences. . .

Technical writers and content writers do have common goals. such as strong writing skills, editorial and research skills. However, what the roles create in terms of content are different. Technical writing requires more specific knowledge. The clue is in the title, we produce technical content.

  • Technical writing must be objective and precise and does not contain personal opinions.
  • Content writing can contain an author’s opinion, figures of style and so on.
  • Finally, technical writers use a wide range of tools for writing while Google Docs may be enough for content writing.

To get the job done choose the right writer for your project.

Technical Writing: What’s your view

I have over 23 years of experience as a technical writer. My enthusiasm to deliver clearly defined documentation/content strategy has never diminished. Yet, two common issues remain:
  • management expects a quick return on their budget, and
  • meeting people who think our role is a waste of time.
Our role is vital, and without us, standards of written and oral communications will forever diminish. Like many technical writers, I have various skills which overlap into different roles. I may operate under the title technical writer, but I have many more job titles under my belt. What skills do you ask? I communicate with many experts and produce relevant documents, namely policy and operational process documents, regarding maintaining a network. While I may not have the technical knowledge, I could step into a role and manage the infrastructure working with technical teams. 

What can I tell you?

  1. Despite the title, we are not technical experts.
    • we are documentation experts,
    • we have an innate ability to understand the technology and explain with help from an SME how it works,
    • We can analyse workflows and write complex processes with drawings to help teams work more efficiently,
  1. our job is never straightforward as we rely on many factors that hinder progress,
  2. A change to one document means changes to related documents that contain exact content,
  3. writing is not easy:
    • Try writing 300 words about yourself. When done, look closer; how many errors can you see, and what changes will you make?
  1. We work with people who are not technical writers.
    • And people who do not understand documentation but have an opinion on how to write and manage documentation.
  1. We are not miracle workers:
    • If you expect to see results within a short period based on an issue that has continued unchecked for many years, you will be disappointed.
Many assume we do a cut and paste job and have no idea that writing and managing reams of content is a fundamental role. If not, companies would not need people like me to make sense of the problem, offer a solution, and complete the job.
  1. What do we do?
I have worked with developers, engineers (of varying shades) and IT subject matter experts. The majority either
      • Regard documentation as a luxury
      • write their documentation, or
      • I do not see the point,
The developers I have met consider technical writing below their pay grade. If you think we are below your pay grade, you need to understand our role and responsibilities. What do we offer? We provide a link between the business and the users by describing the product’s potential. Knowledge management: if the knowledge resides in a team member’s head, get it out before that head moves on. That knowledge is an asset. A skilled communicator is essential to get this work done. We create critical information that is subject to an audit.
      • Writers can help with ITIL, security standards ISO27001 with quality, processes and procedures,
      • They can also help marketing teams with collaterals, white papers, marketing materials, etc.
      • They can create newsletters—internal and external.
Who cares? No one reads it! Try telling that to your customers who spend more time calling your helpdesk. If your documentation is not up to date and compatible with their version, you will hear the complaints loud and clear. There is also, in many cases, a clause contained in the Ts & Cs that explicitly makes clear the business will provide documentation. Relax at work! We don’t get much time to relax because we’re always looking at ways to improve the documentation quality. It is not a standstill role. As colleagues overlook us in many stages of the development, the release phase can be daunting due to:
      • Last-minute functionality changes,
      • managing un-realistic situations,
      • unrealistic deadlines,
      • Multitasking—working on other vital projects.
There is a high level of stress factor involved in this profession due to uncommunicative team members and unrealistic expectations whereby managers expect the documentation to be ready and available within a few hours. Sorry, unless you have a mega team of technical writers, that will never happen. Documentation review can wait.  If that is the case, you must make documentation an integral part of the software development life cycle (SDLC). It will help to:
      • Include the documentation review in the schedules of the reviewers,
      • return review comments to writers on time,
      • Writers are aware of necessary changes in advance of deadlines to make the required modifications.
People assume technical writers only write and think it’s an easy job. The importance of technical writing will come when they understand the following:
  • The actual work a technical writer does,
    • we utilise other essential skills,
    • the management of multiple issues to enable the completion of a project,
    • the process of documentation is also a process of quality control.
Be aware of your technical writer(s) and what they do to make you look good. Do technical writers work? A technical writer performs many other tasks and related activities as a part of the documentation process:
  • Multitask: work on multiple projects at different stages of completion,
    • Organise: keep projects to prioritise the work,
    • Be patient: deal with deadlines,
    • Manage: track multiple documents and content,
    • Training: train staff in communication and writing skills.
An SME can do the job just as well That is debatable:
  1. An SME rarely has time to produce the documentation and has other priorities,
    • your SME may be a good writer, but that does not an excellent technical writer make,
    • they leave gaps in the content because they don’t think it is worth a mention.
    • If so, a technical writer will revisit the documentation and test for gaps and add the missing content,
  2. professional technical writers are:
      • more efficient, 
      • produce high-quality documentation,
      • structure documents for consistency,
      • design easy to use information, and
    • perform other related writing activities.
My advice, take technical writers seriously, and everyone will be happy.