“Benefit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.”
So said Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage [i].
He was talking of wheels, amongst other things. The wheelwright works hard – and gets paid – to make what is there: the rim, spokes and hub; yet usefulness comes from the hole in the hub. Lao Tzu noted that the same is true of buildings and clay pots: the maker benefits from what’s made, but usefulness comes from the apertures, cavities and spaces.
So too it is with documentation. Management systems professionals earn money by documenting policies, processes, procedures, work instructions and so forth. Yet it is the gaps – the things we do not document – that empower people to apply their skills, knowledge and experience.
Perhaps the best way to empower people is to leave large gaps, which we can do by documenting the principles which tell people how to take decisions. Unlike step-by-step procedures – which have to address all possible scenarios – principles guide people through the situations we can anticipate – and those we can’t foresee.
Principles are especially important when circumstances might be changing quickly or dynamically. Triage is an example, where a skilled medic assesses life chances and hence priorities for treatment. Managing the immediate consequences of a disruptive event is another: a senior manager assesses the impact of disruption, its consequences, the possibilities of further trouble, and so on. Managing the consequences of compromised encryption keys is another: what information was compromised? What are the consequences? Who needs to be told? Which keys were compromised and how? All these are areas where empowerment, knowledge and experience are vital.
Digital forensics is a good example of where gaps are needed alongside detailed procedures. The investigation process must be defined with huge gaps which allow the detective to use his or her experience, knowledge and intuition to follow clues, audit trails and hunt for evidence; rigid adherence to the detailed evidence collection procedure avoids problems with evidence in Court.
When we document principles and procedures, we keep in mind the abilities of our people, leaving gaps for them to do their thing.
That’s why IT Governance documentation toolkits aren’t detailed generic procedures that you “tailor” by merely writing your organisation’s name everywhere. There are intentional gaps for you to complete, either by writing a procedure, by defining some principles, or by identifying the skills and experience a person will need in order to do the work your way.
Go fast. Use wheels. Use ours.
[i] Except he said it in Chinese, of course. This translation is from “Tao Te Ching” by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, Chapter 11, Vintage Books, 1989.